Seattle’s 60-day halt to evictions for small businesses, announced Wednesday by Mayor Jenny Durkan, alleviates some immediate anxiety but doesn’t provide long-term relief, commercial tenants say.
Seattle’s moratorium, which was tacitly endorsed by the City Council on Thursday, is in addition to a King County eviction moratorium, announced Tuesday, which applies to both residential and commercial tenants.
In King County outside of Seattle, commercial landlords will still be able to file for eviction during the moratorium, but King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht has declined to serve or enforce those evictions “until we are confident the threat of COVID-19 has dissipated and we have sufficient resources to resume civil evictions,” she wrote in a letter to the King County Superior Court’s presiding judge.
Within Seattle, landlords cannot file for eviction if their tenant is a nonprofit group or employs fewer than 50 people, including sole proprietorships.
“The moratorium is going to help. It’s going to keep us from folding up completely,” said Mason Reed, the co-owner of Tim’s Tavern in Greenwood. The business, which employs roughly a dozen people, was forced to close its doors Monday after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered bars and restaurants to shut down temporarily to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even before then, Reed said, business was down as much as 90% over two weeks ago.
But once the moratoriums end, back rent will come due immediately. And most landlords, who themselves have mortgage obligations to meet, have not offered to suspend rent payments or put tenants on payment plans.
Tim’s Tavern pays $4,000 a month for its 1,200-square-foot space. Wednesday, property owner Johnny Limantzakis recommended looking into city grants and federal loans to cover rent payments, and that the tavern stop its trash service to save money, Reed said.
Limantzakis, scion of longtime Seattle property group Limantzakis Properties, declined to comment.
Tenants in buildings owned by national landlords don’t seem to be in a better position.
Greystar, which owns buildings across Seattle, is “putting together suggestions for our various ownership groups,” a property manager wrote to tenant Chris Cvetkovich, co-owner of eclectic street-food joint Nue on Capitol Hill. “At this point I can assure you that Greystar is not intending to be punitive while this situation is ongoing.” Greystar representatives did not respond to questions.
Landlords and tenants are both operating in new territory, said commercial real estate broker Chris Kagi at Savill’s. One option for tenants in trouble, he said, could be to ask for an extension on the term of the lease in exchange for rent relief today.
He’s negotiating those terms with some landlords now. While nothing’s been inked, he said landlords seem receptive to the idea. “No one wants to find a new tenant in this market,” he said.
Industry groups have seen the commercial market soften substantially in the past week. The National Association of Realtors reported Thursday that more than half its commercial members have seen a decline in leasing clients, up from 18% of members last week.
Another indication of a weakening commercial real estate market is rising square footage available for sublease, as tenants try to recoup operating losses by renting out space they don’t need — often at a discount compared to current market rates.
In Seattle, sublease space has climbed 13% since the beginning of the year, according to a report this week from commercial real estate firm Hughes Marino.
Rising sublease space, the report said, is the “canary in the coal mine,” warning that “the commercial real estate market had become toxic.” The canary, the report said, has stopped singing.
While the eviction moratoriums provide some relief for rent, they don’t address another large cost for some business owners: Insurance payments.
Reed pays more than $1,500 each month to insure Tim’s Tavern against mishaps like property damage. Dozens of other shuttered businesses — from Linda’s on Capitol Hill to Mr. Darcy’s on Second Avenue — have boarded up their windows in recent weeks to prevent or deter break-ins.
“With no income and our $1,500-a-month insurance payment, it starts to get difficult to hold up the insurance,” he said.
Cvetkovich said although Nue is still serving takeout and pickup with a skeleton staff of three, “it turns out we’re losing money every day now.”
He plans to pay his $5,000 monthly rent in full, using personal savings, during the moratorium. “We’ve been trying to squirrel away as much as we can,” he said, “but it goes faster than you think and it’s never enough.”