For months now, Calculated Risk has been criticizing the policy of “extend and pretend”–the practice of pretending that real estate loans are still worth their full value, making modifications so that borrowers can avoid going into default, so that banks don’t have to recognize losses on their assets. Here’s one story about “zombie buildings”–office buildings, in this case.
Alyssa Katz has a great article in The American Prospect about extend and pretend when it comes to multi-unit residential buildings, focusing on New York City. Expensive condo towers are now “see-through” buildings (so named because you see through the glass walls right through the empty floors–a phenomenon I first saw in 2001, after the Internet bust, along Highway 101 on the San Francisco Peninsula). Another problem is apartment complexes that were bought by private equity firms and flipped to developers during the boom with plans to evict the low-rent tenants and replace them with high-rent tenants; the high-rent tenants never arrived, the developers can’t make their loan payments, and no one is maintaining the buildings for the remaining tenants. (And no one is saying that property developers have a moral obligation to pay their debts rather than turn their properties over the bank.)
One of the underlying problems is that developers (or the banks that inherited their properties) have an incentive to hang on and hope for a return to prosperity that will deliver the promised condo buyers or high-rent tenants–in other words, betting on another boom. The alternative is selling the properties to someone who will convert or restore them to the type of housing that there is actually demand for–affordable rental units–but that means that someone has to take a loss, because an affordable building is simply worth less than one stuffed with investment bankers. Unfortunately, as Katz says, “With so many lenders at the brink of insolvency, the Treasury Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) appear to be in no rush to cause them further pain.” The lack of urgency was unwittingly confirmed by a Treasury spokesperson, who said, “The commercial real-estate market is something we’re watching closely, but it’s premature to discuss solutions.”