Government and Economic Development and Real Estate & Retail

VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Everybody's busy playing the real estate blame game

October 22, 2007

There's a game that takes place in most families with young children. You may be familiar with it. It's easy. Mom's cherished (insert any household item here) develops a large chip. Mom sees the chip. Mom begins the interrogation: Who did this?

"Not me," says Johnny.

and Wall Street. After all, they're the ones that loaned the money. It was too easy to get a loan, the critics say. People were buying homes and building developments with high-priced coffee shops that they couldn't afford. And banks no longer service the mortgages they underwrite. They bundle them up into nice neat securities and sell them to investors on the stock markets. So bad loans disappear from banks' portfolios as soon as the securities are sold.

Others are placing blame on the housing industry, complaining that home builders have saturated the markets. They're the ones to blame for the real estate slump, some people will tell you.

And then there's the corner that lays the blame on developers. After all, they're the ones proposing all the new big developments with visions of Best Buys and Trader Joe's with big dollar signs in their eyes. Where you see a cornfield, a developer sees opportunity for more stores, more restaurants and more reasons for people to spend, spend, spend.

Another recipient of the proverbial finger pointing, of course, is government; city councils, plan commissions, economic development agencies that get to make the final decisions. They're the ones with the master plans and the demographics. They should have seen this coming, the critics contend.

The thing is, everyone feels the impact. Everyone shares a part of the blame.

Those who can't afford their mortgages

"Well, it wasn't me," chimes in Meg.

"It was him," Mikey points at the dog.

By the end of the day, the mystery would be solved. The truth would come out, and the guilty party receives due punishment.

Blame to go around

I was thinking of this game recently as I read the latest in a long string of news accounts of a dismal residential real estate market. Analysts each put their spin on what has caused the real estate bubble to burst.

And so begins the grown-up version of the blame game. We want to blame someone for the current state of real estate. We want to point fingers at the culprits who have caused home sales to slow, leading to the softening of the commercial real estate market.

There are those who blame the banks are forced to send their four-bedroom, two-story, granite-countered kitchens back to the banks, which are stuck with houses they don't want. The subprime market dries up. Lenders now want more money down, more collateral, more proof that you really can afford the house or the office building or the shopping mall.

Of course, big-box retailers are watching, too. Sales are down. Now, they're not going to take a chance by moving to what's considered a secondary market. The national retailers will stick with top metro cities, especially growth cities like Austin, Charlotte and Scottsdale.

Indianapolis is on the bubble. Smaller markets in Indiana are off the radar entirely.

Still in the game

Credit city and state government for working to bring more jobs to the metro area, which is helping sustain the growth in all sectors here. While we're feeling the pain from the aftermath of the housing bust from the coasts, we're still in the game.

Commercial developers who have diversified are better prepared to weather the real estate storm. Markets in the South and Southwest, where job growth continues at a steady pace, continue to see a demand for development. That has the attention of many of the same retailers and businesses that we're trying to lure to Indianapolis.

But commercial real estate will be affected across the country as lenders tighten restrictions and require more col lateral. Investors are being more selective. There's a small ripple coming out of the residential credit markets that have created more caution in all the credit markets.

The key is job growth.

It's what fuels the residential market. Rooftops lead to retail development. Jobs translate into office growth, and it all falls into place. It's the same domino effect that Indianapolis benefited from for years.

But, who's to blame? That's what people want to know at the end of the day.

Blame the baby boomers. Retirees. They're moving to warmer climates and, in part, fueling the growth in the South and Southeast. Because when you have more people, you need shopping centers, restaurants, condos and housing complexes, medical facilities, banks and quaint little coffee shops.

While metro Indianapolis may not be in the top-25 growth cities, we're still in the top tier of first-class cities. Luring more business here is key. So when Noblesville invests in new infrastructure to make way for growth on its southeastern boundaries, in new businesses and new jobs, it's going to have a positive impact. That's the only way we can compete for business, for jobs and ultimately for population increases, which will help fill all those empty houses and lots sitting on the market.



Mann is managing partner of Mann Properties, an Indianapolis-based development company with offices in Indianapolis and Charlotte, N.C. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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