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COVID-19's Heavy Toll on Property Values

Georgia taxpayers should start preparing arguments to lower their property tax assessments.

Few commercial properties emerged with unscathed values from the harsh economic climate of 2020. Yet Georgia and many jurisdictions like it valued commercial real estate for property taxation that year with a valuation date of Jan. 1, 2020 – nearly three months before COVID-19 thrust the U.S. economy into turmoil.

This means governments taxed commercial properties for all of 2020 on values that ignored the severe economic consequences those properties endured for more than 75% of the calendar year. When property owners begin to receive notices of 2021 assessments, which Georgia assessors typically mail out in April through June each year, property owners can at last seek to lighten their tax burden by arguing for reduced assessments.

The pandemic hurt some real estate types more than others, however, and with both short-term effects and some that may continue to depress asset values for years. For taxpayers contesting their assessments, the challenge will be to show the combination of COVID-19 consequences affecting their property, and the extent of resulting value losses.

The experiences of 2020 can serve as a roadmap for valuations in the current year and, in certain settings, in future years.

A three-pronged attack

COVID-19 can inflict a three-pronged assault on a commercial property's value, and taxpayers should explore each of these areas for evidence of loss as they build a case for a lower assessment.

Widespread losses. The first prong of the trident may be a drop in value stemming from an overall decline in the market. Like the Great Recession of 2008, the pandemic has reduced many property values by impeding economic performance in general.

Reduced income and cash flow, for example, can indicate reduced property value. Valuing the property with a market and income analysis approach can reveal this type of loss.

Reduced functionality. Is the property's layout or format less functional than models that occupiers came to prefer during the pandemic? In Georgia, functional impairments may have curable and incurable components beyond normal obsolescence. In other words, when changing occupier demand has rendered a property obsolete, there may be some features the owner can address to restore utility and increase value.

Adverse economic trends. Economic factors occurring outside the property can suppress property value. Georgia tax law recognizes that economic trends can reshape market demand and render some property models obsolete. This economic obsolescence can be short term while the economy is down or a permanent change.

Subsector considerations

Retail. Big-box stores, malls and inline shopping centers had already experienced a functional decline and an economic downturn, both of which accelerated as shopping habits changed during the pandemic. Big box properties were already becoming functionally obsolete as retailers reduced instore inventory requirements and shrank showrooms, which left little demand for the large-format buildings.

Moreover, outside economic factors such as declining instore sales, competition with ecommerce retailers, and high carrying costs have also undercut the value of these properties. The pandemic accelerated this decline, and it is unlikely there will be much, if any, recovery.

Hospitality. The pandemic has severely diminished travel and vacations, and hotel vacancies have skyrocketed. The income yield per room is declining. Operating costs have increased per visitor as amenities have been shut, curtailed or reconfigured. Many hotels have eliminated in-house dining and offer only room service.

The cost to maintain kitchen services is disproportionate to the number served. This decline is solely a product of COVID-19 and, over time, will revert to near normal. Some increased costs may remain elevated, such as extra cleaning supplies and labor to disinfect the property.

Office. COVID-19's effect on office buildings, especially high-rises, may be long-lasting. Fully leased buildings have seen less of a direct affect, but properties with significant unleased space are already hurting. Demand will diminish as more employees work remotely and companies consolidate with shared workspaces, motivated to reduce occupancy cost. This trend will produce both functional and economic effects on the value of office buildings.

Industrial. To a lesser extent, some manufacturing plants can suffer industry-specific economic consequences of COVID-19. Reduced travel has compelled airlines to reduce flights and sideline aircraft, reducing the demand for new and replacement aircraft. Less aircraft being built reduces the value of aircraft manufacturing plants, including the buildings that house them. Likewise, oil production, storage and consumption is down, due to reductions in leisure and business travel and commuting as more people work remotely. Excess capacity for drilling, storage and processing petroleum makes those facilities temporarily obsolete.

Multifamily residential. COVID-19 may have had little negative effect on multifamily complexes. During the pandemic, the supply of available housing on the market has contracted, driving up rents. As a result, apartments remain in high demand from renters and investors, although some areas may be overbuilt.

Despite high occupancy rates, properties may have non-paying or late-paying tenants. It would seem that yields per square foot may be higher, which would suggest increased property values for apartment complexes now. This is not always the case, however, and multifamily values must be considered individually.

Expect resistance

COVID-19 has also affected the mindset of taxing authorities, whose operating costs have remained the same or increased during the crisis. Taxing authorities will be reluctant to decrease tax revenue and will push back against property owners' arguments for reducing taxable values.

Just as individuals have taken personal health precautions against COVID-19, property owners must take precautions to protect the financial health of their properties from the virus' detrimental effects. All commercial property owners in Georgia should carefully examine assessment notices. Wise owners should strongly consider consulting with property tax experts to determine whether to file an appeal.

Lisa Stuckey
Brian Morrissey
Brian J. Morrissey and Lisa Stuckey are partners in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale Beals Seigler Patterson & Gray LLP, the Georgia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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