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Houston small businesses and landlords grapple with rent relief options during COVID-19 crisis

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

It's not too huge of an assumption to make that many Houston startups and small businesses failed to pay their rents in full yesterday. Since the city's stay-at-home mandate on March 24 — and even preceding that — most businesses have seen a slowdown of revenue as a result of COVID-19-caused business disruptions.

Business owners are frantically looking in their leases and searching online to see what rights they have and what sort of protection they have in such an unprecedented time.

"People are confused. They don't know what to do, and finding information is hard," says Meredith Wheeler, co-founder and chief creative officer of Sesh Coworking, which opened earlier this year.

Wheeler and Sesh's co-founder, Maggie Segrich, have created a petition to get on the radar of local elected officials to challenge them to pass legislation to protect small businesses in this time.

"At the end of the day, it would be so wonderful and idealistic to say that we could rely on the niceties and the moral compasses of our landlords, but it's probably not true for everyone and so that's why we need legislation to dictate what is right," Wheeler says.

But landlords are also in unchartered territory, says Josh Feinberg, who has worked in Houston as a commercial real estate broker and co-founded CRE tech platform, Tenavox.

"There's this idea that there's this acrimony between tenant and landlord, and I think, as a former broker, we're set up that way to get our side the best deal. But in reality, that's just not true," Feinberg says. "The majority of commercial real estate is owned by regular people — not usually some faceless, gigantic corporation."

And they have a piper to pay too, Feinberg adds. Ninety percent of CRE is owned by debt, he says. If the government steps in anywhere, it should be on the lender level, as well as creating some sort of tax relief.

"If there's any relief here, it's going to have to come from lenders, and I think you'd hear that from owners and brokers," Feinberg says.

In somewhat convenient timing, Tenavox has recently co-founded a new company that provides a bit of a solution for small businesses. Otso provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. Traditionally, deposits are held onto by landlords — they aren't legally allowed to spend it unless the tenant defaults.

"In general, I think cash deposits are wasteful," Feinberg says. "It's critical capital that the business can hire with, invest, and use."

Tenavox teamed up with Euler Hermes, a 135-year-old credit insurance company, to create Otso, and the credit company backs the lease performance of each tenant that is approved by Otso. The transaction calls for a fee added to the rent, but no large cash deposit would be required.

The tool can be used on new leases, and, in light of the current situation, Otso can also be used to create an addendum in existing leases so that the tenant can get back their deposit and use it in this time of crisis. Either landlord or tenant can apply online and hear back that same day — Feinberg says he's focused on a speedy response to help get this deposit money back to the tenant.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg says.

Other than looking into Otso, Feinberg has some other recommendations for small business owners. He says they should be applying for relief from the Small Business Administration, which has more money to dole out than they have ever had. And, as it pertains to working with their landlords, communication is key. Show financials and specific information — like what March 2019 looks like compared to 2020 — so that landlords can take that to their lenders.

"An unprecedented crisis is going to require unprecedented solutions," Feinberg says.

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Building Houston

 
 

Houston-based sustainable plastics manufacturer Inhance Technologies has announced recent growth as business continues to boom. Photo via Getty Images

An under-the-radar company in Houston has ramped up its manufacturing capacity as it seeks to seize upon rising interest in sustainable plastics.

Houston-based Inhance Technologies, a sustainable manufacturer that transforms conventional plastics into high-performance materials, has a new site in St. Louis that comprises 75,000 square feet — more than double the size of the company's old facility there. As a result of the expansion, Inhance Technologies' headcount in St. Louis will rise to about 40. The size of the company's entire workforce wasn't available.

"The expansion in St. Louis is a great moment for the company and a sign of the organization's ambition in sustainable solutions for plastics," Patricia van Ee, chief commercial officer at Inhance Technologies, says in a release. "We know consumers are favoring more recyclable plastics, especially in packaging … ."

In January, the company promoted van Ee to her current role. She joined Inhance Technologies in 2019 as senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Patricia van Ee was recently named chief commercial officer at Inhance Technologies. Photo via inhancetechnologies.com

The announcement of van Ee's elevation to chief commercial officer came on the heels of Inhance Technologies occupying its new global headquarters at 22008 N. Berwick Dr. in northwest Houston. The company was founded in 1983, and about 75 people work at the Houston headquarters, which includes a science and technology center. That location is adjacent to one of its Texas manufacturing plants.

Among other products, the new plant in St. Louis makes Enkase, which transforms conventional plastics into fully recyclable packaging, and DuraBloc, which prevents fuel from seeping through plastic tanks on gas-powered equipment like motorcycles and personal watercraft. Customers include original equipment manufacturers, molders, and retailers in sectors such as consumer packaged goods, health care, and transportation.

"With a large expansion of warehouse space, a doubling of our manufacturing capacity, and new rapid-response lead times, our expanded St. Louis operation is equipped to meet new levels of demand as product brands, retailers, and consumers make a conscious choice to [purchase] more sustainable plastics," Michael Koma, chief operating officer at Inhance Technologies, says in a release.

ResearchAndMarkets.com predicts the global market for sustainable plastic packaging will jump from $89 billion in 2020 to $117.3 billion by 2025.

"The sustainable plastic packaging industry has been growing as a result of stringent laws and regulations levied by governments and governing bodies, as well as a shift in consumer preference toward recyclable and eco-friendly packaging materials," the research firm says.

Inhance Technologies' global presence should put it in a good position to capitalize on that market. The Houston and St. Louis sites are among more than 20 Inhance Technologies locations around the world, including offices in Australia, Brazil, Germany, and Mexico.

Los Angeles-based private equity firm Aurora Capital Partners bought Inhance Technologies from New York City-based private equity firm Arsenal Capital Partners in 2018 for an undisclosed amount. Arsenal bought Inhance Technologies from founders Monty Ballard and Bill Brown in 2012.

"Inhance fits seamlessly into our strategy of partnering with a market leader to support their vision and accelerate both organic and acquisition-driven growth," Michael Marino, a partner at Aurora Capital Partners, said in 2018.

A year after its acquisition by Aurora, Inhance Technologies bought Germany's Fluor Technik System for an undisclosed amount.

"Over the course of its history, Inhance has continually sought to expand both its breadth of technical capabilities and its geographical reach," said Andy Thompson, the company's president and CEO.

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