Five Questions With: Christina Rouse

Christina Rouse is director of marketing and operations for commercial real estate brokerage and appraisal firm Sweeney Real Estate & Appraisal. She also served as president of the Rhode Island Commercial and Appraisal Board of Realtors in 2023.

This year, Rouse became the director of operations for the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors New England Chapter. Founded in 1955, the chapter has more than 50 active members. The global SIOR boasts more than 3,900 certified members from over 50 countries.

PBN: What’s happening with the Rhode Island commercial real estate market right now? What’s the level of sales and price activity we’re seeing this year, especially compared to past times?

ROUSE: Activity in the market overall is steady. While we are not seeing the same number of transactions as we did in 2021 and 2022, this is expected. Investment activity has seen the biggest drop compared to the last few years. However, inventory is still trading, driven by demand from owners and users in the market.

Historically, Rhode Island has been a manufacturing state, with the Jewelry District being a prime example. The issue now is that the existing inventory has lower ceilings and limited loading capabilities, which do not meet the needs of current market users. The cost of building or converting properties isn’t penciling out, leading to tight demand. Properties that do meet market demand have been leasing at or above $10 per square foot (triple net lease), compared to $8 per square foot (triple net lease) just two years ago.

PBN: Is there any segment of commercial real estate that is in demand right now? Noticing any patterns?

ROUSE: Industrial is certainly the tightest market, but that has been the case in Rhode Island for years.

The most interesting trend to follow right now is the office market, which has undergone significant transitions since 2020. We saw a short renewal cycle followed by a huge rush to suburban markets such as Warwick and Lincoln, and an average drop in square footage demand of around 40%. Older office buildings are being purchased and converted to residential use to meet the rising demand in that sector, which also skews vacancy rates.

There is a noticeable pattern over the last six months: There doesn’t seem to be urgency in the market. Decision-makers are taking their time, weighing options such as purchasing, leasing, downsizing and relocating. This deliberation is influenced by borrowing rates and construction costs, which have not eased over the past year.

PBN: You are now the SIOR New England Chapter director of operations, in addition to your role at Sweeney. What is the SIOR and what does the New England chapter do?

ROUSE: SIOR stands for the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors. It is a professional association for commercial real estate practitioners, recognized globally for its high standards and rigorous qualifications. Members of SIOR are specialists in industrial and office markets and have met stringent requirements in terms of experience, education and transaction volume. The designation indicates a high level of expertise, trustworthiness and ethical conduct in the commercial real estate industry.

The New England Chapter is the regional division, serving the professionals in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, central and eastern Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. We are one of 49 chapters worldwide. The New England Chapter focuses on networking, education, professional development, market insights and advocacy to enhance professionalism, knowledge and success of its members.

PBN: What is the nature of your role as director of operations for the SIOR New England Chapter, and what are your challenges and goals there?

ROUSE: The role involves managing and coordinating the chapter activities to ensure smooth functioning and growth. There is some administration, lots of event coordination, member services, marketing and board support. The role requires working with chapter leadership on setting goals and identifying partnerships that will elevate the practice of our members.

Having been in the role for about five months, I am still quite green. The highlight so far has been building relationships with the members, who are all highly knowledgeable and influential in their markets. Interacting with them has been a pleasure. Beyond meeting expectations, I aim to deliver value efficiently and grow membership in a meaningful way.

PBN: What are some of the most pressing issues facing industrial and office Realtors right now?

ROUSE: As mentioned earlier, there is a significant shortage of available industrial spaces, leading to increased competition and higher rental rates. This is largely due to the rapid growth of e-commerce, which has put a heavy emphasis on distribution space, an area already extremely limited. Although construction costs appear to be leveling off, they have increased so much over the last four years that it remains difficult for developers to meet demand.

The office market has faced its own set of issues, with remote work and hybrid models leading to challenges in space utilization, employee well-being, and health and safety. Many companies are downsizing their square footage, seeking more flexible lease terms and focusing more on enhancing office environments with amenities, flexible spaces and wellness programs. Additionally, building conversions continue to be a trend to address the demand for urban housing.