As Covid battered the US economy, Gary Goldberg seems to have fared well.
In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the Santa Barbara, Calif. realtor sold more than $27 million in luxury homes, down slightly from the $31 million he closed the previous year, according to data from Zillow. In 2021, he sold $82 million worth of real estate.
He also applied for and received two loans totaling $95,832 through the federal government’s Covid relief paycheck protection program, according to public records. In his applications, he listed an employee.
He applied for the first loan on April 15, 2020, and the second on January 30, 2021. Federal records show he also applied for and received forgiveness for both loans by November 2021, meaning he had met certain criteria and did not have to repay them.
In the United States, the average gross commission for real estate sales is 2.5% of the sale price, and the agent typically receives 85% of that, according to Real Trends Consulting, a company that tracks home sales and commissions. . According to this formula, Greenberg would have gained six figures in 2020 and seven figures in 2021.
Goldberg declined to comment for this article.
There is no indication that Goldberg did anything illegal and he is certainly not alone. As real estate sales — and commissions — increased during the pandemic, individual agents also received a helping hand from taxpayers.
The federal government has authorized more than 300,000 loans to real estate entities claiming a single employee, totaling up to $3.9 billion in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans backed by the US Small Business Administration, according to government data. Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), which oversees pandemic relief spending.
On average, these real estate companies got $13,000, but 146 entities got more than $90,000 each, according to PRAC datawhich is a public folder.
PPP loans were made to real estate agents in booming markets – $3.6 million to real estate entities in Beverly Hills, $4.3 million to entities in El Paso, Texas, and 14, $9 million in 1,107 loans to real estate entities in Charlotte, North Carolina.
All loans were granted on the understanding that they would be canceled if the recipient met certain criteria, such as spending 60% of the loan on payroll and the rest on eligible expenses. So far, $3.1 billion of those home loans have been canceled, and the government has dramatically accelerated its cancellation over the past eight months. For the remaining $800 million in loans, the borrowers haven’t sought forgiveness, they’ve been denied, or the SBA and the lenders who made the loans haven’t made it yet.
The SBA says it has denied forgiveness of about 12,200 loans and about 4,200 borrowers have appealed the denials.
SBA loan forgiveness
The $789 billion Paycheck Protection Program was intended to save American jobs and shore up businesses during the pandemic. Today, 80% of all PPP loans – 9.9 million of them – and 84% of the total dollar amount have been canceled by the SBA, according to the PRAC.
For real estate entities, the discount percentage is almost the same, at 83% of all loans and 84% of the dollar amount, according to the PRAC website.
A senior SBA official told NBC News that the multiple pieces of legislation passed by both Democrats and Republicans and signed by President Donald Trump were ‘extremely liberal’ and ‘extremely generous’ in terms of undoing loans.
PPP loans were issued by private lenders and backed by the SBA. If a borrower wants loan forgiveness, they request forgiveness from their lender or the SBA and submit forms and documents.
In most cases, the lender makes a recommendation to the SBA regarding forgiveness or denial. In some cases, an eligible borrower can apply to the SBA for a “direct discount” and the SBA then sends the application to the lender for approval.
In addition to denying 12,200 loans for forgiveness, the SBA also withdrew 215,000 loans selected for manual review, according to a senior SBA official.
In a statement, SBA spokesperson Han Nguyen said:[U]Under the previous administration, Congress mandated in the CARES Act that PPP loans were to be forgiven as long as the funds were used as intended.
“Since day one, the Biden-Harris administration has worked to mitigate the inappropriate use of funds and ensure the proper stewardship of taxpayers’ money – and will continue to do so – to the extent permitted by the law.”
Real estate boomed while other industries suffered
Erin Stackley, senior policy representative for business issues at the National Association of Realtors, says when the pandemic hit, real estate agents faced uncertainty. Sellers canceled open houses, “because people obviously didn’t want people walking around their homes.” She said estate agents face multiple costs on top of payroll, including office rent, fuel for their cars and staff.
Stackley defended those who applied for PPP loan forgiveness, saying if they received loans in good faith and followed the program’s rules “then that’s what the SBA and Congress intended to do.”
But as industries like restaurants and tourism have suffered during the pandemic, residential real estate has boomed.
Steve Murray, a partner at Real Trends Consulting, said when the pandemic hit realtors, they panicked over canceled open houses. But he said as of early May 2020, it was clear from data from open houses nationwide that people were looking at homes again and “something was about to happen.”
Home sales jumped 53% from April 2020 to January 1, 2021, and home prices are now 40% higher than they were in January 2020.
“I’ve been in this business since the 1970s and I’ve never seen this kind of sales explosion,” Murray said.
Commissions also skyrocketed. Murray says that before the pandemic, total residential commissions nationwide in 2019 were $76.2 billion. But in 2020, during the pandemic, they jumped to $85.9 billion. In 2021, commissions increased further, reaching a record high of $98.8 billion.
Rising house prices have been blamed on pent-up demand and low mortgage rates, which has allowed real estate agents to excel in hot markets.
NBC News reached out to real estate agents who had a successful sales year in 2020 and secured PPP loans over $90,000 that were later fully or partially canceled by the federal government.
Tina Guerrieri, who sells homes in suburban Philadelphia, sold more than $25 million worth of real estate in 2020, according to Zillow, and she also secured a $100,000 PPP loan. Her loan was canceled in 2021 and she no longer has to repay the money, according to public records.
NBC News asked Guerrieri why she needed the $100,000. She told a reporter she didn’t want to share what she was using the money for or how it was approved, saying, “So many people know me, I wouldn’t want all those details shared.”
Real estate agent Jenna Jacques sold $25 million worth of real estate in Scottsdale, Arizona in 2020, according to data from Zillow. She also received three loans totaling $141,664 which were all canceled by the federal government. Jacques did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
New Jersey commercial realtor Shane Wierks secured two PPP loans for $151,833, according to federal records, and repaid $103,000 to the federal government. Public records show $48,918 was forgiven. He said based on his conversations with other real estate agents that it was “pretty much what everyone had.”
A real estate agent who received the money told NBC News she had come to believe asking for a loan of taxpayers’ money to be forgiven after a successful year might be inappropriate.
Phyllis Patek, an Austin, Texas real estate agent who sold more than $10 million in real estate in 2020, secured an $83,300 loan.
Records show $36,000 of the loan was forgiven, but Patek said it was going to repay it all because it did so well selling in Austin’s hot market in 2020.
“I’m almost done paying. It ended up being a crazy year because I’m in Austin and I didn’t feel right asking for forgiveness.