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Q & A with Howard Rambin: Lull in the Houston Market Won’t Sink to 1980s Bust Level

Howard Rambin III

Howard Rambin III

HOUSTON – J. Howard Rambin III has been involved in the Houston real estate market for 46 years. He co-founded Moody Rambin in 1969 and remains a principal of the firm to this day. In his time, Rambin has developed, owned, operated and sold 25 suburban office buildings along with several apartment complexes, motels and retail centers.

He acknowledges that the local real estate market is slowing, but he feels it won’t tumble to the level of the 1980’s “bust.” Some areas, he says, are overbuilt and the market could stand a breather.

Rambin is also known for creating an anti-litter campaign in Houston nearly 40 years ago that continues today, drawing together thousands of volunteers to keep the city’s streets litter-free.

The entrepreneur discussed his life, accomplishments and the city’s future with Dale King, a contributing writer for Realty News Report. The following are excerpts.

Realty News Report: What is going on in the Houston office market? Is it getting weaker because of softness in the energy industry? Are rental rates falling?

Rambin: I think the office market has an oversupply, and rates are suffering. A boom in the energy market like we’ve had the past five or six years ultimately brings a slowdown like we are seeing now. When oil was $100 a barrel, oil companies were building structures and leasing space. This was not going to grow forever. So far, the drop in rental rates is not very dramatic. Typically, this type of thing takes a while. I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it yet. I’ve been through this before. I’m a bit of a cynic, because I’ve been beaten up so much.

Realty News Report: You recently completed your 10-story, 250,000-square-foot Town Centre One building, on Town & Country Boulevard. Any plans to start your second building there?

Rambin: Yes, soon. Town Centre Two, a 100,000-square-foot office building, will include space for the County Playhouse community theater group. It will feature a 220-seat auditorium and 75-seat black box theatre. I wasn’t involved in this project. I do have a daughter, Leven, who is a film and television actress. [She has appeared in “All My Children,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI: Miami,” among other programs, as well as the 2012 film, “The Hunger Games.”]

Realty News Report: You’ve seen the Houston commercial real estate market go through several up and down cycles. How does today’s market compare to the dark times of the mid-1980s?

Rambin: It is nowhere near as bad as it was in the 1980s, which was a real bust. The commercial and suburban boom in office space that started in the 1960s was going strong in the 1970s. The income tax laws were very favorable to emerging real estate. Banks lobbied Washington to let them get into the lending and development business, so a lot of money flooded into the market. In the 1980s, oil dropped to $10 a barrel and tax laws were changed, eliminating all the benefits. It was a complete catastrophe.

Realty News Report: You founded the Keep Houston Beautiful organization 36 years ago. ( Tell us about that group.

Rambin: Keep Houston Beautiful started out as the Houston Anti-Litter Team. I was a real estate developer in the Galleria area in the mid-1970s. I was driving a group of Europeans around, showing them the city. The highway department was broke. The rights-of-way along the freeway were overgrown with grass and weeds. When it was mowed, it was shredded into debris, like snow. The people in the car commented on how trashy the city was. It has lousy curb appeal which, in real estate, is not good. We had some landscape people who agreed to go out and clean it up. We told tenants in that area they needed to spend money on cleanup. This lit the fire and people realized that litter was a huge problem. The mission of Keep Houston Beautiful, which is loosely affiliated with Keep America Beautiful, is to educate communities to clean up the mess.

Realty News Report: Is there a new wrinkle for Keep Houston Beautiful planned for 2016?

Rambin: There is a new chairman, and I have become a little more active. We are going to increase the digital presence in marketing our brand and increasing our small donor base through digital marketing. A lot of this involves marketing the brand to help raise money to expand our operation.

Realty News Report: Your father, J. Howard Rambin Jr., rose to become chairman and CEO of Texaco. Did he share any of his experiences with you?

Rambin: Dad started out as a roustabout in Louisiana in the 1930s. He was a good disciplinarian, but he spent all of his time working for Texaco. With his encouragement, I started working when I was 8 years old. He retired [in 1970] about the same time I was starting my company. At that time, he got out of the business.

Realty News Report: Finally, what do you see happening in 2016 in the Houston real estate markets?

Rambin: I don’t see any changes. There will be a continued slowdown in the growth of the city. But the residential market is still good, the industrial market is still good. The apartment and office markets are overbuilt. I don’t see any major train wrecks. But the pace of growth is going to slow tremendously.

Realty News Report is a Texas-based publication founded by Ralph Bivins.

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