Landlords and lenders aren’t the only ones wringing their hands over office properties. City leaders, economists, and the Fed are concerned about the impact a steep devaluation of these assets will have on the financial sector.
In this blog post, we’ll attempt to pinpoint why office properties could prove to be more resilient than the current worst-case scenario prognostications suggest by taking a closer look at the factors contributing to the anxiety swirling around them.
The Financial Picture
Office owners managed to survive the pandemic mostly because most tenants have been locked into long-term leases. Approximately $80 billion in loans backed by these office assets will mature in 2023. Moreover, thousands of these leases will expire over the next two years. CRED iQ reports that, as pertains to office and mixed use, “scheduled lease rollover will be at its highest in 2024 and 2025 — each year will individually have more than 60 million square feet rolling.”
Rising interest rates and tight credit are only aggravating these stresses, making refinancing these leases a challenge. Moreover, the declining value of office buildings threatens the stability of the regional banks carrying those mortgages on their books.
In a recent CNBC interview, Patrick Carroll, Founder and CEO of CARROLL, issued an alarming warning: “There’s $1.5 trillion in debt maturing on commercial real estate by 2025… sellers are not realizing how much their properties have lost value, and they’re not willing to dump their properties yet. They haven’t felt enough pain.” Carroll forecasts a crash in CRE markets “at least as bad as ‘08 – ‘09.”
But not all industry experts are as pessimistic. Kevin Fagan and Ricardo Rosas of Moody’s Analytics acknowledge there will be disruption but believe it will be more of an ordinary, manageable down cycle. From their perspective, the CRE sector and its lenders are in a much stronger position than they were before the Great Recession.
The Return to the Office (RTO) is Lagging
Office occupancy rates are something of the elephant in the room. But the room itself is something of a ghost town.
Almost 65 percent of American companies now require their employees to work in the office at least one day a week. Nevertheless, about a fifth of the country’s office space remains vacant. In fact, on an average workday, about 40 percent fewer workers are reporting to the office than before the pandemic. This rate has held steady for nearly a year, suggesting that remote and hybrid working arrangements will become a permanent part of the office landscape.
Why? The ability to work remotely is an option that helps attract and retain talent. Employees who value the flexibility remote work allows are not inclined to surrender it. (However, a slowing economy and softening job market may be eroding some of their leverage.) Yet many large companies are mandating a return to the office over concerns about productivity, efficient communication, and overall employee buy-in — not to mention how much they’re paying for unused office space.
For example, Omnicom Group, owner of multiple marketing and advertising firms, spent much of Q1 and Q2 2023 adjusting its commercial real estate portfolio. Its holding company began aggressively cutting its real estate costs by closing or consolidating offices in Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco. What’s not clear, however, is whether major players like Omnicom are considering new ways to engage their employees as they negotiate long-term leases. In other words, corporate leadership and the health of corporate culture are among the atmospheric conditions creating a perfect storm for office assets.
As those storm clouds gather, they’re precipitating fear. As more companies take the Omnicom approach, some worry that oversupply will create what one group of researchers has dubbed an “Office Real Estate Apocalypse.” Arpit Gupta (NYU Stern School of Business), Vrinda Mittal (Columbia Business School, Columbia University in the City of New York), and Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh (Columbia University Graduate School of Business; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR); ABFER) found that large drops in lease revenues, occupancy rates, lease renewal rates, and market rents in the office sector have led to a $506.3-billion value destruction of this asset class nationwide.
But not all office properties have been affected equally.
As Fagan and Rosas write, “… return of workers to the office — even part-time — will eventually support performance of office properties in the coming years.” The question is which specific office properties.
According to Guggenheim Partners Chief Investment Officer Anne Walsh, properties in large urban centers (such as San Francisco and New York) and second-class office buildings in need of repair are most at risk. “We’re likely going into a real estate recession, but not across the entire real estate market,” she recently told the Financial Times.
What’s Helping Office Buildings Remain Resilient
High-end buildings in prime locations fared better through the pandemic than office spaces that are not as well-appointed. A flight to quality that began before 2020 accelerated in 2021 and early 2022. Over the last three years, more than three-quarters of office tenants who moved either upgraded from Class B properties to Class A or switched from one Class A building to another.
Fast-forward to 2023: the gap between Class A and Class B properties is narrowing, primarily due to the factors we’ve already discussed. Yet well-managed and well-maintained modern buildings continue to outperform Class B buildings as measured by overall site visits. As Keith DeCoster, director of market data and policy for REBNY says, choosing an office at a prime location with great amenities “is going to give you at least a leg up in getting folks back to the office.”
Additionally, the demand for office space will undoubtedly be affected by advances in AI and automation technology that allow companies to reduce their workforces. Lower headcounts mean less square footage is necessary. Large, single-tenant towers may become dinosaurs that are replaced by smaller, multi-tenant buildings.
Speaking at an April 2023 event, Briggs Development President Jeffery Rogers remarked that “there’s going to be demand for smaller office, and lots of it, so that’s where we would like to be.” As employers restructure their office space needs, they will continue to seek out amenities to entice employees back to the office.
The Role Amenities Play in Attracting Tenants (and Protecting Property Values)
Employees have become used to the convenience of remote work. But even a cursory cost-benefit analysis reveals that working from anywhere is anything but all pros and no cons.
Employees are missing out on the synergy — the creative energy — of face-to-face interactions. The regular back-and-forth of ideas can’t be replicated in a weekly teleconference, but many employees need more incentives to return to their daily commute. They are looking for spaces that are comfortable, convenient, and offer a variety of amenities. Janet Pogue McLaurin, Global Director of Workplace Research at Gensler, sums it up this way: “It [the office] has got to be a destination, not an obligation.”
COVID brought health and safety concerns to the forefront of every industry. In commercial real estate, modernized ventilation systems, antimicrobial materials, touchless access systems, and WELL certification became highly desired building features. Although the threat posed by successive variants of the novel coronavirus has diminished, tenants continue to look for these upgrades to assure the health and wellness of their employees.
Traditional perks, such as fitness centers, cafeterias, and on-site childcare, can look very attractive to employees who have mainly been working in isolation for the past three years. A December 2022 MRI Software survey found that job-seekers are looking for employers who offer “hotel-like amenities.”
Beyond standard features such as air conditioning, reliable internet connectivity, and free parking, more than a quarter of respondents said they desire areas for socializing and dining as well as outdoor green space. A gym, shower rooms, and bicycle storage also made the list of sought-after amenities. Some landlords have gone above and beyond even that, adding lounges, golf simulators, and pickleball courts in an attempt to lure tenants to their buildings.
Forward-thinking organizations understand they must rethink how they utilize space and adopt a more dynamic model than rows of cubicles or the open office plan. Rather than assign spaces to individuals, the movement is toward spaces defined by their purpose. Employees can move to the area that best suits their immediate needs throughout their workday. Comfortable, informal group seating may work well for brainstorming sessions, while library-like quiet rooms support work that requires deep, immersive thought. And because working from anywhere will never completely go away, these environments must contain technology that can accommodate both remote and on-site employees.
Most importantly, these same forward-thinking companies are still in the market for buildings that offer exactly this kind of variety, reconfigurability, and improved quality of work life. Not surprisingly, mixed use is an important part of that mix. As Erik Sherman writes in a recent article at GlobeSt.com, “cities combining residential, office, and leisure as soon as possible into mixed use will have more compelling offerings for people and companies that are looking for a new location.”
Although the challenges facing office properties are real, so are the opportunities for those willing to adapt to evolving market conditions. By focusing on quality, amenities, and location, property owners are more likely to find tenants, generate income (rent), and otherwise buoy the value of their assets.
It also helps to have a good working relationship with a commercial real estate appraisal firm that leverages best-in-class research and provides on-time delivery to help you make informed decisions about your office properties. LPA’s CRE valuation experts work closely with both federally regulated and non-depository lenders and are uniquely qualified to produce USPAP-compliant appraisal collateral independent of the loan process. Contact LPA today at https://lowerypa.com/locations/.