According to CBRE the overall U.S. office vacancy rate hit a 30-year-high of 18.2% in mid-2023 That doesn’t sound so bad, but reality is just not so even-handed.
Only 10% of all U.S. office buildings account for 80% of the occupancy losses since the onset of Covid. I visited Atlanta in early October, 2023. My host told me vacancy in downtown Atlanta was at 80%. He was just waiting for the lease to expire to abandon their space as well. Soon 80% might climb to 81%.
These are not just numbers. You can see the impact on every downtown street. Way less foot traffic and shuttered retail continue the downward trend.
The fix is housing, say many. Convert those offices to homes and convert downtowns to neighborhoods. Co-housing, affordable housing and luxury apartments. We need them all. But that, my friends, is much easier said than done.
In 2018 there was 97 billion square feet of office space in the US. Let’s assume that increased by a modest amount to 100 billion square feet today. In good times, office vacancies might be 10 – 12%, so let’s assume that we need to figure out how to repurpose 8%, or 8 billion square feet.
Now let’s assume that we’ll need an average of $500 per square foot to convert the 8 billion square feet to residential.
Every real estate developer knows that what goes in must come out. In other words, if you are going to spend $500 per s.f. + the original cost of the building, then you have to support that expense with sufficient rent or sales income … or you will have a sinking ship.
But not every building sits in a market that can support costs like these. Hot markets and high-end luxury units might work. But what about everyone else. Don’t we want middle-income and affordable housing?
Conversion will only work in these instances with an influx of funds that might never be paid back. We call this the funding gap. It would be reasonable to assume that the funding gap spread across ALL of this office space might be 25%. That’s $4 trillion, or 15% of the GDP.
The $800 billion has to come from somewhere. Is it worth it? It won’t ever be paid back, but buildings will be put back into use, real estate taxes will be paid and downtowns will be saved.
Anyone got some change?