Buildings Are Empty, Now They Have to Go Green
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Buildings Are Empty, Now They Have to Go Green

Rising rates, falling occupancy and new carbon taxes hit building owners

By SHANE SHIFFLETT
Mon, Sep 4, 2023 8:42amGrey Clock 4 min

Their buildings echo with empty offices, their borrowing costs have soared, and now owners of buildings in cities across the U.S. are facing a new tax on their carbon emissions.

Cities are toughening their climate standards and are beginning to tax buildings that don’t meet the new requirements. Landlords are left with a difficult choice between paying for expensive upgrades to reduce emissions or paying the tax.

In New York City, which has one of the first and most expensive carbon taxes, landlords of large buildings (including owners of residential buildings) beginning next year will face a $268 fine for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted beyond certain limits.

“If you’re under cash flow pressure due to lack of tenancy, adding a tax on top of that isn’t a good sign,” said Bank of America CMBS Strategist Alan Todd. “It would be potentially pretty painful.”

The Wall Street Journal tallied the potential impact of the taxes on buildings that borrowed funds from Wall Street investors by issuing mortgage-backed bonds. The Journal also looked at properties owned by three of the country’s largest publicly traded landlords. The tax bill for 128 properties analyzed could add up to more than $50 million during the first five-year enforcement period, which begins in 2024, according to the Journal’s analysis of Department of Building data and financial disclosures.

Fines for the same buildings could jump to $214 million if their landlords don’t meet the city’s emissions standards during the period between 2030 and 2034, the Journal’s analysis shows. The Real Estate Board of New York, an industry group, and engineering consulting firm Level Infrastructure said that more than 13,000 properties could face fines totaling about $900 million annually.

Buildings are by far New York City’s largest source of carbon emissions, which come from the fossil fuels used to heat and to provide air conditioning for them.

More than a dozen local laws regulating buildings’ carbon footprints from Chula Vista, Calif., to Boston have gone into effect since 2021 or will come online by 2030, according to carbon accounting firm nZero. Compliance also begins next year for buildings in Denver, while St. Louis properties face penalties beginning in 2025. Four other laws from Cambridge, Mass., to Reno, Nev., will go into effect in 2026.

The impact of the emissions laws initially will be small but will come on top of other, more costly problems faced by landlords. The law, based on New York’s current projections, would cost the 51-story skyscraper at 277 Park Ave. in Manhattan just $1.3 million in fines in 2024. The revenue of the building, owned by private landlord The Stahl Organization, was $129 million last year.

The building’s vacancy rate has jumped from about 2% in 2014 to 25% currently, according to commercial property data provider Trepp. JP Morgan Chase accounts for about half of the building’s space, but its lease expires in 2026. The bank is constructing a nearby tower that aims to produce net-zero carbon emissions and is scheduled to be completed in 2025. It wouldn’t comment on its leasing plans.

Stahl’s $750 million mortgage on the building is scheduled to mature next August. Stahl is now faced with potentially higher rates if it takes out a new loan, the loss of its biggest tenant and fines for carbon emissions.

Stahl declined to comment.

Shares of the three big landlords whose properties were analysed by the Journal are trading at near historic lows. Shares of Vornado Realty Trust and SL Green, each of which has about 30 New York City office buildings, are down by roughly two-thirds since before the pandemic. Boston Properties Inc., one of the country’s largest office building owners, shares are down more than 50% from before the pandemic.

SL Green faces a potential carbon-tax liability of up to $6.6 million by 2030, according to the Journal’s analysis. The company declined to comment. More than 80 other properties financed using mortgage-backed bonds reviewed by the Journal could have a nearly $27 million carbon-tax bill by 2030.

The costly upgrades needed to comply with the law will hit some properties when they are on the block or when they are trying to attract tenants, who know they will effectively be paying for any improvements. “Tenants are looking to be in a building that is greener,” said Brendan Schmitt, partner in law firm Herrick’s Real Estate Department.

The library at the Manhattan office of Vornado Realty Trust, one of the landlords expected to be on the hook for a significant amount of New York City carbon taxes. PHOTO: VICTOR LLORENTE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The new laws coincide with big government spending on climate. Landlords can get generous subsidies for projects that reduce emissions.

Ironically, landlords are also benefiting from emptier buildings, which burn less fossil fuel. New York City says about 11% of buildings covered under the law are projected to face penalties using the latest energy data, down from 20% using earlier data.

The city’s law was passed in 2019 and included a $268 fine for every ton of CO emitted by buildings over 25,000 square feet exceeding limits. Landlords will be required to report emissions to city officials starting in 2025 with penalties based on 2024 energy use.

Some big landlords are facing fines in multiple jurisdictions including Boston Properties, which will likely get hit on properties it owns in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. The company’s eight New York City offices could face a $2.3 million dollar tax bill by 2030, according to city data.

Ben Myers, senior vice president of sustainability at Boston Properties, said complying with local building standards is important. “We have made energy efficiency a priority,” he said.



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Stronger demand in some areas is pushing unit rents up faster than houses

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Renters are returning to the apartment market, leading to higher growth in weekly rents for units than houses over the past year, according to REA data. As workers return to their corporate offices, tenants are coming back to the inner city and choosing apartment living for its affordability.

This is a reversal of the pandemic trend which saw many renters leave their inner city units to rent affordable houses on the outskirts. Working from home meant they did not have to commute to the CBD, so they moved into large houses in outer areas where they could enjoy more space and privacy.

REA Group economic analyst Megan Lieu said the return to apartment living among tenants began in late 2021, when most lockdown restrictions were lifted, and accelerated in 2022 after Australia’s international border reopened.

Following the reopening of offices and in-person work, living within close proximity to CBDs has regained importance,” Ms Lieu said.Units not only tend to be located closer to public transport and in inner city areas, but are also cheaper to rent compared to houses in similar areas. For these reasons, it is unsurprising that units, particularly those in inner city areas, are growing in popularity among renters.

But the return to work in the CBD is not the only factor driving demand for apartment rentals. Rapidly rising weekly rents for all types of property, coupled with a cost-of-living crisis created by high inflation, has forced tenants to look for cheaper accommodation. This typically means compromising on space, with many families embracing apartment living again. At the same time, a huge wave of migration led by international students has turbocharged demand for unit rentals in inner city areas, in particular, because this is where many universities are located.

But it’s not simply a demand-side equation. Lockdowns put a pause on building activity, which reduced the supply of new rental homes to the market. People had to wait longer for their new houses to be built, which meant many of them were forced to remain in rental homes longer than expected. On top of that, a chronic shortage of social housing continued to push more people into the private rental market. After the world reopened, disrupted supply chains meant the cost of building increased, the supply of materials was strained, and a shortage of labour delayed projects.

All of this has driven up rents for all types of property, and the strength of demand has allowed landlords to raise rents more than usual to help them recover the increased costs of servicing their mortgages following 13 interest rate rises since May 2022. Many applicants for rentals are also offering more rent than advertised just to secure a home, which is pushing rental values even higher.

Tenants’ reversion to preferring apartments over houses is a nationwide trend that has led to stronger rental growth for units than houses, especially in the capital cities, says Ms Lieu. “Year-on-year, national weekly house rents have increased by 10.5 percent, an increase of $55 per week,” she said.However, unit rents have increased by 17 percent, which equates to an $80 weekly increase.

The variance is greatest in the capital cities where unit rents have risen twice as fast as house rents. Sydney is the most expensive city to rent in today, according to REA data. The house rent median is $720 per week, up 10.8 percent over the past year. The apartment rental median is $650 per week, up 18.2 percent. In Brisbane, the median house rent is $600 per week, up 9.1 percent over the past year, while the median rent for units is $535 per week, up 18.9 percent. In Melbourne, the median house rent is $540 per week, up 13.7 percent, while the apartment median is $500 per week, up 16.3 percent.

In regional markets, Queensland is the most expensive place to rent either a house or an apartment. The house median rent in regional Queensland is $600 per week, up 9.1 percent year-onyear, while the apartment median rent is $525, up 16.7 percent.

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