Top Office Owners Don’t Want to Own Only Office Buildings Anymore
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Top Office Owners Don’t Want to Own Only Office Buildings Anymore

Apartment-building acquisitions spur quick returns, require ‘minimal capital expenditure’

By PETER GRANT
Wed, Jan 11, 2023 9:03amGrey Clock 4 min

Many of the most prominent office developers in the U.S. are shifting gears, looking to buy or build real estate that isn’t office.

Boston Properties Inc. is planning to develop 2,000 residential units up and down the East Coast. The firm, which owns more U.S. office space than any other publicly traded company, also is developing millions of square feet of lab and life-science space.

New York office owner SL Green Realty Corp is teaming up with Caesars Entertainment Inc. in a bid to convert a Times Square office tower into a casino.

Even the companies behind some of the world’s most glamorous skyscrapers are seeking out other types of real estate. Empire State Realty Trust, owner of the Empire State Building and other office towers, late in 2021 started adding multifamily properties to its portfolio for the first time. Silverstein Properties, best known for developing the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, is raising a $1.5 billion fund for converting obsolete office buildings into apartments.

The efforts come as the Covid-19 pandemic and rise of remote work have reordered American habits around the workplace, dimming the importance of office towers that populate city business districts. Shares of publicly traded office owners have broadly declined as investors and analysts worry that the companies’ growth prospects have been hurt by the likelihood of a long-term decline in office demand.

The U.S. office vacancy rate was 12.3% at the end of the third quarter, about where it was at its peak during the global financial crisis, according to data firm CoStar Group Inc. The rates in some major metro areas—including New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco—are at the highest levels that CoStar has recorded in more than two decades of tracking this data.

Corporate tenants are flooding the sublease market with office space, the main way to reduce their footprint before their leases expire. About 211.8 million square feet of sublease space is now available, nearly double the amount available compared with the end of 2019, and the highest ever recorded for major office markets, CoStar said.

Companies are also putting off searches for new space as they brace themselves for a possible economic downturn in 2023. New business searches for office space fell in 2022 to 44% of what they were in 2018 and 2019, according to VTS, a firm that operates a data platform that tracks tenant demand.

Other real-estate sectors, especially residential, seem to offer more promise.

“Office is in a state of flux these days,” said Rich Gottlieb, president of Keystone Development + Investment, a West Conshohocken, Pa.-based developer specialising in offices that has four residential projects in the pipeline in South Florida and the Philadelphia region. “But there’s still a housing shortage out there.”

Office developers pivoting toward residential or other property types say they remain bullish on the office business. Many have predicted throughout the pandemic that businesses will return in greater numbers because, they have said, the best collaboration requires face-to-face meetings in a workspace—not over Zoom.

And more recently, office owners can point to encouraging signs, including the growing number of employers who are ordering workers back to the offices and the strong demand for space with the best facilities and locations.

But developing state-of-the art office space requires an enormous capital investment to meet workers’ desire for the highest possible air quality, energy efficiency and amenities.

The economics of the residential business are currently more compelling, said Tony Malkin, chief executive of Empire State Realty Trust. He would still buy office buildings at the right price. But apartment-building acquisitions produce an immediate return and require “minimal capital expenditure,” he added.

An office landlord known as New York City REIT, whose share price has fallen below $2 during the city’s recent office slump, said it was moving beyond a focus on New York office buildings, according to a December filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company said it would seek to acquire hotels and parking lots, among other non-office investments.

The shift away from new office development already is having a moderating impact on new construction. About 153 million square feet of office construction was under way in the third quarter of 2022, down from 184 million in the first quarter of 2020, according to CoStar.

Meanwhile the popularity of residential projects is having the opposite effect on the apartment pipeline. Close to 500,000 units—the most since 1986—are expected to be completed in 2023, according to a CoStar estimate. That is up from 368,000 in 2019, the firm said.

Some office developers began expanding into residential projects in the years leading up to the pandemic. AmTrust Realty Corp., which has a portfolio of about 12 million square feet of office space in Chicago, New York, Toledo, Ohio and other markets, completed its first residential development in 2020, a 270-unit project in Brooklyn.

The pandemic intensified AmTrust’s appetite to do more residential investment, said Jonathan Bennett, president of the family-controlled business. As one example, he noted that AmTrust has owned for years an office building in Tarrytown, N.Y., on a 7-acre site facing the Hudson River.

AmTrust has long considered the building a good candidate for residential conversion. Now, with the Tarrytown building’s vacancy rate high, the company is moving ahead with planning and obtaining local-government approvals for a development with scores of apartments.

“There was so much vacancy in the building, I said to my board, there will be no better time for us to put forward this plan,” Mr. Bennett said. “If this is what you want to do, this is the time to do it.”



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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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