• Sun. Apr 11th, 2021

After Pandemic, Shrinking Need for Office Space Could Crush Landlords

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Apr 8, 2021

Roughly 17.3 percent of all office space in Manhattan is available for lease, the highest proportion in at least three decades. Asking rents on the island have dropped to just over $74 a square foot, from nearly $82 at the beginning of 2020, according to a recent report by the real estate services company Newmark. Elsewhere, asking rents have largely stayed flat from a year ago, including in Boston and Houston, but have climbed slightly in Chicago.

The Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo, whose United States headquarters are in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, recently relocated to another office building nearby, an open layout with tables designed for its work force of 130 people who will come into the office only a few days a week. Many of its office workers will keep working remotely after the pandemic, while some employees, like those in the marketing department, will hold meetings occasionally in SoHo.

“As a leader, it has been challenging because meeting people face-to-face is so important,” said Daisuke Tsukagoshi, the chief executive of Uniqlo USA. “However, since we are a Japanese company with global reach, the need for remote collaboration among many centers has always been part of our culture.”

The stock prices of the big landlords, which are often structured as real estate investment trusts that pass almost all of their profit to investors, trade well below their previous highs, even as the wider stock market and some companies in other industries like airlines and hotels that were hit hard by the pandemic have hit new highs. Shares of Boston Properties, one of the largest office landlords, are down 29 percent from the prepandemic high. SL Green, a major New York landlord, is 26 percent lower.

Fitch Ratings estimated that office landlords’ profits would fall 15 percent if companies allowed workers to be at home just one and a half days a week on average. Three days at home could slash income by 30 percent.

Senior executives at property companies claim not to be worried. They argue that working from home will quickly fade once most of the country is vaccinated. Their reasons to think this? They say many corporate executives have told them that it is hard to effectively get workers to collaborate or train young professionals when they are not together.

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