Commercial Magazine

Feeling the Squeeze

Commercial property owners must deal with the new environment of reduced values and rising taxes

By Eric Lam

Many sectors of commercial real estate are undergoing unprecedented change across the country. Property valuations, most notably in the office sector, have begun to plummet. At the same time, a surge of tax appeals are echoing across the industry. For mortgage brokers, this fluctuating environment presents both challenges and opportunities.

These complex commercial property changes are having significant impacts on various stakeholders, especially those involved with finance. It is important to seek clarity and perspective on these emerging trends, their implications for all involved and ways for finance professionals to effectively navigate this evolving terrain.

“Recent trends in the commercial real estate market, particularly in renowned technology hubs like San Francisco, have included sharp downward movements in property valuations.”

At the forefront of the massive change are mortgage brokers who in the past had standardized models to assess the risks associated with properties. With fluctuating values, especially in major markets such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York City, these models now need a fresh lens.

Properties that were traditionally perceived as lucrative and virtually recession-proof are now enveloped in layers of uncertainty. This newfound unpredictability calls for a more meticulous and nuanced approach to risk assessment, ensuring that every potential pitfall is accounted for.

Recent trends in the commercial real estate market, particularly in renowned technology hubs like San Francisco, have included sharp downward movements in property valuations. As the backbone of the U.S. tech industry, cities like San Francisco have traditionally commanded premium prices. But current data paints a different picture and indicates a directional shift in macroeconomics.

Office-space dilemma

The commercial real estate market in San Francisco includes a few recent sales of office buildings at shocking discounts. Some properties are being discounted by 60% to 70% or more compared to what they were valued at just a few years ago.

Historically, office spaces in business hubs have been in high demand, driven by a thriving tech community, startups and ancillary businesses. But a combination of factors, including the broader acceptance of remote work following the COVID-19 pandemic and the high operational costs associated with maintaining offices in prime locations, has led to reduced demand and has subsequently pushed down valuations.

“As always, relationships are the bedrock of the mortgage industry. In these times, a network that includes both quality lenders and borrowers is an invaluable asset.”

JLL reported that San Francisco’s office vacancy rate increased to more than 30% in third-quarter 2023. It was the 15th consecutive quarter in which the vacancy rate increased. The dip in the city’s office valuations has had a cascading effect, leading to a deluge of tax appeals. Among the major players, Brookfield Properties requested a 75% reduction in the value of an office tower on Market Street, while Columbia Property Trust sought a 50% cut on three of its office holdings.

Blackstone wasn’t far behind, appealing for reductions of 20% to 25% for three of its waterfront properties. In the fiscal year ending this past June, tax filers in the city appealed for an average reduction of 48% on property assessed at more than $60 billion.

For cities, this wave of appeals spells fiscal strain. San Francisco, which was already grappling with a projected budget deficit of $780 million through 2025, anticipates refunding $167 million due to these property tax appeals.

Cook County troubles

While San Francisco’s declining values and increasing tax appeals create a challenging landscape, property owners thousands of miles away in Cook County, Illinois, are grappling with an entirely different kind of shock: skyrocketing property tax bills. About 40,000 residents in Cook County are filing appeals.

Amid a backdrop of rising inflation that negatively affects consumers, some commercial real estate owners have seen their tax bills double or triple in a single year. Data obtained from the Cook County Treasurer’s Office indicated that tax bills for some 20,000 properties increased by 100% or more between 2021 and 2022. A majority of these properties are residential but some are commercial.

One particularly jarring case came from the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, where a homeowner was served with a property tax bill that jumped 1,000% year over year. Meanwhile, in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, a senior citizen received an 884% hike in her tax bill.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office attributed these sharp increases to neighborhoods that have “undergone significant change” and that many properties were “most likely previously undervalued.” But these explanations tend to provide little consolation. Some business owners told local news services that they might not be able to keep their doors open.

Future implications

The underlying sentiment in Cook County reflects a growing sense of alarm and uncertainty that is being felt in many major cities. While property owners understand the need for periodic tax hikes to finance county services and pensions, they feel cornered by the extremity of these increases, especially given the limited time they have to arrange for payments after receiving their bills.

This may be part of the new normal as real estate markets change and fluctuate, sometimes in extreme ways. This evolving landscape is going to be difficult to navigate, especially for those in the realm of mortgage finance.

Mortgage brokers will need to develop a nuanced approach to risk assessment to find their way through this new environment. And many lending standards will need a fresh look. This includes the loan-to-value (LTV) ratio. A cornerstone in the mortgage domain, LTV ratios are greatly influenced by property valuations.

With declining prices, these ratios are bound to witness significant shifts, which could impact the capacities for potential borrowers. A property that might have fetched a substantially high loan amount a year ago might now merit considerably less, reshaping the lending landscape.

Interest rate impacts

The changes in property valuations don’t stop at risk assessments and LTV ratios. They extend their reach into the very core of property financing — interest rates and loan terms.

Many lenders, in their bid to shield themselves from potential defaults, have adopted a more conservative stance. This could manifest in the form of adjustable interest rates or more stringent loan terms, particularly for commercial mortgages in areas that are experiencing sharp valuation declines.

The age-old adage of not putting all your eggs in one basket seems more relevant than ever. The unpredictability of certain markets underscores the importance of diversification. Instead of heavy investments in a single market or property type, spreading one’s portfolio across different regions and diverse property segments might emerge as the wise strategy. This approach hedges against potential losses in one sector and also offers avenues for gains in others.

The path ahead

In the intricate landscape of today’s real estate market, commercial mortgage brokers are presented with a unique blend of challenges and opportunities. To navigate these waters, a holistic approach that combines traditional expertise with adaptive strategies is essential.

Central to this is an emphasis on a data-driven strategy. As professionals deeply entrenched in the commercial mortgage ecosystem, the ability to harness and interpret current market data is indispensable. Beyond the standard metrics, diving into granular data points can offer pivotal insights, allowing for timely and strategic decisionmaking. In a volatile market, data-informed strategies will set brokers apart.

Data cannot exist in isolation, no matter how comprehensive it is. A deep understanding of local market dynamics is more crucial than ever. Each commercial district holds unique challenges and potential. Leaning into expertise to better discern microtrends can provide a leg up, ensuring that every deal is optimized for success.

As always, relationships are the bedrock of the mortgage industry. In these times, a network that includes both quality lenders and borrowers is an invaluable asset. It ensures seamless transactions, fosters trust and positions you as the go-to expert amid market uncertainties.

It’s crucial to stay attuned to the broader policy landscape as well. Decisionmakers, including city officials, are actively working on frameworks to steady the commercial real estate market. One example is San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s proposal to offer tax incentives that would encourage companies to set up offices in the city. Keeping a finger on the pulse of such policy shifts can offer you and your clients a strategic advantage, ensuring that you’re capitalizing on every available opportunity.

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The path forward for commercial mortgage brokers, while laden with complexities, is also ripe with potential. A combination of data-centric strategies, deep local-market insights, solid relationships and a grasp of evolving policy directions serve as a compass to guide brokers through these times. Their expertise, paired with these tools, will ensure not only survival but success in the evolving commercial real estate landscape.

The intersection of declining valuations and soaring tax appeals has caused uncertainty for commercial real estate owners. By understanding these shifts and their implications, mortgage brokers can chart a course that not only navigates through such challenges but also identifies potential opportunities for future growth and innovation. ●


  • Eric Lam

    Eric Lam is head of business strategy at SF Tax Appeal. He hails from a lineage rooted in commercial real estate, and his background is bolstered by a refined understanding of computer science and programming. As a co-founder of SF Tax Appeal, Lam pursues the market by leveraging the fusion of technology and real estate. Visit

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