Commercial Magazine

Riding Out the Storm

The office-sector meltdown brings challenges and opportunities

By Eric Lam

Across the United States, cities are grappling with an unprecedented crisis in the office sector, underscored by staggering drops in commercial real estate values. Recent reports have painted a grim picture, with total losses potentially reaching as high as $1 trillion. This downturn has been felt in many areas, including the California market, where large defaults in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have underscored the sector’s volatility.

Brookfield Properties last year defaulted on loans worth about $1.1 billion that were tied to three towers in downtown Los Angeles. Similarly, Veritas Investments in San Francisco defaulted on about $1 billion of loans that were backed by more than 2,450 apartments in the city. Moreover, Columbia Property Trust, which is owned by the investment management firm PIMCO, defaulted on $1.7 billion in loans to buildings in various places, including San Francisco and New York City.

The defaults are being caused by a variety of reasons, including cratering demand and subsequent loss in value for office properties across the country. Such declining property values are having a major impact on lending practices by banks and other financial institutions. There is also a correlation between property devaluation and the tightening of credit facilities. Despite this environment, however, brokers can help their clients navigate these complexities and potentially discover opportunities.

Declining values

A major example of the trend in declining property values is San Francisco’s commercial real estate sector. This once-booming market is suffering a severe downturn.

Wells Fargo sold a 13-story tower in San Francisco’s Financial District last year for a reported $45 million. The building was originally purchased by the bank in 2005 for $108 million. Back in 2022 Wells Fargo listed the building for $160 million, but now they’re being forced to take a $63 million loss as the market has changed substantially.

This sale is not an isolated incident, but part of a larger pattern of declining property values in the region. In New York City, high-profile defaults are on the rise.

According to a New York University and Columbia University study released last year, one in five office spaces in the city were sitting empty. The real estate firm JLL reported that more than 500 commercial buildings in Manhattan have lost value since their purchase, and 112 buildings are worth less than the total debt they are carrying, according to the firm’s internal models based on second-quarter 2023 figures.

Chicago is witnessing a similar trend of reduced valuations and increased default risks among office properties. A 200,000-square-foot office building in the city’s Clybourn Corridor sold for $20 million in February of this year. That price was down 78% from the building’s $90 million value when it was last sold in 2004.

The implication of major commercial buildings being faced with slashed values is profound, influencing not only the commercial real estate market but also the broader financial landscape, particularly in terms of lending practices. The impact of these challenges is twofold: on one hand, property owners are facing financial strains due to lower income from rents. On the other hand, the overall market is experiencing a downturn, affecting investor confidence and future developments.

Impact on lending

The interplay between the tumultuous commercial market and the banking sector’s response to it is complex and evolving. It underscores the broader economic challenges facing major U.S. cities. The downturn in property values, driven by changing work habits and an oversupply of office space, has precipitated a financial crisis in municipalities which are seeing lower tax returns. The crisis is also hurting the confidence of lenders and investors working in the office sector.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned in March that the current commercial real estate crisis will result in bank failures and that these issues will take years to solve. The troubles at various banks, including New York Community Bank, underscore the vulnerability of the financial sector to the shockwaves emanating from the commercial market. Small, regional and mid-size banks, which have the bulk of commercial real estate loans, will face the most difficulties.

Some in the industry believe the bank troubles will get much worse. Scott Rechler, CEO of the real estate company RXR, wrote in a white paper that he expects there to be 500 or more fewer banks in the U.S. during the next two years. Not all will fail. Some will be forced to consolidate.

Rigorous assessments

Declining property values are not only affecting the immediate financial health of property owners and developers but also having a cascading effect on the broader economy. Lenders are responding to these challenges by tightening their belts, a move that includes imposing higher interest rates, demanding more stringent loan-to-value ratios, and conducting more rigorous assessments of borrowers’ financial health.

These measures, while designed to protect the banks from potential defaults, also reduce lending to the commercial sector which needs the financing for new projects and to refinance trillions of dollars in existing debt that is maturing in the next few years. This conservative approach by lenders is reshaping lending practices nationwide, with long-term implications that could hinder the sector’s recovery.

The downturn in commercial real estate is both a symptom and a cause of wider financial and economic shifts, with significant implications for lenders, originators, property owners and the broader economy. As we move forward, the ability of these stakeholders to navigate the complexities of this landscape will be crucial in determining the future of the office sector and its role in the post-pandemic world.

Potential opportunities

Despite the current troubles, there is a sense of optimism among some investors and real estate professionals. The reduced property values present an opportunity for local investors and firms to acquire assets at lower prices, anticipating a future market rebound. This optimism, however, must be balanced with a realistic understanding of the current market dynamics, including the cautious stance being taken by banks and lenders.

The decline in property values may present a unique window for strategic acquisitions. Properties in prime locations may now be within reach at lower prices, offering a rare chance for investors to secure valuable assets at a discount.

This period of adjustment could pave the way for a robust portfolio that stands to benefit significantly from a future market upswing. Brokers play a crucial role here, guiding their clients toward properties with strong fundamentals — good location, potential for high-occupancy rates and versatility in usage — that are likely to appreciate in value over the long term.

As the demand for traditional office spaces recalibrates, properties that offer flexibility or can be repurposed to meet emerging market needs, such as housing, e-commerce logistics centers or hybrid workspaces, will become increasingly valuable. Brokers can offer crucial insights into local zoning laws, potential for conversions and market demands, positioning their clients at the forefront of these transformative trends.

Proactive approach

Waiting for the market to bottom out before making a move, while a cautious approach, may not necessarily be the most advantageous strategy. Market timing is notoriously difficult to predict, and opportunities may be lost to those who hesitate.

Instead, a proactive approach, focusing on a thorough market analysis, due diligence and strategic positioning, can yield better dividends. Brokers, with their finger on the pulse of the market, can facilitate this by providing timely data, insights into market trends and forecasting to help clients make informed decisions.

Furthermore, leveraging alternative financing options becomes crucial as traditional lending tightens. Exploring private equity, crowdfunding platforms or partnership models can provide the necessary capital for investment opportunities that arise during this downturn. Brokers can assist their clients in navigating these alternative financing landscapes, identifying potential partners and structuring deals that align with their investment goals.

● ● ●

It’s clear that the road to recovery will be complex and the resilience and adaptability of the office sector will be put to the test. With strategic adjustments and innovative solutions, there’s hope for a rebound. The path forward remains uncertain, however, demanding careful navigation by all stakeholders involved.

At the same time, this downturn is not devoid of opportunities. It demands a shift in perspective, from viewing the market through a lens of caution to one of strategic opportunity. Brokers, with their expertise and market knowledge, are pivotal in guiding their clients through this complex landscape.

By identifying undervalued assets, advocating for adaptive use of spaces, and facilitating access to alternative financing, brokers can help their clients not only navigate the current market, but emerge from it stronger, with a diversified and resilient portfolio. The path forward is one of innovation, adaptation, and strategic investment, laying the groundwork for future success in the commercial real estate market. ●


  • 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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