A headline of an analysis of office space and vacancies in the United States suggests “American offices are half-empty.” Is this true? Here is how the analysis starts:
From Dallas and Minneapolis to New York and Los Angeles, offices sit vacant or underused, showing the staying power of the work-from-home era. But cleardesks and quiet break rooms aren’t just a headache for bosses eager to gather teams in person.
Investors and regulators, on high alert for signs of trouble in the financial system following recent bank failures, are now homing in on the downturn in the $20 trillion US commercial real estate market.
After detailing the economic effects of this, particularly how banks might be affected, here is some evidence for the headline:
Office properties have been getting hammered the hardest. Hybrid work remains popular, affecting the rents many building owners can charge. Average occupancy of offices in the United States is still less than half March 2020 levels, according to data from security provider Kastle.
And then it is back to the possible fallout, including:
Trouble may build as the economy slows. Hill thinks US commercial property valuations could fall roughly 20% to 25% this year. For offices, declines could be even steeper, topping 30%.
The headline suggests half of offices are empty. The primary piece of evidence in the article says that average office occupancy “is still less than half March 2020 levels.” Does that mean average office occupancy was 100% in March 2020? Does this mean half of office buildings have no people in them? Even if the real figure about empty offices is 30% or 40%, this would be a big number with lots of ramifications.
An earlier article on the same site had a similar headline and evidence. From early March 2023, the headline: “Offices are more than 50% filled for the first time since the pandemic started.” The evidence:
Office occupancy across 10 major US cities crossed 50.4% of pre-pandemic levels for the first time since early 2020, according to security swipe tracker Kastle Systems. That marks the first time occupancy has crossed the 50% mark since March 2020, when many offices sent workers home because of Covid.
Again, the comparison is pre-COVID levels, not necessarily 50% of total possible occupancy. Again, this is a significant change that is a little different than claiming offices are more than 50% filled.
This all might be pedantic, but, if we should pay attention to offices, working from home, and the consequences of changes to commercial real estate, what are the actual figures regarding how much office space is occupied and/or leased?