Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) recently introduced the Telework Reform Act to codify government definitions of remote work and improve the accountability and transparency of federal telework programs. Meanwhile, the Inspector General of the General Services Administration (GSA) confirmed an audit is underway that is focused on how the agency manages telework and remote positions for over one million federal workers. (Lankford news release, Oct. 12 | Senate bill S. 3015) | Washington Times, Oct. 18)
The Senate legislation would require teleworking federal employees to return to their offices at least twice per two-week pay period. The bill also includes measures that would enforce annual reviews of telework agreements, mandate training for managers, and improve performance management, data accuracy, and cyber-security. (Government Executive, Oct. 13 and Federal News Network, Oct. 17)
Separately, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) is seeking to add an amendment to federal spending bills that would force agencies to provide details on the cost of telework. “There’s no better way to start paying off our nation’s over $33 trillion debt than a clearance sale on unused office space.” (Washington Times, Oct. 18 | BGov, Sept. 14)
A recent letter from the GSA’s Inspector General to Sen. Ernst confirmed the IG’s oversight investigation into the agency’s telework policies. (Washington Times, Oct. 18)
As the largest landlord in the United States, GSA’s Public Buildings Service (PBS) owns and leases more than 8,800 assets and maintains an inventory of more than 370 million square feet of rentable workspace. (GSA Strategic Plan Fiscal Years 2022-2026)
The Senate actions come asa House subcommittee announced it will hold a second hearing on federal agencies’ post-pandemic telework policies. (See Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15 for coverage of the first hearing).
Language similar to the SHOW UP Act is included in House-passed appropriations legislation. (Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15)
The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers for months to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 2022; RER letter to Senate, April 2023)
In April, the White House Office of Personnel Management announced it was ending its “maximum telework” directive to federal agencies (Roundtable Weekly, April 21)
In August, the White House ordered Cabinet officials to increase the return of federal employees to their offices. (Roundtable Weekly, Aug. 11)
Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, repeatedly has emphasized that remote working by federal employees is undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. (Commercial Observerand The Hill, April 14)
House and Senate lawmakers are looking to change current federal workforce telework policies by including language in annual spending bills under consideration by Congress. Yesterday, a House Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee held a hearing on “Oversight of Federal Agencies’ Post-Pandemic Telework Policies” and efforts to mandate federal workers return to their offices. (BGov, Sept. 14)
The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers for months to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12, 2022)
The White House directed Cabinet officials on Aug. 4 to increase the return of federal employees to their offices this fall as a “critical” part of fulfilling the mission of government agencies. (Government Executive, Aug. 7 | Axios, Aug. 4
In the House, Republicans inserted language into the Financial Services-General Government spending bill (H.R. 4664) that would defund any agency that does not return to 2019 telework practices.
The House bill states, “Within 30 days of enactment of this Act, the Committee requires Federal agencies to reinstate and apply their pre-pandemic telework policies, practices, and levels in effect as of December 31, 2019, or they cannot obligate or expend funding for fiscal year 2024.”
The Senate’s Appropriations bill for FY 2024 (S. 2309) is far more flexible, requiring agencies to only “examine how policies for in-person work, telework, and remote work impact agency productivity and performance as well as how effectively and efficiently agencies are able to carry out their missions and serve the public.” (Government Executive, Sept. 5 and FedWeek, July 18)
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) is seeking to add an amendment to federal spending bills that would force agencies to provide details on the cost of telework. “You have bureaucrats that are doing bubble baths during their conference calls for work. So you federal employees that are out there, we’re coming after you,” Ernst said recently. (BGov, Sept. 14)
Today Real Estate Roundtable Chairman Emeritus Bill Rudin (Co-Chairman and CEO, Rudin Management Co.) discussed the return-to-office trend in New York City, the challenge of property conversions, the need to increase the housing supply, and other issues facing CRE on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street.
Marcus & Millichap President and CEO, Hessam Nadji and former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, will lead the live webcast discussion on the economic factors, including Federal Reserve policy, impacting the commercial real estate market. DeBoer, Tom McGee, President and CEO of ICSC and Sharon Wilson Géno, President of NMHC will join the conversation as CRE industry leaders. (Register here)
White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, above, directed Cabinet officials on Aug. 4 to increase the return of federal employees to their offices this fall as a “critical” part of fulfilling the mission of government agencies. The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers for months to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (Government Executive, Aug. 7 | Axios, Aug. 4 | RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12, 2022)
Back-to-Office Fed Policies
Zients informed administration officials, “As we look towards the fall, your agencies will be implementing increases in the amount of in-person work for your team. This is a priority of the president — and I am looking to each of you to aggressively execute this shift in September and October.” (Reuters, Aug 5 and The Washington Post, Aug. 4)
Empty federal offices have depressed local economies, according to a July 18 Federal News Network (FNN) broadcast. (Listen or read transcript from Federal Drive with Tom Temin)
An updated list of agencies’ return-to-office policies is available online through the Federal News Network. Meanwhile, Republican leaders on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee have also urged agency officials to encourage a return-to-office, threatening this week to “resort to compulsory measures” in their probe of federal agencies’ telework polices.
Roundtable Weighs In
In an April letter to all U.S. Senators, Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, emphasized, “The executive branch’s current policies are undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. Federal agencies should return to their pre-pandemic workplace practices.” (RER letter to the Senate, April 12).
In a similar letter to President Biden in December, DeBoer noted that federal telework policies were ignoring “the negative impacts of remote work on cities and communities, labor productivity, and U.S. economic competitiveness, as well as the quality of government services.” (Commercial Observer, April 14 and RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12)
In the public sector, federal government offices remain largely unoccupied, according to a new report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that revealed most agencies are using their headquarters less than a quarter of the time.
The GAO report shows that 17 of 24 agencies’ buildings were at 25% capacity or less after an analysis of 21.5 million square feet (SF) of usable federal office space during three weeks of Q1.
The empty federal offices have depressed local economies, according to a July 18 Federal News Network (FNN) broadcast. (Listen or read transcript of Federal Drive with Tom Temin)
In April, The Real Estate Roundtablewrote to members of the Senate about the need the federal government to end its “active encouragement of remote working for federal employees” and for federal agencies to return to their pre-pandemic workplace practices. (RER letter to the Senate, April 12)
Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, sent a similar request to President Biden last December, noting that federal telework polices were ignoring “the negative impacts of remote work on cities and communities, labor productivity, and U.S. economic competitiveness, as well as the quality of government services.” (Commercial Observer, April 14 and RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12, 2022).
A study released in May by New York University and Columbia University researchers shows how the disruption from remote work could impact municipalities. “The fiscal hole left by declining office and retail property tax revenues would need to be plugged by raising tax rates or cutting government spending. Both would affect the attractiveness of the city as a place of residence and work.” (Work From Home and the Office Real Estate Apocalypse, May 15 and Roundtable Weekly, May 26)
An updated study released this month by New York University and Columbia University researchers concludes “remote work is shaping up to massively disrupt the value of commercial office real estate in the short and medium term.” (Work From Home and the Office Real Estate Apocalypse, May 15)
Municipal Finances and Financial Stability
The researchers—Arpit Gupta, Vrinda Mittal, and Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh—find a $506.3 billion value destruction for the U.S. office market between 2019 and 2022. Post-pandemic hybrid work arrangements have led to large drops in lease revenue, occupancy, lease renewal rates, and market rents in the commercial office sector, according to the updated research, affecting CRE cash flow at a time when the Federal Reserve has aggressively raised interest rates. (Fortune, May 25)
The report notes, “Higher quality buildings were buffered against these trends due to a flight to quality, while lower quality office is at risk of becoming a stranded asset. These valuation changes have repercussions for local public finances and financial stability.”
The report also concludes that the fiscal hole left by declining office and retail property tax revenues may lead municipalities to increase taxes or cuts in spending—negatively affecting the attractiveness of cities as places to live and work, which may risk the activation of an “urban doom loop.” The authors note, “Future research should explore these implications and study the role for local and federal policy.”
Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi, above, noted in a series of tweets this week that CRE prices fell in the first quarter of 2023 for the first time in more than a decade, led by drops in multifamily residences and office buildings, according to Moody’s Repeat Sales Index. (Zandi will be a guest speaker at The Roundtable’s all-member Annual Meeting on June 13 in Washington, DC.)
“Lots more price declines are coming with prices expected to be off 10% peak-to-trough by mid-decade. Demand for space is weak due to remote work and online retailing. Lots of multifamily units are being built. And credit to refinance and purchase properties is tough to get,” Zandi tweeted.
Bloomberg reported on May 17 that Zandi noted if the US economy slips into a recession, the price declines could get worse. “We’re on a razor’s edge here,” Zandi said.
Roundtable Request for Flexibility
The Real Estate Roundtable continues to emphasize the need for federal regulators to allow more flexibility for lenders and borrowers to restructure commercial real estate loans facing potential default—as the Federal Reserve reported recently that CRE poses a potential risk to financial stability. (Fed’s Financial Stability Report, May 2023)
Real Estate Roundtable Chair John Fish, above, (Chairman and CEO, SUFFOLK) summarized the industry’s views in a May 9 MarketWatch article, noting that the Fed and regulatory agencies should grant more flexibility for borrowers, including corporate real estate developers, to restructure CRE loans.
In addition to Mark Zandi and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason Smith (R-MO), The Roundtable’s Annual Meeting next month will also include Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), and other policymakers.
On Tuesday, the White House Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced that it is ending its “maximum telework” directive to federal agencies.
Federal Workforce and Telework
At the outset of the pandemic, OPM issued a government-wide announcement that federal agencies should “operate as ‘open with maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees…'” The April 18 memo from OPM Director Kiran Ahuja states that OPM will withdraw its maximum telework directive effective May 15, 2023. (Gov’t. Executive, Apr 19)
“COVID-19 is not driving decisions regarding how Federal agencies work and serve the public as it was at the outset of the pandemic,” wrote Director Ahuja in his memo to the chief human capital officers of federal agencies.
The announcement by OPM comes on the heels of guidance released last week from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) informing federal agencies that they have 30 days to develop plans to “substantially increase” their employees in-person work at headquarters.
Both the OMB and OPM actions followed appeals from The Real Estate Roundtable for the federal government to end its “active encouragement of remote working for federal employees.” (RER letter to the Senate).
“The executive branch’s current policies are undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. Federal agencies should return to their pre-pandemic workplace practices,” wrote Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, in an April 12 letter to all U.S. Senators.
In a similar letter to President Biden in December, DeBoer wrote that federal telework polices were ignoring “the negative impacts of remote work on cities and communities, labor productivity, and U.S. economic competitiveness, as well as the quality of government services.” (Commercial Observer, April 14 and RER letter to President Biden).
“This week’s OPM announcement is another important step forward for our communities, small businesses, and local tax bases that depend on vibrant city centers,” said DeBoer. (Roundtable Weekly, April 14)
Low Office Occupancy Persists
Kastle reported on Monday that office occupancy rates for 10 U.S. cities fell to an average of 46%, a weekly dip of 2.2 points that reflects consistent rates of under 50% since last month. (Kastle’s Back to Work Barometer, April 17)
Real estate investor Sam Zell commented this week on the state of the office market and remote work, predicting a reversal in telework trends. (GlobeSt, April 20)
“We’re all reading about layoffs in the newspapers. It will be interesting to see what percentage of those who lost their jobs worked from home and what percentage of them are people who came into the office,” said Zell. “The office situation will change. People need to be together to develop their skills.”
The impact of return-to-the office on the industry, communities, and the economy will be a focus of discussion during The Roundtable’s April 24-25 Spring Meeting in Washington, DC. (Roundtable-level members only).
The White House informed federal agencies yesterday that they have 30 days to develop plans to “substantially increase” their employees in-person work at headquarters. The new guidance is an important step forward that is supported by The Real Estate Roundtable, which sent letters to President Joe Biden in December and the Senate this week about the need to get more federal workers back to the workplace. (Commercial Observerand The Hill, April 14 | Roundtable Weekly and Letter to President Biden, Dec. 2022)
Remote Work & Agency Policies
Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Deputy Director Jason Miller commented, “The guidance we are releasing today directs agencies to refresh their Work Environment plans and policies—with the general expectation that agency headquarters will continue to substantially increase in-person presence in the office—while also conducting regular assessments to determine what is working well, what is not, and what can be improved,” Miller wrote. (OMB blog post, April 13)
The OMB guidance also informs federal agencies that the impact on local communities should be considered when determining future physical space requirements. The memo’s examples for measuring community needs includes the “location and use of agency-occupied office space and other real estate.” (Page 19, OMB guidance, April 13)
The OMB memo to federal agenciescomes after President Biden signed a bipartisan congressional resolution on April 10 that immediately ended the three-year Covid-19 national emergency declaration. Many of the two million civilian federal employees began working remotely after the original March 2020 declaration. (Reuters, April 13)
A White House official told CNN, “To be clear, ending the National Emergency will not impact the planned wind-down of the Public Health Emergency on May 11.”
Impact on Communities & Real Estate
Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, stated, “The OMB remote work guidance is a welcome step toward increasing in-person work by Federal Agency employees. Widespread Federal agency remote work was appropriate during the COVID-19 national emergency. With that emergency now officially behind us it is very appropriate that the Federal Government now asks its Agencies to refresh their remote work policies with an eye toward less remote work.”
Roundtable Senior Vice President Ryan McCormick added, “However, welcome as this new guidance is, more concrete action may be required for the new guidance to have meaningful, positive impact on communities, small businesses, and the overall health of our nation’s cities. We look forward to understanding the true impact of the new guidance, and we will continue to offer positive insights into why strong workplace attendance is so important.”
In December, DeBoer and Real Estate Roundtable Chair John Fish (SUFFOLK Chairman & CEO) urged President Biden “to direct federal agencies to enhance their consideration of the impact of agency employee remote working on communities, surrounding small employers, transit systems, local tax bases and other important considerations.” (Roundtable letter, Dec. 12, 2022)
In January, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser reiterated The Roundtable’s views about the need to get more federal workers back to the workplace and convert underutilized commercial real estate spaces into affordable housing. (Roundtable Weekly, Jan. 6)
Roundtable Calls for Senate Action
The Roundtable on Wednesday also called upon all U.S. Senators to suspend current federal telework rules and return agencies to their pre-pandemic workplace practices. (ConnectCRE, April 13 and Roundtable letter to the Senate)
The April 12 letter explained how remote work is undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. The letter also notes that the vast majority of state and local governments, congressional offices, and private sector employers are instituting return-to-workplace policies.
Last week, The Roundtable’s DeBoer commented on federal remote work and potential Senate action. “We’re trying to get Congress to pass a rule that will require the agencies to go back to pre-pandemic rules. Now, if they’re at home and they’re not downtown, the small businesses suffer, the transportation suffers, safety issues suffer, and the tax base suffers. And so we’re focused on getting people back to the office as much as possible.” (Walker Webcast, 32:58)
The impact of return-to-the office on the industry, communities, and the economy will be a focus of discussion during The Roundtable’s April 24-25 Spring Meeting in Washington, DC. (Roundtable-level members only).
The federal government is the largest tenant of office spaces throughout the U.S. and its General Services Administration (GSA) leases over 43 million square feet, which equals one-third of the overall market. (Trepp, March 31 and Commercial Observer, Feb. 27)
Trepp notes, “The strategy the government deploys to get its workers back to the office will have a cascading effect on the rest of the CRE market.”
A recent Washington, DC financial forecast projected taxrevenue will plunge nearly a half-billion dollars from 2024-2026 due to remote work’s influence, reduced office transactions, and dropping asset values. (BisNow and DCist, March 1)
Occupancy Rate Comparison by Geography
The Trepp table above shows the 20 MSAs with the largest outstanding loan balances for properties that have federal, state, and municipal governments as tenants. (Table data points in Excel here)
The analysis included 1,365 government-occupied properties across 837 loans, with a total outstanding loan balance of $25.9 billion. The majority of these loans with exposure to one or more government tenants are backed by office or mixed-use properties.
Prolonged uncertainty about return-to-office policies for GSA entities may eventually reduce current office space allocations. If government tenants vacate some of their offices, net operating income (NOI) could fall, adding more pressure on the loans that back these properties.
The Real Estate Roundtable wrote to President Joe Biden last December about the need for federal employees to return to their workplaces—and encouraged the administration to support legislation that could incentivize the conversion of underutilized buildings to more productive use such as housing. (Roundtable Weekly, Feb. 3 | GlobeSt and CoStar, Dec. 15, 2022)
Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer discussed the remote work issue this week on the Walker Webcast, hosted by Roundtable Member Willy Walker (Chairman & CEO, Walker & Dunlop).
DeBoer commented on the impact of employees working from home. “If they’re not downtown, the small businesses suffer. The parking garages suffer. Transportation suffers, safety issues suffer, and the tax base suffers,” he said. “This is why we’re focused on getting people back to the office as much as possible.” (Connect CRE, April 5)
Trends in remote work, its ongoing impact on commercial real estate markets, and the SHOW UP Act will be topics for discussion during The Roundtable’s Spring Meeting on April 24-25 in Washington, DC (Roundtable-level members only).
The number of office assets facing loan defaults or entering special servicing is growing in major markets as remote work and rising interest rates continue to exert pressures on metropolitan areas and city budgets, according to reports this week in Commercial Observer and Bloomberg.
Workplace occupancy rates are measured in a weekly “Back to Work Barometer” series, above, by building security provider Kastle Systems, whose March 6 report showed a 10-city average occupancy rate of 50.1%. (Bloomberg, March 9)
Kastle also reported that the Washington, DC metro area’s workplace occupancy rate registered 46.6%. Remote work’s influence on the DC tax base, reduced office transactions, and dropping asset values are projected to decrease the city’s tax revenue by nearly a half-billion dollars from 2024-2026. (Roundtable Weekly, March 4)
During a March 7 Senate Banking Committee hearing, Fed Chairman Jay Powell addressed a question from Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) about low office occupancy rates in many major cities. Powell said the issue is “an area that requires a lot of monitoring,” noting that some smaller banks may have more significant exposure to CRE than large banks. “I’d say we’re on the case,” he added. (CQ News, March 7 and CQhearing transcript)
The issue of converting commercial buildings into affordable housing and mixed-use properties was also addressed during a Senate Finance Committee hearing this week by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who co-sponsored the Revitalizing Downtowns Act to encourage conversions. Hearing witness Sharon Wilson Géno—president of the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC)—noted a recent joint NMHC and Urban Land Institute study on adapting CRE to residential use.
The expansion of remote work in Washington, DC has dramatically reduced tax revenue from office buildings, which poses “a serious long-term risk to the District’s economy and its tax base,” according to a Feb. 28 revenue estimate from the city’s CFO Glen Lee. (Washington Post, March 1)
$464M Revenue Drop
DC’s tax revenue is projected to plunge nearly a half-billion dollars from 2024-2026 due to remote work’s influence, reduced office transactions, and dropping asset values. (BisNow and DCist, March 1)
The quarterly report notes that tax revenue from District commercial properties —particularly large office buildings valued over $50 million—significantly declined in the past fiscal year and was the main reason for a reduction in overall real property tax revenue in FY 2022.
The city’s forecast, according to Lee’s letter to District Mayor Muriel Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, has also been “revised downward by $81 million in FY 2024, $183 million in FY 2025, and by approximately $200 million in FY 2026.”
The report states that although real property revenue from hotels, restaurants and retail properties is expected to continue on a path of recovery, “this growth is expected to be more than offset by a deeper loss in tax revenue from office properties.”
The Roundtable View
Mayor Bowser this week stated, “With the ongoing impacts of telework and national political uncertainties, we face another significant test to our local economy.” (Bowser Statement, Feb. 28)
The letter from Real Estate Roundtable Chair John Fish,above right, (SUFFOLK Chairman & CEO) and President & CEO Jeff DeBoer, left, also urged Biden “to direct federal agencies to enhance their consideration of the impact of agency employee remote working on communities, surrounding small employers, transit systems, local tax bases and other important considerations.” (Roundtable letter, Dec. 12, 2022)
City officials in New York, Washington, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and Boston have also recently encouraged city workers to return to their downtown offices. (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24)
The DC revenue forecast also warned, “The population decline observed during the pandemic, coupled with the increasing prevalence of remote work, may lead to demographic shifts and economic repercussions. With fewer commuters, there may be less demand for public transportation and office space, leading to a potential reduction in real estate prices. Policymakers will need to carefully monitor and respond to these changes.”