For anyone counting the days until the tech boom that has transformed San Francisco over the past decade comes to an end, the latest commercial real estate data offers just a shred of hope that there is the slightest easing of the frenzy.
Emphasis on “shred” and “slightest” and “easing.”
Because, in reality, the latest quarterly San Francisco Office Snapshot from commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield paints a picture of a city in which tech firms are still scratching each others’ eyes out in a fight for space. And with millions of square feet of office space approved or under construction to accommodate tech firms over the next decade, San Franciscans can expect that the city will expand annually for years to come to make room for thousands of tech workers.
“Every company has a tech component to it these days,” said Robert Sammons, Cushman’s regional director for Northern California Research. “If tech goes down, then all the industries are going down. And we don’t see that. We see a lot of very strong tech companies. Will some fail? Sure. But there will be many that succeed.”
This is all great news for city leaders who worked hard and changed tax laws to make the city more welcoming to the tech industry. It likely means the city’s macroeconomy and its tax coffers will continue to grow and grow.
But for folks worried about social pressures like evictions, housing costs, transportation infrastructure…Well, keep worrying.
Many of the latter group were probably filled with a glimmer of hope earlier this year amid reports that venture capital firms were turning the screws on startups, pushing them to carve out a path toward profitability, and warning that the funding spigot may slow to a trickle. As news of layoffs and closing startups filled tech news sites, it started the inevitable chatter about whether there had been a bubble and if it was finally popping.
Those third-quarter numbers from Cushman offer good insight into just what is, and is not, going on. If you look at the overall vacancy rate, you might breathe a sigh of relief that it jumped to 7.7 percent in the quarter. That’s up from 5.9 percent at the end of last year and would seem to be evidence that indeed the more measured venture capital environment is finally taking the steam out of the tech boom. On top of that, leasing activity for the third quarter was only 875,000 square feet, the lowest Q3 since 2001.
But those numbers turn out to be misleading. This is in part because, as many tech firms shuffle into new headquarters or stumble financially, they are subleasing out more and more space. But that sublease space is getting snapped up almost instantaneously.
For instance, woebegone Twitter, which had helped turn the city’s Mid-Market district around several years go, had even bigger plans to expand and keep expanding. But now that it has hit a wall, the company had to put 180,000 square feet of office space on the market to sublease.
Though he can’t reveal the name yet, Sammons said the space was almost immediately grabbed by a new tech tenant. This wasn’t surprising to real estate watchers, because currently there are companies, primarily tech, looking for about 4 million square feet of office space in a city with 77 million square feet and a vacancy rate that still remains about half of what it was four years ago.
“Has it slowed down a little bit?” “Absolutely. But is that such bad thing? I think that it’s a cooling down process, not a hard stop.”
Indeed, there are several bigger leasing deals with tenants that Sammons can’t reveal that are expected to close in the current quarter and should keep the 2016 commercial real estate numbers about on par with 2015, one of the hottest years on record. Among those currently on the hunt is one tech tenant who has never had space in San Francisco and who wants 300,000 square feet.
“The fourth quarter will definitely be better than the third quarter,” Sammons said. “I can almost guarantee that.”
The 3.4 percent August unemployment rate noted in the latest Cushman report also supports the notion that San Francisco remains ultra popular with tech firms. That number was actually down from 3.6 percent in July, and down from 3.5 percent one year ago. The latest jobs numbers counted 961,800 private sector jobs in San Francisco, up 2.4 percent from a year ago and a new all-time record for the city.
So far this year, big tech deals include Twitch leasing 180,000 square feet, Fitbit leasing 305,500 square feet, Lyft leasing 206,000 square feet, and Stripe leasing 102,400 square feet. Sammons points out that Twitch, now owned by Amazon, gives the Seattle ecommerce giant its first substantive presence in the city, should it want to expand even more in Northern California. Same goes with LinkedIn, which has a new San Francisco office and a new corporate parent: Microsoft.
Given this picture, developers are rushing to accommodate more and more tech jobs. Through the third quarter, new construction on 1.5 million square feet was completed, the most since 2008. Amazingly, 96 percent of that new office space was leased by the time it was opened. Another 3 million square feet of office space will open next year, and 40 percent of that has been leased, according to the Cushman report. As that space opens up, it will likely drive temporary bumps in the vacancy rate, but don’t let that fool you.
San Francisco remains more popular than ever for startups. And everyone, it seems, wants in.
The real question now is whether San Francisco can get ahead of all this with new housing and whether tech startups will continue to spill over into other cities, like Oakland, as housing grows more expensive and harder to find. As more of those SF tech workers look toward the East Bay and the Peninsula for housing, public transportation like BART and Caltrain are stretched ever thinner.
Sammons said he’s not losing any sleep over the state of the commercial real estate market, and won’t for many years. It’s these social and economic dimensions that he says pose the great challenges.
“I’m not concerned about a tech bubble,” he said. “My concerns for San Francisco are cost of living and the transportation infrastructure. It’s a question of what the quality of life will be.”