Half of Downtown Pittsburgh Office Space Could Be Empty in 4 Years

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via Mike Shedlock

The CRE implosion is picking up steam. Check out the grim stats on Pittsburgh. Unions are also a problem in Pittsburg as they are in Illinois and California.

Downtown Pittsburgh Implosion

The Post Gazette reports nearly half of Downtown Pittsburgh office space could be empty in 4 years.

Confidential real estate information obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette estimates that 17 buildings are in “significant distress” and another nine are in “pending distress,” meaning they are either approaching foreclosure or at risk of foreclosure. Those properties represent 63% of the Downtown office stock and account for $30.5 million in real estate taxes, according to the data.

It also calculates the current office vacancy rate at 27% when subleases are factored in — one of the highest in the country.

And with an additional three million square feet of unoccupied leased space becoming available over the next five years, the vacancy rate could soar to 46% by 2028, based on the data.

Property assessments on 10 buildings, including U.S. Steel Tower, PPG Place, and the Tower at PNC Plaza, have been slashed by $364.4 million for the 2023 tax year, as high vacancies drive down their income.

Another factor has been the steep drop — to 63.5% from 87.5% — in the common level ratio, the number used to compute taxable value in county assessment appeal hearings.

The assessment cuts have the potential to cost the city, the county, and the Pittsburgh schools nearly $8.4 million in tax refunds for that year alone. Downtown represents nearly 25% of the city’s overall tax base.

In response Pittsburgh City Councilman Bobby Wilson wants to remove a $250,000 limit on the amount of tax relief available to a building owner or developer as long as a project creates at least 50 full-time equivalent jobs.

It’s unclear if the proposal will be enough. Annual interest costs to borrow $1 million have soared from $32,500 at the start of the pandemic in 2020 to $85,000 on March 1. Local construction costs have increased by about 30% since 2019.

But the city is doomed if it does nothing. Aaron Stauber, president of Rugby Realty said it will probably empty out Gulf Tower and mothball it once all existing leases expire.

“It’s cheaper to just shut the lights off,” he said. “At some point, we would move on to greener pastures.”

Where’s There’s Smoke There’s Unions

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In addition to the commercial real estate woes, the city is also wrestling with union contracts.

Please consider Sounding the alarm: Pittsburgh Controller’s letter should kick off fiscal soul-searching

It’s only March, and Pittsburgh’s 2024 house-of-cards operating budget is already falling down. That’s the clear implication of a letter sent by new City Controller Rachael Heisler to Mayor Ed Gainey and members of City Council on Wednesday afternoon.

The letter is a rare and welcome expression of urgency in a city government that has fallen in complacency — and is close to falling into fiscal disaster.

The approaching crisis was thrown into sharp relief this week, when City Council approved amendments to the operating budget accounting for a pricey new contract with the firefighters union. The Post-Gazette Editorial Board had predicted that this contract — plus two others yet to be announced and approved — would demonstrate the dishonesty of Mayor Ed Gainey’s budget, and that’s exactly what’s happening: The new contract is adding $11 million to the administration’s artificially low 5-year spending projections, bringing expected 2028 reserves to just barely the legal limit.

But there’s still two big contracts to go, with the EMS union and the Pittsburgh Joint Collective Bargaining Committee, which covers Public Works workers. Worse, there are tens — possibly hundreds — of millions in unrealistic revenues still on the books. On this, Ms. Heisler’s letter only scratched the surface.

Similarly, as we have observed, the budget’s real estate tax revenue projections are radically inconsistent with reality. Due to high vacancies and a sharp reduction in the common level ratio, a significant drop in revenues was predictable — but not reflected in the budget. Ms. Heisler’s estimate of a 20% drop in revenues from Downtown property, or $5.3 million a year, may even be optimistic: Other estimates peg the loss at twice that, or more.

Left unmentioned in the letter are massive property tax refunds the city will owe, as well as fanciful projections of interest income that are inconsistent with the dwindling reserves, and drawing-down of federal COVID relief funds, predicted in the budget itself. That’s another unrealistic $80 million over five years.

Pittsburgh exited Act 47 state oversight after nearly 15 years on Feb. 12, 2018, with a clean bill of fiscal health.

It has already ruined that bill of health.

Act 47 in Pittsburgh

Flashback February 21, 2018Act 47 in Pittsburgh: What Was Accomplished?

Pittsburgh’s tax structure was a much-complained-about topic leading up to the Act 47 declaration. The year following Pittsburgh’s designation as financially distressed under Act 47 it levied taxes on real estate, real estate transfers, parking, earned income, business gross receipts (business privilege and mercantile), occupational privilege and amusements. The General Assembly enacted tax reforms in 2004 giving the city authority to levy a payroll preparation tax in exchange for the immediate elimination of the mercantile tax and the phase out of the business privilege tax. The tax reforms increased the amount of the occupational privilege tax from $10 to $52 (this is today known as the local services tax and all municipalities outside of Philadelphia levy it and could raise it thanks to the change for Pittsburgh).

The coordinators recommended an increase in the deed transfer tax, which occurred in late 2004 (it was just increased again by City Council) and in the real estate tax, which increased in 2015.

Legacy costs, principally debt and underfunded pensions, were the primary focus of the 2009 amended recovery plan. The city’s pension funded ratio has increased significantly from where it stood a decade ago, rising from the mid-30 percent range to over 60 percent at last measurement.

The obvious question? Will the city stick to the steps taken to improve financially and avoid slipping back into distressed status? If Pittsburgh once stood “on the precipice of full-blown crisis,” as described in the first recovery plan, hopefully it won’t return to that position.

The Obvious Question

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I could have answered the 2018 obvious question with the obvious answer. Hell no.

No matter how much you raise taxes, it will never be enough because public unions will suck every penny and want more.

On top of union graft, and insanely woke policies in California, we have an additional huge problem.

Hybrid Work Leaves Offices Empty and Building Owners Reeling

Hybrid work has put office building owners in a bind and could pose a risk to banks. Landlords are now confronting the fact that some of their office buildings have become obsolete, if not worthless.

Meanwhile, in Illinois …

Chicago Teachers’ Union Seeks $50 Billion Despite $700 Million City Deficit

Please note the Chicago Teachers’ Union Seeks $50 Billion Despite $700 Million City Deficit

The CTU wants to raise taxes across the board, especially targeting real estate.

My suggestion, get the hell out.

 

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