One-Sixth of U.S. Office Space Under Construction Is Here, but Need Is Waning
Construction giant Skanska AB is developing two office buildings in Houston’s “Energy Corridor.” The one that is nearly complete is mostly leased; the other building doesn’t yet have any tenants. Photo: Michael Stravato for Wall Street Journal. Article by Eliot Brown
HOUSTON—The jagged skyline of this oil-rich city is poised to be the latest victim of falling crude prices.
As the energy sector boomed in recent years, developers flocked to Houston, so much so that one-sixth of all the office space under construction in the entire U.S. is in the metropolitan area of the Texas city.
But now, the need for more offices is drying up, thanks to a drop in oil prices that has spun energy companies from an outlook of optimism and growth to anxiety and cutbacks. Oil prices have fallen by more than 50% since June.
Demand for office space is “going to basically stop,” said Walter Page, director of office research at property data firm CoStar Group Inc. “It hurts a lot more when you have a lot of construction.”
By the end of 2014, construction had started on about 80 buildings with about 18 million square feet of office space in the greater Houston area, according to CoStar. Many of the buildings were planned or started when oil was above $100 a barrel. On Tuesday, oil futures traded around $50. The amount under construction is equal to Kansas City, Mo.’s entire downtown office market and is 16% of all U.S. office development under way.
The rush of building has created thousands of jobs—not only at building sites, but also at window manufacturers, concrete companies and restaurants that feed the workers.
But just as the wave of office-space supply approaches, energy companies, including Halliburton Co. , Baker Hughes Inc., Weatherford International and BP PLC, have collectively announced that more than 23,000 jobs would be cut, with many of them expected to be in Houston.
Fewer workers, of course, means less need for office space. Employers have rushed to sublease space in recent months, with 5.2 million square feet of space on the market as of last month, up about 1 million square feet from mid-2014, according to brokerage firm Savills Studley. BP, for example, is trying to sublet 240,000 square feet of space at its campus in the Westlake neighborhood, which represents about 11% of BP’s space at the campus, according to CoStar. A BP spokesman said the company is “consolidating” its footprint.
Conditions could improve if oil prices rise. The International Energy Agency on Tuesday said oil companies’ recent cutbacks in production will likely slow the growth of U.S. oil output, which in turn would lead to a rebound in prices.
But the current building boom is Houston’s biggest since the 1980s, when an oil bust, coupled with a rash of empty skyscrapers, made Houston a national symbol of overbuilding. Then, armed with debt from a banking sector eager to lend, developers brought a tidal wave of building to Houston, in some years increasing the office stock by well over 10%. Vacancy rates shot up past 30% from single digits, property values plummeted and landlords defaulted on mortgages.
That contributed to a wave of failures for banks stuffed with commercial-property loans. More than 425 Texas institutions between 1980 and 1989 failed, including nine of the state’s 10 largest banks.
Few are predicting a shock near that scale this time. Even if oil prices stay low, the local economy is more diversified than in the 1980s with sectors such as health care and higher education comprising a larger share of the workforce. In addition, new construction represents about 6.3% all the area’s total office stock, and there is far less speculative construction done before a tenant is signed up.
“Everybody here in Houston is waiting to exhale,” said Michael Scheurich, chief executive of general contractor Arch-Con Corp., which currently is building two midsize office projects in the area. Mr. Scheurich said his company has grown to about 80 employees from fewer than 25 in 2011 amid the construction boom. Now he is hoping the local economy will have “a soft landing.”
Still, cranes abound throughout Houston, thanks to publicly traded real-estate companies, pension funds and other interests like Swedish construction giant Skanska AB, which are funding construction without as much reliance on debt as in the 1980s.