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San Francisco slow recovery from Covid is struggle for small business


A billboard funded by Airbnb shows opposition to Proposition F in downtown San Francisco, California.

Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images

Marshall Luck’s chiropractic and massage practice in downtown San Francisco survived the Covid-19 pandemic due to government stimulus money and a hefty amount of debt. But well over two years since lockdowns swept across town, his business is barely back to 70% of pre-pandemic levels.

Like his many small business neighbors — people who have managed to remain afloat — Luck has been waiting for San Francisco to rebound. He relies on tech employees at massive employers like Google and Salesforce, which is a challenge because those firms are being flexible with return-to-office demands.

While big cities across the country struggle to completely get better from the pandemic, San Francisco is on one other level, as tech firms exit leases and residents bolt for cheaper locations. San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s office estimates that one-third of San Francisco’s workforce is now distant and out of doors of town. Last yr, that resulted in a whopping $400 million hit to tax revenue, based on the Office of the Controller.

Downtown is finally showing some life. There’s more foot traffic, fewer stores are boarded up, and a few restaurants and cafes that closed have been replaced with recent tenants. But vast, once-vibrant swaths of commerce remain dormant, and merchants like Luck are in a fog of uncertainty, left hoping that employees will eventually come back.

“Most of our patient population is the larger businesses, and as they return, it’s going to assist us stay stable,” Luck told CNBC in an interview. “That’s what we’re kind of hanging on for — that recovery.”

Deepening the struggle is the truth that Covid is not going away. With the rise of the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, the U.S. is currently reporting a median of 126,000 cases per day as of this week, greater than double the number at the tip of April.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks at a press conference regarding the following steps she will probably be taking to switch three school board members who were successfully recalled at City Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022 in San Francisco, California.

Gabrielle Lurie | San Francisco Chronicle | Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

Bay Area commuters who take public transportation still prefer to remain home. The common each day ridership on Bay Area Rapid Transit plunged from over 400,000 in 2019 to under 80,000 last yr. As of May, the number had ticked as much as near 136,000 per weekday, based on BART’s website.

“We’re still wearing masks in our office, so it’s still a really present thing in our psyche,” Luck said.

Transportation data mirrors the true estate picture. The office emptiness rate in San Francisco rose to 24.2% within the second quarter from 23.8% within the prior period, based on CBRE research. Other major cities are at historically high levels, but still below San Francisco.

Manhattan reached an all-time high within the quarter of 15.2%. Downtown Atlanta is at 22.8%, Chicago hit 21.2%, Los Angeles touched 21.8% and Seattle is at 20.3%, CBRE said.

“We’re slower than Latest York, we’re slower than Chicago, and it does should relate to being so heavily depending on tech,” said Robert Sammons, regional director of Cushman and Wakefield’s research team within the Northwest.

Mayor Breed told CNBC in a recent interview that “most employees want some level of earn a living from home as they returned to the office and quite a lot of employers are providing that as an option.”

Salesforce, San Francisco’s largest employer, said last week it was cutting its office space in town yet again, and is now listing 40% of a 43-story constructing that’s across the road from the important Salesforce Tower. Coinbase closed its San Francisco office last yr, and Lyft pushed its return to office until 2023 on the earliest. Most firms which have reopened did so with optional attendance.

Even at Google, one in every of the more vocal firms in tech in relation to getting staffers back to the office, has retreated. Staff pushed back on demands, citing the record profit the corporate generated last yr. Leadership said it’s approved 85% of requests for relocation or everlasting distant work.

‘Have not been in a position to get a deal done’

Tech firms with long leases are feeling the pain, as San Francisco industrial real estate properties have, on average, fallen to between 30% and 40% below pre-pandemic prices, market experts said.

Global logistics company Flexport, which has a centrally situated office on Market Street that after housed 500 employees, hasn’t been in a position to discover a tenant to lease the space in greater than two years.

“We have had our office listed via CBRE for sublease throughout the pandemic but as a result of increasing inventory and the fierce competition on the sublease market, we’ve not been in a position to get a deal done,” Bill Hansen, Flexport’s global head of real estate, said in an interview.

Flexport founder and outgoing CEO Ryan Petersen previously told CNBC that the corporate couldn’t find anyone to take the office. He attached a tragic face emoji to his message and said, “The space is awesome — we just signed at high rates and the market was super soft through Covid.”

On the downtown Rincon Center, where Twilio is situated, the food court has been almost entirely stripped out, save for a pair longstanding tenants. Across the road at One Market Plaza, Mediterranean restaurant Cafe Elena is the one vendor open. Lights remain off at the opposite five just as they’ve since March 2020. One Market is home to Autodesk, several floors of Google offices and CNBC’s San Francisco studio.

“Everyone seems to be losing out— it’s only a matter of what extent,” said Colin Yasukochi, who leads CBRE’s Tech Insights Center.

The Salesforce Tower, left, and the Salesforce West office constructing in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

There’s one other side to the San Francisco real estate picture. High-end spaces are seeing record prices.

Last yr, Salesforce listed space in its East tower, which Yelp and Sephora each subleased from the corporate. Terms weren’t disclosed, but real estate experts say they were pricey deals. In May, The Sobrato organization paid $71 million for a constructing in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, setting a record at over $1,700 per square foot.

Sammons from Cushman and Wakefield said employers know that they are going to should offer more incentives for employees to return and that “it could’t be only a snack bar anymore.” They’re doing transactions now to arrange for that kind of future.

“We’ve seen some really big deals and massive tech firms are making the most of the market and realizing they’re more comfortable going back into the office part-time and can need it down the road,” Sammons said. “They’re the type of firms which have funds ready to do this type of thing.”

Waiting and hoping for recovery

Wells Fargo analysts and others expect the downtown area’s real estate market to meaningfully get better in 2024 and 2025. But there is not any guarantee that San Francisco and the encircling cities within the East Bay and Silicon Valley will fully bounce back.

Housing prices are still near the best within the country and now rates of interest are jumping, making million-dollar-plus mortgages even dearer.

“With no solution to the region’s inexpensive housing crisis in sight, local firms may have a difficult time convincing graduates to remain within the region,” Wells Fargo analysts wrote in a report this month titled, “What’s next for the San Francisco economy?”

“Bringing back the tech sector’s Gold Rush fever, and convincing employees from other areas to maneuver to the Bay Area, will probably be much more of a challenge,” the analysts wrote. Nevertheless, “while many firms have expanded and even relocated outside the region, the Bay Area still possesses essentially the most complete tech ecosystem on the earth,” they said.

Mayor Breed, who recently proposed a $14 annual billion budget for the 2022-23 fiscal yr, acknowledges that the world of labor has modified. She’s counting on San Francisco’s cultural and tourist appeal to assist with a revival.

“Our concert events, our activities, our conventions, quite a lot of the things that folks would need to visit a significant city for is what we have now to also deal with,” she told CNBC. “Working within the office is just going to be an adjustment to alter.”

The market faces additional potential turmoil as real estate contracts expire in the following yr or so. Landlords are more likely to be forced to supply higher terms for tenants, who’re contemplating walking away or a minimum of downsizing, experts said.

Some small businesses have worked up revenue-sharing deals with landlords to lighten the upfront costs and spread the chance. Some are discussing sharing spaces with other tenants in ways in which have “never been done before,” Sammons said, calling it “an entire recent world in some ways.”

At Luck’s clinic, business is working uncomfortably. He’s needed to cut his staff and depend on loans that he said he’ll be paying off “probably for the remainder of my life.”

But Luck said he’s seen down cycles before and expects history to repeat itself.

“I’ve been through the dot-com bust and housing bubble,” he said. “Recessions occur and additionally they get better, eventually. My hope is that in 4 to 5 years, it could possibly be a more diverse population of companies.”

— CNBC’s Yasmin Khorram contributed to this report

WATCH: CNBC’s one-on-one interview with San Francisco Mayor London Breed

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