How Entire Industries Become Unethical
Every office building in New York City grows by a few percent per year. Each stuffy pre-war tower, art-deco complex and shiny corporate center. They're all growing, like those Kafkaesque SimTower projects that added a few lone offices to the roof each quarter when the rent came in. Except they're not actually growing -- just adding more space on paper. All office buildings in New York City add a few percent per year to their official square footage, often in lieu of raising rent. So if you are a startup paying $30 per square foot for 1,000 square feet of office space and need to renew your lease, it is more likely that your landlord will claim that your office has grown -- perhaps to 1,050 square feet -- than attempt to raise your rent.
This is simply the way the commercial real estate world works, and it's second nature to people in the business. All buildings grow every year -- it's called "loss factor". But to someone who isn't familiar with commercial real estate, the concept is completely absurd and unethical.
What makes it seem particularly wrong? Well, square footage isn't just some abstract number. It's a real measurement of area. Burger King can claim that a new line of burgers is "50% tastier" regardless of reality, but they would step over the line if they claimed that these same burgers had 50% less fat unless that were actually true. "Tastiness" is a subjective, abstract concept. "Fat" is not.
Somehow, over the course of the development of the commercial real estate industry, square footage has converted from a concrete unit to an abstract unit in the minds of people in the industry. But to the rest of us, square footage remains a concrete measure of area. When I hear 400 square feet, I think of a room that is 20x20 or 40x10 or perhaps even 4x100. When someone in commercial real estate hears 400 square feet, he or she thinks of a space they can lease for $12,000 per year at $30 per square foot. It doesn't matter how big the space actually is.
Now that we're here, I don't see things getting any better -- the Nash equilibrium of the situation is for each player to continue increasing the "size" of their spaces by a few percent per year. If one landlord bucks the trend, they'll need to correspondingly raise their rent per square foot to stay competitive with other landlords. But if everyone else is smudging the size of their buildings, why should you stop? It just means that anyone who wants office space in New York City has to figure out this bizarre system -- or get screwed.
So how does this kind of thing start? First, it's important to recognize how commercial real estate is leased. A commercial space shares a nasty problem with an airline seat: a product that is not a commodity yet is bought and sold as one. In most searches that brokers perform, they are given a price cap by their clients -- say, $35 per square foot. If a space falls above that cap, it simply isn't shown to the client. Thus, a landlord (like an airline) is heavily incentivized to keep their price as low as possible to get visibility in front of lots of potential tenants. The other shoe can drop once the tenant is in the door. This is all analogous to bag check fees, ticketing fees and the other unpleasantries of 21st century air travel.
Therefore, landlords will try to throw as much as possible into the square footage to lower the all-important "cost per square foot". Initially, the included items were somewhat reasonable -- shared bathrooms, hallways and HVAC. In fact, that's how loss factor is still explained by most brokers. But then someone decided to include not only hallways, but the elevators. Another landlord responded by including not only the elevators, but the lobby and delivery bay. Pretty soon, it got so complicated that square footage became an utterly abstract, meaningless number in the minds of anyone involved in the industry. The square foot was no longer a concrete measure of area.
I don't think most people in commercial real estate are unethical. Rather, the industry has adopted unethical practices due to a combination of individually innocuous factors: the characteristics of pricing, selection and demand. The airline industry is also clearly trending in this direction, as is higher education. Once an industry is at the bottom of an ethical slope, it is ripe for disruption by young companies that can sell through an honest, straightforward process.