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Public Restroom Scarcity Takes a Toll on Commercial Property Owners

If you want to flush out the competition, invest in the bathroom. That adage has rung true for businesses for years—just ask the founders of Buc-ee’s, an iconic chain of gas stations that built its business model on porcelain. Pristine restrooms with touchless features, spacious stalls, and dedicated restroom attendants are a key differentiator of the Texas-based company that has garnered national recognition as well as sparked a cult following that has exploded the brand into an extremely profitable enterprise. 

Buc-ees has banked on something that every property owner and manager already knows, and that’s the fact that a nice restroom can communicate a lot. A restroom that is aesthetically pleasing, well-maintained, and stocked with essential supplies provides a high-quality experience that enhances people’s experience in a building as well as enhances property values. While that may be common knowledge for private real estate, that message doesn’t seem to have been relayed to America’s public spaces. 

Porcelain trail

It’s no secret that public toilets have long been a source of frustration in America, but abroad, it’s another story entirely, especially when it comes to restroom accessibility. Research conducted by British-based company QS Bathroom Supplies found that the United States averages eight public toilets for every 100,000 people (to put that into perspective, Iceland, the country that leads the research poll for public restroom availability, boasts 56 toilets per 100,000 people). But that 8:100k ratio is not evenly spread across the American landscape. Arkansas, Texas, and Tennessee have less than three restrooms per 100,000 people, and Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana have less than two restrooms per 100,000 people. Ironically, Wyoming, the least populated U.S. state, has the most toilets available to the public with 44:100k. 

The glaring lack of public restrooms has long been a pressing issue in the U.S., so much so that it was recently deemed an urgent public health crisis. Last year, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (CCF) published a study showcasing not just the dearth of public restrooms nationwide, but the severe public consequences it poses to public health. Besides the unseemly correlation between a public bathroom shortage and an uptick in urinary tract infections, as people are forced to hold their bladders longer in search of a toilet, the lack of public restrooms can lead to unsanitary conditions and increased risk of disease transmission. Homeless individuals, in particular, are often forced to relieve themselves in public places, which can create significant health hazards and contribute to the spread of diseases such as Hepatitis A.

In the CCF study, the authors took it upon themselves to point out that there is an “opportunity” for private businesses to help solve this restroom crisis by allowing the public to use their own restrooms, effectively expanding public restroom access while simultaneously building stronger customer relationships. Of course, this revelation is not news to many companies. As states have lagged behind in providing adequate infrastructure for public bathrooms, businesses like department stores and coffee shops have effectively become the gatekeepers of allowing the general public to relieve themselves.

Nature calls for everyone, which means that restroom access is a basic public need. Yet lawmakers have been more than content to offload the public bathroom responsibility on the private sector over the years. In 2002, New York City’s then-mayor Michael Bloomberg famously dismissed the mounting public pressure to install more public bathrooms in the five boroughs by saying that “there’s enough Starbucks that’ll let you use the bathroom.” At that time, Starbucks had not only maintained an open-bathroom policy, it had built it into its overall business model. 

Just like Buc-ees, Starbucks had banked on their restrooms to lure in additional foot traffic, a strategy that ultimately translated to customer loyalty and even higher sales. However, it’s becoming clear that Starbucks can no longer serve as America’s bathroom. Last year, then-Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz stated that the company was considering ending its open-bathroom policy to crack down on non-customers loitering in their stores. “I don’t know if we can keep our bathrooms open,” he said.

Forcing private businesses into a position of restroom gatekeeping puts them in a scenario where demand inevitably exceeds supply. Again, there are so few bathrooms available to the public in the U.S. that businesses that offer restroom facilities can become overwhelmed. Furthermore, the high amount of use that an open-to-the-public restroom gets also has implications for commercial property values thanks to the increased wear-and-tear on the property’s facilities. 

Flush actually

A lack of public restrooms dramatically impacts a neighborhood’s livability, which means that the presence of public toilets can be seen as a positive amenity for commercial properties, particularly in areas with high foot traffic such as shopping districts or tourist destinations. Access to public toilets can make it more convenient for customers and visitors to spend time in the area, potentially increasing foot traffic and sales for nearby businesses. This can, in turn, increase the demand for commercial properties in the area and potentially drive up their values. It’s worth noting, however, that the impact of public toilets on commercial real estate values may also depend on factors such as the cleanliness, safety, and accessibility of the facilities. Poorly maintained or unsafe public toilets may have a negative impact on the desirability of nearby commercial properties. 

It’s not as if policymakers haven’t tried to curb this issue by installing more public toilets; a lot of the reasons government initiatives to install public toilets haven’t taken off much in the past several decades boils down to NIMBY-ism, or “Not In My Back Yard” syndrome. NIMBY-ism refers to the tendency of people to oppose new developments or facilities in their own neighborhoods, even if they may support them in theory or in other locations.

There are two main reasons why people may be opposed to opening public toilets in their neighborhoods. For one, some people may be opposed to opening public toilets because of stigmatization and discrimination—they may believe that public toilets are only necessary for certain groups of people, such as homeless individuals, and that opening public toilets in their neighborhoods will attract those individuals and stigmatize the area. However, this belief is misguided, as access to public toilets is a basic need for all people, regardless of their socio-economic status or housing situation. 

The other big reason involves concerns over public safety and crime. Some people may worry that public toilets will attract unsavory characters or become a site for criminal activity, such as drug use or prostitution. Well-maintained and well-lit public toilets are not more likely to attract crime than other public areas, and they can actually help to deter criminal activity by increasing foot traffic and public visibility. Of course, keeping a public toilet properly clean and maintained will require additional investment and upkeep, but since having access to a clean place to relieve oneself is considered a fundamental human right recognized by the United Nations, it’s safe to say that that investment is well worth it.

Ensuring that a public toilet is kept clean is crucial for public safety and preventing any drag on nearby property values. Thankfully, a handful of American cities are finally waking up to this reality and are investing in adding and maintaining more restrooms. New public toilets are popping up in Port Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York City, which is good news for both tourists, residents, and property owners of each city.

While some private businesses have stepped in to provide restrooms to the public, it is not a sustainable solution as it could pose operational problems for commercial property owners. The relationship between public toilets and commercial real estate values may not be straightforward, but it is clear that the access to public toilets can be a net-positive for private real estate. After all, public amenities are already known to enhance property values, so why should public restrooms be any different? As building owners and tenants weigh their options when it comes to opening bathrooms to the public, they need to consider the consequences, both social and economic, of not having a clean, safe space for people to be able to go to the restroom.

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