D.C. Bill Targets Empty Offices for Affordable Housing

(Photo by Ted Eytan via Flickr)

To address both a shortage of affordable housing and a surplus of vacant office buildings, D.C. lawmakers want to convert workspace into homes.

“On Tuesday, At-Large Councilmember Robert White proposed a bill that would create a task force to study retrofitting underutilized office buildings into apartments,” Washington City Paper reports.

The bill (full text here) calls for an 11-member task force to include a low-income renter, representatives from the nonprofit and for-profit development world, and several city employees.

Its duties would include researching any legal, regulatory or zoning changes that might be warranted, recommending a funding mechanism, and providing an estimate of costs.

According to the City Paper:

This isn’t the first time that the idea of using empty commercial spaces as housing has been floated, but it would be D.C.’s first formal attempt to do so. In recent years, a homeless services group converted a vacant office building in Bethesda into 32 units of supportive housing with retail on the ground floor. In Southwest D.C., developers changed a couple of ex-office towers for the Environmental Protection Agency into a 535-unit project that includes just over 100 affordable apartments.

According to the Urban Land Institute, office-to-residential conversions were pioneered in New York and Chicago in the 1990s. ULI cites a 2015 report that “found that almost half the top office central business district markets in the United States were experiencing significant office-to-residential conversions, with the potential to create roughly 11,500 new residential units in those cities.”

Activity was reportedly strongest in the larger metros, but there were also significant upticks in the practice in Cleveland and Kansas City, among others.

Another creative way to get more affordable housing involves converting empty school buildings. Last year, Next City covered a plan to turn Wilkinson School in the St. Louis area, shuttered in 2008, into housing for teachers.

And while that was a novel idea, it was likely only the beginning. Other school officials in the area were seeking similar development proposals at the time.

“Wilkinson School, listed at $602,000, is one of 22 buildings recently marketed for development by SLPS,” Jen Kinney wrote. “Others have been purchased for transformation into senior living facilities, community centers and more.”

Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.

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Tags: affordable housingwashington, d.c.real estate