Right now, in Manhattan, 18% of office space is vacant. At the same time, the city of New York has a major housing problem, with more than 100,000 people using the municipal shelter system. So Eric Adams and city officials are talking a lot about taking those empty offices, and filling them with people. New York is not the only big city where this is happening. There’s talk of office to housing conversions in Chicago, LA, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Toronto, and … actually pretty much every big city in North America. Office to housing conversions are a hot idea right now. They’ve always been a favorite hobby horse for urbanists, but after the pandemic, it’s an idea that’s hit the mainstream.
In most big cities, there’s a housing crisis. And empty office buildings are creating a different crisis known to urbanists as a ‘doom loop.’ That’s where empty office towers have a domino effect, and lead to lower property taxes, which hurt city services. And they kill life downtown, which affects other businesses. Converting an office into housing can solve all of these problems, using one piece of property. This solution just seems so obvious and elegant. But for all the hype around this idea, there are surprisingly few adaptive reuse projects actually underway. And many developers don’t want to get involved. Why not? Well, it’s complicated.
There are structural difficulties, legal hurdles, zoning rules, and other factors that conspire to make conversions complex and costly. As a result, office to apartment conversions are an imperfect and partial solution to an unwieldy problem. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad … or that we shouldn’t do them. Cities can encourage more conversions with things like tax breaks and new zoning rules and governments just spending public money to make these conversions happen. But it’s not going to happen on its own. Buildings change. That’s inevitable. But how buildings change is up to us.