CONVERTING OFFICE SPACE TO APARTMENTS SEEMS GREAT – BUT MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

Jul 7, 2017

It seems like a great idea, and rather simple, on the surface: the D.C. City Council, spurred by Councilman-at-Large Robert White, introduced a bill creating an “Office of Affordable Housing Task Force” back in May as a way to explore the use of vacant commercial space as apartment style homes.  The goal is to somehow make a dent in the city’s affordable housing crunch. You can read the full bill here and see where it is in the process.  At the moment, no public hearing has been scheduled to solicit public input on the subject.

There are signs of community support for the plan, but it depends on which part of the city knows about it and who is talking about it. The Foggy Bottom and West End Neighborhood Advisory Commission recently announced its support for the bill, and asked for “more flexibility” in converting office space to apartment rental space.

Initially this sounds like a plan that could benefit the city in a big way. Converting vacant office space into living spaces means more space to live in.  But there are too many questions that still need answers: is this bill addressing affordable housing in the District or is it simply addressing a growing space problem?  More importantly: Affordable housing and affordable living are two differing concepts, and so which aspect of the residential crisis is the bill truly resolving? Affordable housing might be great for new middle-class and largely Millennial (and white) professionals who’ve been feeling the squeeze on their pocketbooks lately due to the skyrocketing cost of living in the District. That doesn’t necessarily address the challenges of low-income individuals and families in the District.  So, it’s only natural ANC groups in more affluent parts of the city agree with the bill since it means some cost savings for them. But for underserved residents, does this bill address the choice many residents are making between unaffordable rent and homelessness?

Who is the target market for the new homes generated from office space? Will millennial professionals be who are having difficulty commuting to work be catered to or will it be the wealthier class simply finding a new way to generate revenue?

According to Numbeo.com, without rent, a single person’s monthly expenses on average are $1,107. Rent per month has increased in the district to between $1,644 and $2,200 for one bedroom apartments. In a scenario where office buildings are converted, how much lower will the housing be? Within four months of its formation, the Affordable Housing Task Force will have to determine if the usage of office space will help address DC’s affordable housing crisis. First let’s find out what is affordable housing and what is affordable living.

Gentrification has generated both positive and negative lasting effects on the community. According to Washington Business Journal, office-to-apartment retrofits are starting to happen across the country, but they are not happening quickly enough. No one has taken the lead. In the district the fiscal diversity rivals the ethnic diversity, so ultimately who will benefit from the refurbished office space the most? Is it just focused on the urban professionals who want to move into the city but find it unaffordable, or will it truly increase the quality of life for vulnerable residents in the District? Lots of questions. Hopefully the Council schedules a hearing soon to help us answer them.