Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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With more than 10 percent of D.C.’s available office space vacant, District lawmakers are now considering a measure to convert ghost-town cubicles into much-needed affordable housing.

On Tuesday, At-Large Councilmember Robert White proposed a bill that would create a task force to study retrofitting underutilized office buildings into apartments. Citing the “drag on our local economy” that high commercial vacancy rates produce—and D.C.’s “severe shortage of affordable housing”—White said older office buildings would be some of the best candidates for residential reuse. He said the “government [needs] to take the leadership role” in this effort.

As drafted, the legislation would establish a group of 11 members, to include a low-income renter, a representative of a building owner, an affordable housing advocate, District officials, and others. Within four months, the task force would issue recommendations for “any legal, regulatory, or zoning changes” and for funding necessary to transform offices into apartments.

Nine councilmembers signed onto the bill, including White. 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.

Conversion costs can be lower than those associated with buying land and constructing new buildings from scratch. (Office-building owners also have a natural economic incentive to put their properties into good use.) But as Bisnow has reported, some commercial buildings don’t have floor plans or configurations that can easily be changed into residential space. There are often zoning challenges, too, making some developers circumspect about doing conversions.

Other D.C. developers have started projects as commercial only to switch them to residential, predicting higher profits. A report published in April by the Downtown Business Improvement District found that across the city, there was almost 13 million square feet of empty office space, with about two-fifths of it (5 million square feet) located downtown. 

The D.C. Council’s committee on housing and neighborhood revitalization will take up White’s bill, although a hearing on it hasn’t been scheduled yet. His wasn’t the only affordable housing measure introduced yesterday. At-Large Councilmember David Grosso proposed legislation that seeks to encourage investments in affordable housing groups in exchange for tax credits.