There are cities with high vacancy rates in their office buildings, as work-from-home has become more common.
There are also cities that would like to expand their supply of housing. Thus, the idea of converting office buildings to housing offers the possibility of hitting two policies with one shot. Arpit Gupta, Candy Martinez, and Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh discuss the possibilities of Converting brown offices to green apartments” (Hamilton Project at Brookings, November 2023).
The short answer is that the possibilities are both real and limited. The authors write:
Not every office property, however, is suitable for conversion [to apartments]. Three conditions must be met for a conversion to take place: (i) the building has to be physically suitable for conversion, (ii) the zoning and building codes have to permit and facilitate such a conversion, and (iii) the financial return of the conversion has to properly compensate the developer for the risk they are taking.
The authors have data on commercial office markets in core urban areas across 105 cities. (They acknowledge that that some office buildings outside the urban core might also be suitable for conversion, but it’s not their focus here.) Using that data, they consider what kinds of office buildings are most suitable for conversions. They write:
We believe that buildings built before 1990 are the most viable conversion candidates. Many historic buildings tend to be less expensive, have smaller floor plates, and have more character, all of which increases their conversion appeal. … The size of the building cannot be too big or too small, so we exclude buildings with a total size less than 25,000 square feet as well as large buildings with deep floor plates. Smaller buildings could be convertible, but they are less likely to attract institutional capital and federal grants. Deep floor plates have existing floor plans that start the building at a disadvantage: Too little interior light and air, too little plumbing, and too many elevators. Structural changes to remedy these
buildings for residential use are likely cost prohibitive. … We narrow our sample of candidates further by selecting buildings with no (or few) major long-term leases left.
After carrying out this exercise, what’s left? They identify 2,431 properties out of a total of 22,215 office buildings in these 105 cities–with about one-fifth of all the possible properties being in New York City. They estimate:
At 875 square feet per apartment unit, and after incorporating a 30 percent loss factor, these conversions could create 158,654 additional housing units. Scaling up for incomplete data coverage results in 367,750 apartment units. For comparison, about 260,000 apartment units were created in the U.S. in a typical
year between 2001 and 2022.
Of course, not all of these potential conversions will be financially viable, either–a determination that would vary across cities and properties. But in a very broad sense, it seems reasonable to say that office-to-residential conversions might be equal to about a year’s worth of standard apartment-building for the nation as a whole. Thus, on one side, every city should be looking over its inventory of office buildings and figuring out which ones might be suitable for conversions. On the other side, such conversions are likely to make only modest progress on the goal of additional housing.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.