Remote Work Is Freeing Up Office Space. Can Old Office Buildings Become Housing?

Panoramic view of a large city with high-rise office space being converted to residential housing.

Some big banks and major corporations are asking their employees to come back to their offices. But many of these employees will only work in office buildings for part of the week.

Remote work is changing how people get things done. We now know this is a long-term dynamic, transforming even the most traditional workforces. And this raises questions about how cities and towns can move from the past to the future.

This year and beyond, some downtown office spaces will be repurposed to meet other needs. Housing is one of those needs.

How Much Office Space Do We Really Need, When More Than Half of Our Jobs Can Be Done Remotely?

Before we ever heard of the coronavirus, just one in 10 workers held remote positions. Today, the majority of U.S. workers can function from a distance at least part of the week. Three big phenomena have made the shift to remote work possible:

  1. The Rise of the Internet. In the late 1990s, people began signing up for email addresses, and started putting those accounts to personal and business use. By 2000, half of U.S. homes had at least one computer, with 40 percent of homes connected to the internet. The evolution of Google from a directory of contacts to a limitless knowledge base allowed companies to innovate and collaborate in transformational ways.
  • Technological Innovation. Software and related services reached new heights in 2020-2021. We’ve innovated and tested out remote workplace tools, and they’ve proved secure, effective, and convenient. Consider the evolution to remote transactions. The real estate business is now at ease with eSignatures and even remote online notarizations. It’s happened so fast…and it’s a sea change for the way transactions are handled.
  • Changes in Hiring and Working Style Preferences. Employers found that their potential pool of employees could be far more expansive and diverse if they allowed for distance-based working in certain positions. And a new population of creators arose, working online. A digital economy is flourishing, offering new ways to work, and powering still more innovation.

As Fewer Workers Show Up in Offices, Cities Are Changing.

As fewer people head downtown for the traditional work week, the customer base for city storefronts and restaurants is dwindling. This has caused serious challenges for cities.

Take Manhattan, where (as of late 2021) two thirds of the office workers were missing — working their over computers, that is, and not at their company desks. With workers moving and working from any distance, cities have a smaller base of tax revenue to allocate to public safety, transit, and infrastructure.

Among the key redevelopment options? Turning offices into residences. Converted commercial space could add new housing units to cities and towns that urgently need them.

Policy Makers Call These Projects Adaptive Reuse.

The shift is already under way in cities from coast to coast. The idea is also taking hold at the federal level. When one building changed from a Department of Justice workplace into housing for hundreds of new residents, the story became international news.

Members of Congress are now discussing tax benefits for developers who can convert office buildings into residential spaces or mixed-use properties. A criterion for the tax break? The conversions would need to involve at least some affordable housing.  

The government of Reno, Nevada thinks underused hotels could fit the affordable housing need perfectly. For one thing, plumbing is already built into all of the rooms. So, the city government is buying two older hotels for conversions into 300 to 400 affordable rental apartments. It’s part of a $200 million city investment into accessible workforce housing.

Whether affordable housing needs can be met on a broader scale by this type of shift, more housing units are hitting the market because of the conversions. Apartment lister RentCafe says more than 20,000 rentals were produced through conversions in 2021. That’s twice the total of 2020. About four in every ten of these conversions is renovating an office building.

Upmarket: Why Converting to Residential Is Pricey

Image of the outside of a high-rise building being converted to residential housing.

A lot of adaptive reuse housing is expensive. Office building conversions can be the most expensive projects of all. Tax breaks could help, but it’s never going to be cheap to gut offices, create bathrooms for all the new units, replace the plumbing, and install residential windows, doorways, and interior lighting. Companies have to apply for zoning variances, too, and deal with the unexpected construction challenges that invariably arise. 

That expense is why, for example, the 50-floor Irving Trust building located at One Wall Street has turned into luxury condos. One Wall Street is New York City’s biggest ever office-to-housing switch. With a Whole Foods Market on the ground floor, it now boasts 566 upscale condos — including a penthouse valued at $40 million, converted from a boardroom.

Another high-profile conversion created the Park and Ford Apartments of Alexandria, Virginia. The company invested heavily to replace concrete, remediate asbestos and other hazards, and turn the property into hundreds of rental homes, loaded with upmarket amenities.  

When the Internet Met the Pandemic…

Businesses were forced to make rapid changes. Those changes — emergency fixes at first — have evolved into new social customs and operating procedures. A massive shift is still taking place from in-person business to online collaborations.  

Some workers have been required — or empowered — to make the shift to remote work a permanent lifestyle. That means homes are more like offices. And the offices themselves are less central to our cities and towns. Inevitably, office space needs to be rethought.

Some office buildings are being turned into storage spaces, distribution hubs, and private gyms. But the really big need is housing.

In a time when few natural spaces remain in and around cities and towns, it’s good to see buildings repurposed. Yet the need for accessible housing will require political will and funding. While adaptive reuse projects have certainly added housing to the urban mix, most new homes are marketed to the high-income tier of population. But with a little help from governments, some of this new housing can be affordable.

Supporting References

Motley Fool: 25 Years of Tech: The Rise of the Internet – How We Went From Dial-Up Internet to Broadband (Jul. 3, 2018).

Jeff Finkle, president and CEO of the International Economic Development Council, for (via Opinion – Downtowns Must Convert Empty Spaces Into Housing to Thrive (Jan. 14, 2022).

Will Parker for the Wall Street Journal: Underused Office Buildings Get New Life as Deluxe Apartments (Jan. 4, 2022).

Elissaveta M. Brandon for Fast Company: How 1 Million Square Feet of New York Office Space Was Turned Into Apartments (Jan. 19, 2022).

Chris Stein for Agence France-Press (via Japan Today and other sources): Forget Working From Home — Why Not Live in an Old Office? (Jan. 26, 2022).

The Associated Press, via News 8 / KOLO-TV / Nexstar Media Inc. Reno Eyes Two Downtown Hotels to Convert to Affordable Housing (Feb. 1, 2022).

Sophia Kunthara for Crunchbase News: What To Do With All Those Vacant Offices? Startups See Space For Everything From “Learning Pods” To “Microgyms” (Aug. 23, 2021).

Photo credits (both): Pixabay, via Pexels.