Empty Offices, Tight Housing: Why Converting Skyscrapers to Apartments Isn’t Easy

With remote work becoming the norm, many office buildings are gathering dust. This poses a challenge for cities with housing shortages. On the surface, a solution seems clear: convert those unused offices into apartments. But despite the logic, developers are finding the process to be far from simple.

The biggest hurdle lies in navigating a maze of regulations. Zoning codes, often designed for a bygone era, may not permit converting office buildings to residential spaces. Obtaining the necessary permits can be a time-consuming and expensive ordeal.

“Conversion projects are hugely complex,” says Gerard Nocera of Revolution Real Estate. “They’re stymied by both city and state zoning and regulations.”

Beyond the paperwork, the physical changes required are significant. Office buildings are typically designed with different layouts and utility infrastructure compared to apartments. Plumbing, electrical systems, and even window placement might all need modifications to meet residential building codes.

Even if developers can overcome these hurdles, finances can play a spoiler. While the idea might evoke images of cheap apartments filling vacant office towers, the reality is that conversions can be expensive. The cost of renovations, coupled with potential lost rental income during construction, can make lenders wary of financing such projects.

There are some success stories. A handful of buildings, like the Flatiron in New York City, have made the leap from office to residential. However, these conversions are often limited to older, slender buildings with features that translate well to apartments. High-rises with large floor plates and modern layouts present a tougher challenge.

So, what’s the solution? Some experts believe that government incentives and streamlined regulations could make conversions more attractive to developers. This could help unlock much-needed housing options, particularly in cities facing affordability crises.

The idea of transforming vacant office buildings into vibrant apartment complexes holds promise. But for this solution to take root, there needs to be a collaborative effort between developers, policymakers, and the communities they serve.


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