Cities Are Turning Stores, Hotels, and Offices into Affordable Housing Havens


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The COVID-19 pandemic is having a devastating impact on housing and homelessness.

City and state leaders know this. Many are implementing policies and creating unique affordable housing conversion projects that aim to make progress in solving this problem.

One such piece of legislation, the “Housing Our Neighbors With Dignity Act,” from New York, will enable the state to buy office buildings and hotels that have been struggling during the pandemic and turn them into affordable housing.

“The housing problem in our cities has gotten worse. But, the crisis of growing vacancies in our commercial property provides an opportunity,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a recent speech. “We should convert vacant commercial space to supportive and affordable housing and we should do it now.”

How Would Legislation in New York Turn Offices, Hotels into Affordable Housing?

COVID-19 is costing people their jobs and stirring financial crisis, especially among Latinos.

Housing will play a major role in the overall impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

In fact, many healthcare officials and social justice advocates are urging leaders to consider affordable housing as a vital basic requirement. Housing is a social determinant of health, after all.

One avenue toward more affordable housing is repurposing other buildings for affordable housing.

The New York legislation has this goal.

New York Could Turn Hotels, Office Buildings Into Affordable Housing Under State Senate Bill
New York could turn hotels, offices into affordable housing under new bill (photo via Wall Street Journal).

The New York bill, which is sponsored by Queens Democratic State Sen. Michael Gianaris, was introduced in the New York Senate last week. Currently, state lawmakers are considering the bill.

Under this proposed legislation, the New York state government may buy office buildings and hotels. Turning these old or abandoned spaces into affordable housing could provide a community benefit after a year of business struggle amid the pandemic.

“They’re up for sale. Let’s buy them, convert them into affordable housing, and put them to use. It’s actually a win-win situation,” Gianaris told the Wall Street Journal.

At least 50% of the converted properties will be set aside for those experiencing homelessness. Moreover, affordable housing at these properties will be limited to households with income at or below 50% of the area median income for the county in which the property is located.

Tenants would have full tenancy rights. This would set rents set at no more than 30% of their income.

“What we’re doing now is finding this huge stock of buildings that are in distressed conditions right now, so it’s a smart way to tackle multiple problems,” Gianaris told the Wall Street Journal.

Why Is Affordable Housing Important for Latinos?

A lack of affordable housing dramatically impacts Latinos’ quality of life.

Latinos and low-income families, especially during the pandemic, are facing difficulties in paying their rent or mortgage. They are also struggling to pay their utility bills and are less likely to have a usual source of medical care.

Latinos also have a higher risk of eviction, and more than half of Latinos (54%) rent their home.

That’s near twice as much as whites (28%).

In New York, the proposed office/hotel-to-affordable housing conversion legislation could really change the game for Latinos and other disadvantaged Americans, according to Paimaan Lodhi of the Real Estate Board of New York.

“If you were to just apply a conversion rate of 10% we think you could get something like 14,000 units built, and a pretty sizable portion of that could be affordable housing,” Lodhi said.

Other cities are doing these conversions, too, without over-arching legislation.

How Are U.S. Cities Taking Action to Convert Buildings into Affordable Housing?

Across the United States, many communities are transforming old buildings into new affordable housing.

Here are a few examples:

The hotel that will be converted to affordable housing in Charlotte. Via Multi-Housing News
The hotel that will be converted to affordable housing in Charlotte (via Multi-Housing News).

Charlotte, North Carolina (14.3% Latino). Blaze Partners and Argosy Real Estate Partners have teamed up to acquire a nationally-branded extended stay hotel. They will convert the 22-year-old hotel property into a market-rate multifamily community. According to the news report: “The repositioning will include a full rebranding and comprehensive capital plan focused on community enhancements and targeted unit upgrades to deliver a Class A multifamily property at attractive price points.”

Duluth, Minnesota (2.3% Latino). A revised ordinance aims to remove a financial obstacle for people looking to redevelop condemned properties and turn them into rentals. Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said in a news report that “the city has about 140 residences that have been condemned for human habitation, and many of them could be fixed up and turned into rental housing. But the city of Duluth charges property owners a $1,500 fee to convert an owner-occupied home into rental housing. That fee all too often deters the investment needed to return a residence to productive use.”

Boise, Idaho (9% Latino). City officials are reviewing a plan to buy a small office building near downtown and convert it into long-term affordable housing. As BoiseDev reported, the city has approved plans to buy the building for around $800,000 and place it in the city’s affordable housing land trust.

Sacramento, California (23.6% Latino). Mercy Housing California is transforming a century-old hotel into permanent supportive housing for individuals who are experiencing homelessness. “Mercy Housing’s start on the Capitol Park Hotel represents a significant milestone for our city in our efforts to address homelessness,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg at a press release. “With 134 homes now under construction, Mercy Housing’s team makes a significant contribution to our supply of much-needed permanent supportive housing.” The federal low-income housing tax credit and historic tax credit equity from Enterprise Housing Credit Investments will be used in the $64 million project.

Fairfax County, Virginia (16.5% Latino). Leaders here plan to transform the large Fair Oaks shopping mall and the area around it into a walkable community with access to regional transit. According to the local news report: “In November, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a plan amendment to redevelop Fair Oaks as a mixed-use community with about 2,000 housing units and the mall owner, Taubman Centers Inc., had sought the plan amendment and worked with county staff to develop it”.

For those wanting to take action, check out these 19 solutions to immediately ease the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on Latinos and people of color and make long-term strides to address underlying inequities that are aggravated during this time.

For those wanting to learn more:

Affordable housing AND HEALTH EQUITY

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of Latinos are "housing cost burdened"

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