Downtowns in the United States continue to struggle with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented shift to working from homedeclines in mass transit ridership, and fear of crime have made it difficult for many city centers to recover. At the same time, the nation faces a growing housing shortage.

To both reduce vacant office space and address the lack of affordable housing, some cities—as well as the White House—have proposed turning obsolete office buildings into housing. Though residential conversions can be a part of revitalizing downtowns, they are often costly and insufficient to address the challenges facing our cities. To save downtowns, we need to reimagine office districts into vibrant, resilient, mixed-use areas that are not just for workers, but a variety of residents and visitors.

Converting office buildings to housing is not simple. The physical layout of office buildings often makes it difficult and costly to convert them into residential units. Zoning and land-use laws often restrict residential conversions or require builders to obtain time-consuming waivers. Logistical challenges, such as long-term leases signed by existing tenants, can make it challenging to completely empty office buildings. Turning offices into affordable, family-friendly housing is even more difficult, as it would likely require significant subsidies. Finally, to attract new residents, these areas will require a new range of services and amenities, including neighborhood retail and grocery stores.

These limitations mean residential conversions are likely to be relatively limited and ultimately insufficient for most localities to revitalize struggling downtowns or significantly address broader housing needs.

Here are three ways cities could reimagine their downtowns:

  1. Strengthen and grow arts, culture, and entertainment areas. 
  2. Establish education or innovation hubs.
  3. Develop convening districts.

Read the full article about affordable housing in cities by Andrew Trueblood at Urban Institute.