Office work is changing. During the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the average commercial office vacancy rate across the U.S. leapt from about 12% to 15%, according to CBRE. Some big companies, including Facebook, Salesforce, and Microsoft, have announced that they will be allowing remote work indefinitely. Experts disagree about how much the office market will recover nationwide: some predict work-from-home real estate doom while others forecast a gradual return to normal. But with urbanites flocking to suburban and rural areas, there’s no reason to think that the post-pandemic recovery is going to improve matters in metropolitan office districts.
There’s also the issue of office space “classes.” The newest and most expensive (Class A) spaces will likely be in high demand after the pandemic due to amenities like modern HVAC systems and touchless design, according to Paimaan Lodhi, senior vice president of policy and planning at the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). That could leave lots of older Class B and Class C buildings—which were already underperforming pre-pandemic—vacant.
Meanwhile, nearly every major city in the U.S. is struggling with a years-long affordable housing crisis that is forcing people to share close quarters or move farther and farther away from their jobs. It’s leaving many without shelter altogether. Why not convert those empty office buildings into housing?
It sounds obvious. And yet there are both design problems and economic roadblocks. This report analyzes the sustainability opportunities and challenges of urban office-to-multifamily conversions.