DC Council hears testimony on converting office space to affordable housing
The D.C. Council Committee for Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization heard public and government testimony on its bill to create an Office to Affordable Housing Task Force. The potential task force would investigate converting D.C. office space into affordable housing, providing recommendations and budgeting analysis to the D.C. Council and the Mayor. The bill was introduced by At-Large Councilmember Robert White.
As concern grows over the District’s dearth of affordable housing, White and the six other councilmembers who have signed onto his bill are hoping to find a creative path forward in office conversions. Converting vacant office space into affordable housing could create new units and give building owners a new source of income, but some have shown concern over the amount of public money such a project would need.
White and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds heard testimony both in favor of and against the bill’s passing. Andrew Trueblood was the only government witness at the hearing to testify. Trueblood, chief of staff for the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Planning and Economic Development, testified against the bill. His comments focused on the expense behind the task force, suggesting that the District’s money could create and preserve affordable housing in more efficient ways.
Generally, older office buildings are the best candidates for conversion, but Trueblood noted that building owners could make more money by simply renovating and fetching higher office rents. The government would need to provide a subsidy to incentivize owners to choose conversion over renovation. “The subsidy would compete with affordable housing production and preservation that is less expensive,” Trueblood said. “Likely not the most effective use of funding.” In the current print of the bill, a representative from the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Planning and Economic Development would be part of the task force, and the office would also be responsible for administrative staffing.
White pushed back against Trueblood’s testimony, noting that his bill is not exclusive to the downtown core, and that the District’s budget for affordable housing has mostly gone towards protecting and preserving housing, rather than creating it. He also said that conversions have already happened in the private sector in large cities such as New York and Minneapolis. other large cities.
Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, testified in support of such conversion. Her organization promotes walkable, transit-oriented growth and she advised that an architect would be a worthy addition to the 11-member task force. Currently, the bill outlines a series of experts who would be on the task force, including one structural engineer. Cort explained that an architect would have expertise more in line with what the council was looking for. Cort recommended architects who bewere involved in converting the abandoned EPA headquarters near the southwest waterfront into affordable housing.
Caroline Petti of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City also testified in support. Her group is a nonprofit which supports responsible land use in the District, Petti noted that office vacancy in the District is 12.3 percent, according to a report from Kushman and Wakefield. Petti also suggested that the task force put some focus on family-sized units of two or more bedrooms.