The Biden-Harris administration announced new actions last month to support and accelerate commercial-to-residential conversions through new federal guidance on financing and tax incentives, technical assistance, and the reuse of federal properties. The guidance comes on the heels of an APA convening on this issue with White House officials and planning directors of the nation's largest cities.
Commercial property continues to struggle in many downtown areas in the wake of the pandemic. According to the White House, office vacancies reached a 30-year high in 2023. Cities are looking to conversions to solve two problems at once: increasing housing supply and dealing with underused commercial properties that could make downtowns more vibrant and boost local economies.
Though this solution offers much promise, conversions are complex projects requiring innovative design, finance, and regulatory interventions. Communities often lack the capacity, resources, and technical assistance required to realize the full potential of office-to-home conversions. New guidance from the White House could change that.
With these new programs, the administration takes action to create more affordable, diverse, and equitable housing, just as planners around the country urge the federal government for more local assistance and support.
Building on the administration's Housing Supply Action Plan, this latest announcement includes actions that aim to boost housing supply near jobs and transit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The White House Housing Supply Action Plan, announced in 2022, aims to advance policies that link historic levels of funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) to increased housing opportunity through local land use reforms.
APA is committed to providing members with access to best practices, research-based approaches, and guidance on federal programs that will help municipal planners and planning consultants to increase local housing options through planning-led interventions.
At NPC24 in Minneapolis, the White House will join APA for a series of workshops and sessions that will arm planners will the information needed to make office-to-home conversions a viable housing solution.
What the Administration's Latest Actions Mean for Planners
1. Key U.S. DOT loan guarantee programs to support housing
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will be releasing new guidelines to states, localities, and developers on the expansion of key loan guarantee programs to support increasing housing supply near transit and rail transportation.
The Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) and the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) Programs will be new tools to help finance housing and conversion projects near public transit and rail transportation Previously, these programs have only been able to finance transportation projects and related infrastructure. Now, they will expand the eligibility to the loan guarantees to support things like commercial to residential conversions near transit stops.
Planners tell us that the placement of developments like this will not only boost local economies but house more local workers and stimulate production growth in cities, suburbs, and rural areas across the country. The expansion of financing tools like TIFIA makes it easier for planners to promote equitable transit-oriented development and ensure affordable and workforce housing options in areas where new investment in transit is being made. Typically, housing near transit is expensive. This program offers an important tool to ensure affordability. DOT also released a policy statement with principles for pursing transportation projects to increase affordable housing supply and decrease emissions. This statement is part of a continuing effort by the administration to link and align infrastructure investments in transportation with housing development.
2. Supporting transit agencies to repurpose properties for transit-oriented development
DOT will soon release new additional guidance to make it easier for transit agencies to repurpose properties for transit-oriented development and affordable housing projects near transit. The move will allow transit agencies to transfer at low– or no–cost public land for housing. Backed by planners, this project has the potential to turn underused or surplus transit property into affordable housing developments, specifically when combined with loans from TIFIA or RRIF, the programs discussed above.
Repurposing unused property for housing is key to transforming development and zoning policies nationwide. Of course, converting commercial-to-residential property is not a new idea. Talks of turning offices and hotels into housing has been on the rise since COVID-19 in 2020. Even prior to the pandemic, adaptive reuse through zoning reform and flexible building codes was a tool used by planners nationwide to combat the housing crisis. Planners have been preparing to recognize this issue in their communities and implement necessary measures to make housing affordable and accessible.
APA strongly supports planning-led efforts to better coordinate transit, housing, jobs, and land use and welcomes federal support to extend and accelerate these efforts.
The Build More Housing Near Transit Act, endorsed by APA and recently reintroduced in Congress, encourages local governments to improve their housing and zoning policies through land use and zoning reforms.
3. Using Community Development Block Grants to Boost Housing Supply
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released an updated notice on how the Community Development Block Grant Fund can be used to boost housing supply. This includes the conversion and rehabilitation of commercial properties to residential uses and mixed-use developments; two ideas APA fully supports and encourages across the country. APA knows that mixed-use development provides a variety of environmental, economic, social, and health benefits that can align with existing community priorities. APA has partnered with the National League of Cities on the Housing Supply Accelerator, a national campaign to improve local capacity and identify housing reform needs.
Zoning reform is critical to the creation of housing opportunities near transit and in mixed-use projects. Planners need to change zoning rules to allow and facilitate housing in TOD.
On November 6, 2023, HUD applications closed for the PRO-Housing grant program. This competition program is available to help local governments develop and implement policies that create and preserve housing options by breaking down barriers to zoning reform.
4. Leveraging federal funding to encourage conversations through the White House's Commercial to Residential Federal Resources Guidebook
The White House has released a new Commercial to Residential Resource Guidebook which includes over 20 federal programs across six agencies. These programs include low-interest loans and tax incentives to promote economic stability of conversion projects. Training sessions and workshops for local and state governments will accompany the guidebook to teach those at the local level how to use federal programs for office-to-home conversions.
5. Achieving zero emissions commercial-to-residential conversions
The Environmental Protection Agency through the Better Building Initiative launched a Commercial to Zero Emissions Housing Toolkit that includes technical and financial guidance to achieve zero emissions. It also emphasizes how the Inflation Reduction Act can bring more capital conversions through loans and guarantee tax incentives through clean energy investment.
While office-to-home conversions alone will not solve the nation's housing underproduction challenges, this approach is another solution that planners should consider when determining how to increase attainable, diverse, and equitable housing supply options in cities and small towns.
APA looks forward to partnering with the White House to ensure planners nationwide can access resources and guidance to increase local housing options and choice through commercial to residential conversions.
Top image: iStock / Getty Images Plus – Kiyoshi Tanno
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sophia Flionis is APA's public affairs consultant.