Adaptive Reuse Of Empty Buildings Could Create Affordable Housing - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Renee Ing

Renee Ing is a community activist who has been working for affordable housing since the 1970s.

Cities across the nation are using another tool in the tool chest for building affordable housing — called adaptive reuse. On Maui, newly elected Mayor Richard Bissen sees it as one way to build more affordable housing for local residents.

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Adaptive reuse — known as AR — is the taking of old, empty buildings and repurposing them for a new use. Honolulu’s newest AR project will convert dorms into affordable housing, and a previous project repurposed a school, but office buildings are very often converted also.

Using AR, some cities are successfully building affordable housing more quickly and cheaply. In the last two years U.S. cities created 32,000 affordable units with adaptive reuse. Los Angeles alone built 4,300 of them under its Adaptive Reuse Ordinance.

The Riggs and Chamberlain study describes L.A.’s ARO as “an incentive program that encourages building reuse through regulatory exemptions. In examining the number of new buildings constructed in downtown L.A. from 1985 to 2013, the ARO appears to have accelerated downtown development activity, reversing development trends and potentially providing an additional tool for developers during economic lulls. These findings suggest that the ARO has helped accommodate and spur growth while preserving historical resources.”

Before L.A.’s ARO went into effect, downtown Los Angeles had 18,000 residents and a little over 11,600 residential units. Partly due to the ARO, today there are 46,000 units (many historical) and over 79,000 people living in downtown Los Angeles.

According to JP Morgan Chase’s Executive Director of Community Development Real Estate, Jack Bernhard, “almost 25% of affordable housing is currently created through adaptive reuse of properties.”

JP Morgan Chase works with municipalities nationwide making AR possible using Low Income Housing Tax Credits, Historical Tax Credits, Tax Increment Financing and New Markets Tax Credits to augment their affordable housing dollars.

Adaptive reuse is about 15% to 25% cheaper and brings affordable housing on-line faster than new construction. AR conversions are increasing yearly with 53,000 expected by the end of 2022 — helping to repurpose the glut of empty office and retail properties while helping solve a housing crisis.

L.A. is currently fine-tuning its ARO to make it more effective with Councilman Paul Koretz’s motion expanding the reach of L.A.’s present ARO. The motion focuses more on below-market-rate housing, and mandates ground floors in new projects be for commercial spaces.

Diverse Neighborhoods

Coincidentally, Bill 10 under consideration at the Honolulu City Council also includes a proposal allowing commercial spaces on ground floors below residential units on upper floors.

This building style — combining commercial and residential — is prevalent in many cities. Throngs of residents living in urban communities are always out and about, day and night. They get necessities — croissants for breakfast, vegetables for lunch — or go out to eat with friends at a favorite hole-in-the-wall that’s a 5-10 minute walk from home.

the Hocking House
A private developer is converting the Hocking Building in downtown Honolulu into affordable rental apartments. Funding for the Hocking Hale project, an example of adaptive reuse, was approved by the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. in July 2021. HHFDC

The walkability of an adaptive reuse neighborhood with its many shops where residents do much of their shopping for the necessities of daily life, often brings residents together. Community meeting places are an extension of home the way beaches are. AR helps create communities with housing ordinary residents can afford, and outdoor meeting — and eating — places where they can get together.

Using adaptive reuse for mixed-income, mixed-use buildings can increase opportunities for diverse neighborhoods where people of different ethnicities, life experiences and different incomes can interact and get to know each other. Furthermore, their “eyes on the street” help prevent the social chaos empty downtown Honolulu has at night.

Low-rise buildings can add density gently, on a human scale.

With adaptive reuse and commercial-on-the-bottom-residential-on-top, we can use a building style that fits Hawaii. Buildings we have seen all our lives can provide affordable housing while retaining the character of our neighborhoods.

Instead of visually scarring skyscrapers, low-rise buildings can add density gently, on a human scale — with windows opening to catch the breezes and open space with greenery — from Kalihi and Downtown to Kaimuki, preferably above King and Beretania, away from rising oceans.

With one of the nation’s worst homeless and affordable housing crises, Hawaii can move more quickly to build affordable housing. With AR plus the commercial-plus-residential paradigm we can take advantage of additional resources they make available.

It makes sense for us to expand on L.A.’s ARO initiatives to also take advantage of resources now available for creating desperately needed affordable housing that can also help rebuild communities.

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About the Author

Renee Ing

Renee Ing is a community activist who has been working for affordable housing since the 1970s.


Latest Comments (0)

Mahalo nui, Renee! The nationwide slump in commercial real estate predates the pandemic. There is a great opportunity to refurbish offices that already have individual bathrooms into condominiums in the Primary Urban Center. For first-floor spaces, those will almost always remain commercial. Businesses cycle through levels of demand, and retail businesses need more customers to sustain current operations or to expand to nights or weekends or early mornings.No housing unit fits all housing demand. Where we need units the most with the most impact is for single occupancy and for couples without children (think retirees and newlyweds), etc. Studios and one-bedroom units from re-use can go a long way towards fixing both our housing shortfall and improving commutes and travel time. These singles and couples do not usually want or need multiple bedrooms, large garages, yards, or single-family dwellings. They need access to work and lifestyle amenities.

Grumpelstiltskin · 1 month ago

The homeless already are utilizing empty buildings. Have you heard about the recent rash of fires in empty homes in residential neighborhoods? Those are the homeless trying to stay warm at night and cook food.

WildJim · 1 month ago

So, exactly what buildings are available for this use, in particular state or city owned? I would assume the city cannot simply condemn private property in the name of housing homeless, so what are the targeted buildings and how many are there. It all sounds like a good concept because retro fitting is cheaper that building new, but the reality is in the numbers. Furthermore, how does government maintain these buildings when they are done and occupied, by homeless that supposedly cannot pay for utilities, maintenance, security, etc.? Does the structure simply become a slum that attracts more homeless to congregate around and create a slum like city? I'm sure neighboring properties would not be very pleased should this transform their living, or working space. Again, easier said than done.

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

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