ANC backs study on converting empty offices into affordable housing

A local neighborhood group voted unanimously Wednesday to support studying how vacant office space could be transformed into affordable housing.

The Foggy Bottom and West End Neighborhood Advisory Commission voted to send a letter supporting a D.C. Council bill establsihing a task force to determine the impact of converting empty commercial space into affordable housing units. Commissioners said the task force would be a new way to examine and fight the affordable housing crisis in the District.

The ANC also decided unanimously to request an amendment to the District’s 10-year development plan calling for more flexibility when converting office space into affordable housing units.

At-large Council member Robert White and five other council members introduced a bill in May that lays out the task force’s duties, membership and a requirement to submit a report to the Council.

“I think the GW community has a lot of vacant office space around it, and my bill gives the community an opportunity to see more residents and more vibrancy in the community as opposed to old, empty apartment buildings,” White said in an interview.

The task force would bring together 11 experts and advocates including nonprofit developers, economists, structural engineers and building owners to address office to affordable housing conversions. The group would study regulations, government processes, the cost of the conversions and how to incentivize the projects.

As larger companies have conserved costs by using less commercial space, the vacancy rate of D.C. office buildings has climbed, reaching 11 percent, White said.

“We have a significant shortage, an immediate shortage of affordable housing,” White said during the meeting. “We have to think outside the box.”

Eligibility to live in affordable housing is based on the area median income, which includes parts of Maryland and Virginia.

“Because of the great disparity of wealth, the area median income in D.C. is about $109,000, and 60 percent of the area median income are still qualified for affordable housing,” White said. “But that’s still $65,000, $67,000 a year which a lot of people in the District would not consider low income.”

White added that more residents in neighborhoods means that more amenities will be available, boosting the economy in the area.

ANC Chairman Patrick Kennedy said several commercial buildings in the eastern side of the neighborhood could potentially house people in need of affordable housing.

“The affordable housing problem in this city being what it is I think is a concept that we have seen play out as a neighborhood, and I’m very much interested in supporting these efforts,” Kennedy said in the meeting.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization after being introduced. White said At-large Council member Anita Bonds, the chair of the committee, has seemed open to holding a hearing on the bill.

He added in an interview that he has not spoken to University officials about the legislation, but that he hopes to hear from them at the potential hearing to better understand their interests.

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