credit: Photo by Orderinchaos / Wikimedia Commons

A bill introduced by At-Large Councilmember Robert White, Jr. would begin converting the many underused or vacant D.C. office buildings into affordable housing. The Office to Affordable Housing Task Force Establishment Act of 2017 was introduced in May.

If passed, a taskforce of experts, affordable housing advocates, local government officials and a low-income renter would be appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser to investigate the feasibility of converting commercial space into subsidized low-income housing.

The taskforce would make recommendations to the mayor and the D.C. Council about how to locate, zone, fund and convert available properties, according to a press release from Councilmember White’s office. The taskforce would be appointed within 60 days of the measure’s enactment and would have another two months to present their findings, Councilmember White told Street Sense.

The need for government sponsored public housing has grown dire, White added.

Meanwhile, 11 percent of the commercial office buildings are vacant.

The Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District’s State of Downtown report for 2016 shows that the 138-block business “core” area of the District, has nearly 5 million square feet of vacant office space. The rest of the city has 8.3 million square feet of empty office space, according to an assessment by the Washington Business Journal.

“The District has tons of older office buildings that are sitting mostly vacant because businesses are moving to our newer developments, like City Center and the Wharf, while at the same time we have a severe shortage of affordable housing. We need to connect the dots.” the release also said.

White, who has a background in economic development policy and has focused on affordable housing since being elected to D.C. Council last year, thinks building owners struggling to find commercial tenants would be eager to work with the government to put their buildings to some use.

“We need to look for the quickest, most sustainable path to affordable housing,” White said.  “We know this can work because buildings have been converted [to residential], just not to affordable housing.”

This bill has gotten positive attention from business advocates and housing experts alike, according to White.

Asked why this hasn’t been tried before, given the increasingly critical need for more affordable

housing options, White cautioned that, “We’ve been trying a lot of different approaches.”

Five to 10 years ago the business community wouldn’t have been ready for this. The commercial leasing community didn’t have incentive because they could make more money leasing to businesses. Now those businesses have fled, and landlords left high and dry are looking to salvage as much income from those vacant buildings as they can, according to White.

At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, is looking for room to schedule a meeting to discuss the bill which was sponsored by most councilmembers, with the exception of Brianne Nadeau, Kenyan McDuffie and Trayon White Sr.