The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a shift in the way we work and live, with many downtown areas left empty as workers stay home. To address the desperate need for housing in California, lawmakers in San Francisco are proposing a bill that would make it easier and faster to convert empty office buildings into apartments and condos. The proposed legislation seeks to revitalize downtown by creating a balanced mix of offices, housing, entertainment, retail, and other amenities.
Assembly Bill 1532 proposes to classify office conversion projects as “by right” developments, which would ease the permitting and review process for housing projects. This means that a city or county would be prohibited from mandating specific permits for the conversion of vacant offices into housing.
Breaking Down Barriers to Office to Housing Conversions in California
One of the major barriers to office-to-housing conversions is the high cost and bureaucratic process of seeking approvals to change a property’s use from commercial to residential. The new bill aims to address this by providing financial incentives and preventing local officials from blocking such projects as long as 10% of the units are affordable and they do not exceed basic height and density limits.
The legislation would apply to property owners throughout the entire state, including low-rise office buildings in suburban communities that have traditionally resisted building more homes. By speeding up the planning and permitting process, the bill could significantly cut down on costs and help “make projects pencil.”
While office conversions are currently relatively uncommon, many older office properties have a design and structure that resembles that of apartment buildings, making them prime candidates for housing. The bill’s proposed rules would allow for the conversion of more office buildings into new housing, with the goal of providing more affordable housing options for Californians.
Revitalizing California’s Urban Cores: The Office to Housing Conversion Act
The proposed legislation, dubbed the “Office to Housing Conversion Act,” could make use of $400 million in grants outlined in Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent budget proposal specifically for such projects. The funds would go towards downtown redevelopments, but questions remain about how many conversions that amount of money could actually help get off the ground.
The bill seeks to prevent local governments from blocking or delaying office-to-housing projects and requires conversions to be allowed in all areas regardless of local zoning laws. Planning departments would be required to respond to conversion applications within 90 days of submission, and development fees on conversion projects would be limited. The bill also requires that all conversion projects set aside 10% of housing units for low- or middle-income residents.
While there may be pushback from cities and counties on the proposal to strip nearly all local control over conversion projects, Assemblymember Matt Haney is confident of the bill’s chances. He notes that major city centers have seen apartment vacancy rates fall and rents increase since the depths of the pandemic, indicating that there is still demand for downtown living.
Turning Empty Office Space into Housing: A Solution to California’s Housing Crisis?
In conclusion, the proposed bill aims to address the desperate need for affordable housing in California by making it easier and faster to convert empty office buildings into apartments and condos. The proposed rules would apply to property owners throughout the entire state and seek to revitalize downtowns by creating a balanced mix of offices, housing, entertainment, retail, and other amenities.