As a longtime champion of converting unused downtown office space to affordable housing, and as the new chair of the Housing Committee, I laud Mayor Bowser’s goal of housing 15,000 residents downtown over the next five years. The District is facing a housing crisis that has real implications for both our residents and our local economy. Too many longtime Washingtonians are being displaced, and, at the same time, businesses are balking at locating in DC because of a lack of affordable housing for employees.
The strength of the District’s economy as a whole depends on a strong downtown. In Q1 of 2022, DC’s Central Business District had a commercial vacancy rate of 19.8%. And even before the pandemic, downtown went dark at 5:00 PM. We need to reimagine and revive our downtown. To do that in this changing economy, we must transition underutilized office space to new mixed-income housing, which will spur 24/7 economic activity.
In 2017, I successfully led the Council to fund a study on converting office spaces to housing because of the then record-high office vacancy rates and our desperate need for more housing. Office-to-housing conversions have happened slowly in the District and around the world. Now is the time to accelerate these efforts, and to focus them on mixed-income housing.
The Mayor’s goal is a good strategy to address DC’s housing crisis and to reduce the strain on our struggling office market. As we execute this, we must also focus on maximizing inclusion of District resident families at a range of incomes. I look forward to working with the Mayor and the Council to achieve this goal for District residents, and, as we head into oversight and budget season, I urge the Mayor to contemplate major investments in converting empty downtown office space to affordable housing.