Gov Cuomo, NYC real estate groups want office building conversions in Manhattan.
Vacant office space could be New York’s ticket to more affordable housing units, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this month, but developers and housing advocates say the preliminary plan needs vetting in order to serve low-income residents.
In two of his four State of State addresses in early January, Cuomo touched on a concept that would allow for some hotels and office buildings in New York City to be repurposed for residential use as a means to address the affordable housing crisis in the city.
It could be a blueprint for the rest of the state, Cuomo said, as the state looks to reimagine its economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic and whenever the virus’ wrath ends.
“Understanding and anticipating shifts in the post-COVID economy, we also recognize the over-availability of hotel and office space as a side effect of COVID,” Cuomo said Jan. 12.
“These underutilized spaces also present an opportunity, especially in cities where housing has become too unaffordable for too many, especially with the growing homeless problem which is a crisis in many of our cities.”
As part of the plan, Cuomo announced a group of Manhattan development projects that will include up to 1,400 affordable housing units across 14 buildings.
That is part of his $51 billion New York City-oriented agenda in the years ahead, which includes buying real estate south of Penn Station, redeveloping Pier 76 and transforming 140 acres in Midtown Manhattan.
But he didn’t provide further details on the financial logistics, tax incentives or urban planning strategies related to such a conversion program.
The scant details left housing advocates, real estate trade groups and market analysts with questions about how such a proposal would work on the ground.
Many agree that it’s too early to tell what it means for the future of New York City real estate and how the plan might be replicated in other New York cities with a glut of unused office space.
But Cuomo envisioned that “these commercial spaces can be adapted for other uses that benefit the community and make them commercially viable. Why not convert unneeded commercial space into affordable and supportive housing?
Affordable housing, now, advocates say
New York City and many cities across the state desperately need affordable housing, said Brenda Rosen, CEO of Breaking Ground, a nonprofit affordable and supportive housing developer working primarily in Manhattan and Brooklyn for the past 30 years.
As an example, a 248-unit affordable housing development Breaking Ground built in the Bronx received more than 55,000 applications, Rosen said.
There were 3,000 to 4,000 homeless individuals on the streets of New York City at any given time last year; 17,000 single adults in the shelter system and more than 50,000 people (adults and children) who identify as part of families in shelters.
“We are presented with a huge opportunity, given the affordability crisis that existed pre-COVID and now has only become more urgent,” Rosen said. “Our obligation is to look at this and say, ‘What can we make happen?'”
The key to the success of Cuomo’s affordable housing concept will be robust housing subsidies, Rosen said. The state government has been an engaged partner on housing projects that incorporate nonprofits already supporting homeless and housing insecure populations, Rosen said.
“When we bring opportunities to them, they take them very seriously,” she said, adding that nonprofits should continue to advocate for adequate housing funding in the state budget.
Cuomo said he would form a Commission on the Future of the New York Economy because of the impact the pandemic has had on the jobs, businesses and housing.
“This commission will help draw a roadmap to find opportunities for New Yorkers to get back to work, in jobs that pay well, in industries that will grow rather than disappear in the coming decades,” Cuomo said.
While office space could provide some opportunities, former or distressed hotels offer a much more suitable starting point for conversion to residential units, experts said.
Hotels have existing plumbing and common areas and are conveniently located near mass transportation options.
Converting hotels would “allow us to make a dent in the housing affordable crisis,” Rosen said. “It’s something that can be done for roughly half the price of ground-up new construction and in half the time.”