The Pew Research Center delivered a report in Jan 2020 that confirmed what many people have suspected for decades: “Upper-income households have seen more rapid growth in income in recent decades” than middle or lower-income households. Their research shows that most American families aren’t any better off now than 20 years ago.
While an excessive amount of unused commercial real estate undoubtedly poses a variety of short-term economic challenges, repurposing it provides an incredible opportunity to help middle and lower-income households recover some of their lost economic ground.
Housing and reliable food sources are the foundations of healthy communities and are critical for the growth of the population segments most threatened by recent economic changes. With the right zoning, technologies, and tax incentives to motivate property owners, commercial real estate of all types and sizes (and particularly unused office space) could be transformed into the communities and economic growth engines of tomorrow.
Between a growing city and stagnant wages, affordable housing is a major need in Atlanta for tens of thousands of residents. To that end, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms unveiled a plan in mid-2019 to create 20,000 affordable homes by 2026. If the city were to partner with owners of underutilized commercial properties to create residences within some portion of a building, it would eliminate the city’s need for land purchase, the exercise of eminent domain, and more – expediting the arrival of this much needed housing. Construction Dive magazine reports that reusing commercial buildings usually costs “15% to 20% less than their ground-up construction counterparts.” So reusing commercial buildings could also be a cost savings for the city.
The technology is here today to help feed families by growing food indoors too. Companies like Square Roots allow 340 sq ft to produce the same amount of food as a three-acre farm. Given the tremendous amount of underutilized commercial real estate, this technology could form the foundations of both a food source for residents and an economic driver for excess food that is sold on a local market. Given the population density in these areas, having food grown so close to its consumption reduces both spoilage and the energy required to bring food to market.
If more people are living and growing food in unused commercial buildings, there will be higher demand for services to support them. Everything from stores to restaurants to service providers could co-locate on the first floor or few, much as they do in today’s mixed-use developments. While working from home may be commonplace for many people, those that do not could find employment in these near-by businesses. This would reduce their commute and carbon footprint, while also improving their quality of life and feeling of community.
While mixed-use developments have been around for over 20 years, recent changes from the pandemic have unlocked a huge opportunity for us to reimagine what the term really means. More than just homes stacked on top of offices or stores, underused commercial real estate properties could become all-inclusive, largely self-sustaining communities of the future that feed and provide economic opportunity for their residents. Our future is ripe for building!