Empty storefronts repurposed as affordable housing

Some Michigan communities have an abundance of vacant storefronts and office buildings that serve as blight instead of anchors of neighborhood commerce. Some shuttered businesses could be reborn as housing for those who want to live closer to the jobs they seek. That would help to solve two problems: the cancerous effect of vacant buildings on neighborhoods, and lack of affordable housing that keeps people from moving into areas that offer jobs.

The idea is being considered in Washington, D.C., where a proposed law would promote the conversion of underused or vacant office buildings to subsidized low-income housing. About 11 percent of the city’s commercial properties are vacant. The pending bill awaits a hearing.

The nation’s capital has a robust jobs market with plenty of high-end housing available. A great need exists, however, for housing for workers whose jobs are in the city but who cannot afford to live there.

In Hartford, Connecticut, developers turned a vacant, 100-year-old former warehouse into mixed-income housing, including 32 low-income subsidized units. The $36.5 million project was aided by $8.7 million in federal tax credits. Connecticut offers up to $50,000 to communities that build affordable housing that costs no more than 30 percent of tenants’ annual income. Connecticut has the highest per capita income among states but housing is unaffordable for many.

Michigan might consider a couple of trends. One is a growing market for lower cost housing, as opposed to so-called luxury housing. And there’s an opportunity in medium and small communities to entice people to move from suburbs into town, closer to cheaper transportation and services they need. Bringing people back to cities could empower business expansions, as employees become customers for local services, food and entertainment.

For some, apartment or condo living would be less expensive and demanding than maintaining a suburban house. Empty commercial buildings, with their abundance of open and easily convertible spaces, may offer developers a less expensive alternative to building new apartments.

To make that happen would take a commitment from community leaders and the state. As jobs go unfilled and potential workers struggle to find housing, it makes sense to explore how empty commercial buildings could find productive new life as homes to self-sufficient workers.

Kate Birnbryer-White

executive director,

Michigan Community Action