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Utilizing Unique Spaces for Affordable Housing Projects

Thinking Outside the Box–Cities Utilizing Unique Spaces for Affordable Housing Projects

These 5 cities are taking advantage of abandoned properties for affordable housing.

By HOM Editor
April 2021

The lack of affordable housing in the U.S. is not a new crisis by any means. We need 7.2 million additional housing units for severely low-income families, reports The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC).  Most low-income households pay over half their income on rent alone, and these families who desperately need assistance rarely receive it, so not only is this housing required in order to put a roof over these families’ heads, but it needs to be affordable. The pandemic vividly highlighted the affordable housing shortage in this country. Communities and organizations are coming together to fight for equal rights and find solutions to the lack of housing. Many cities are looking to pre-existing empty buildings just sitting in their region as an opportunity.

“When a much-beloved building is restored to life, the surrounding neighborhood shares in this invigoration. The impact on residents can also be profound.”

While it may seem as though the vast number of vacated offices, storefronts, and other buildings during the pandemic sparked intrigue in taking advantage of empty properties, the concept of renovating abandoned buildings for affordable housing isn’t new. Publications such as Gothamist and Bloomberg have been asking these questions for years. It seems as though state and city officials are finally listening and proposing affordable housing projects that involve renovating and retrofitting abandoned or vacant buildings. “Tearing down old buildings won’t make our cities more affordable or inviting. It’s time to make better use of the buildings and spaces we already have,” says Stephanie Meeks, National Trust for Historic Preservation CEO and president. This solution not only saves money but bypasses gentrification if properly executed. Meeks continues, “When a much-beloved building is restored to life, the surrounding neighborhood shares in this invigoration. The impact on residents can also be profound. There is something reaffirming about living in a community landmark, particularly one that so clearly exhibits the care that went into its restoration.”

Troy, NY

Just outside Albany, Troy is a thriving little city with a youthful crowd and a real sense of community. Developers in this charming township will be restoring an abandoned building that was built back in 1894 – Haskell School. The renovation, led by ST8 Realty, will involve gutting the entire building to create 20 new affordable housing units. The school has been deserted for over 20 years but has remained a beloved property by the community.

ST8 Realty founder, Dillon Nash, reflects on preserving the integrity of the neighborhood. “This building was once a community cornerstone, and we’re focused on making sure its best days are still ahead. This neighborhood has so much history and we’re here to support its revitalization. Haskell is finally in the right hands,” Nash shares. This is just step one for Troy. The city has big plans for additional projects to support its residents, such as the Realize Troy Comprehensive Plan which focuses on economic development in Troy.

Sacramento, CA

 With a population of 2,155,000, California’s capital is no stranger to the affordable housing crisis. They are also no longer strangers to converting deserted buildings into housing projects. Mercy Housing California, which has developed over 9,000 homes for low-income individuals and families, will be converting The Capitol Park Hotel into apartments for people who were previously houseless. This $64 million renovation will provide 134 homes for people in need. The project is a huge statement for the city and its efforts to address homelessness, not to mention the historic hotel is just minutes from the state Capitol.

The efforts Mercy Housing is putting into maintaining the historical integrity of the building, while updating the necessary constructional issues, showcase the compassion and devotion they have towards their beloved city and community. Mercy Housing California president Doug Shoemaker is sure to thank Mayor Steinberg for leading this project, “The work of creating permanent supportive housing could not be a more complex set of partnerships and funding mechanisms. We are so proud of how all our partners on this project have answered that call.”

New London, CT

The Constitution State’s New London noticed a huge property that wasn’t being used and developers jumped on the opportunity to create something new for the people of New London. Patriquin Architects, the masters behind the renovation, and human services and community development organization, The Connection, were elated to take on this project of converting an 1898 elementary schoolhouse into an affordable housing complex. The renovated historic building, Saint Mary Place, contains 20 apartments, with both studios, and one-bedroom units. The historic details and architectural elements were preserved as much as possible thanks to the help of the State Historic Preservation Office, yet the building still includes updates making it safe with handicap-accessible units.

While the monthly rent ranges from unit to unit, there are income limits to ensure no occupants are taking advantage of the affordable price point. The Connection locked down a 99-year-lease and plans to continue investing time into the property by offering a variety of on-site services designed to support residents. Some units will even be reserved specifically for referrals from Coordinated Access, a service that connects those experiencing homelessness with housing resources and assistance.

Newark, NJ

The city of Newark has been focusing on the slew of deserted buildings and foreclosed properties in their low-income neighborhoods for the past three years as they’ve teamed up with Community Asset Preservation Corporation (CAPC) to develop ReSeed Newark. This program works specifically in said neighborhoods to expand affordable housing and spearhead the rehabilitation of 156 abandoned properties purchased from the city. This plethora of empty buildings will be converted into nearly 400 affordable apartments for those in need.

ReSeed doesn’t stop at housing. They also aim to create employment opportunities, even within their renovation processes. CAPC, and their hired team, promise to hire at least 40% Newark residents rather than bringing in out-of-state workers. ReSeed will also provide training and classes for new business owners.

Another program, Invest Newark, has similar plans. This program will be renovating and retrofitting abandoned homes across Newark, with the existing community in mind. Newark Land Bank, the first in all of the state, has been obtaining these homes within their Invest Newark project and after renovation will only be offering the homes to Newark residents. This program has the community prioritized, not profit. As SVP of Land Bank operations, Annette Muhammad, says, “Newarkers feel like with the growth and resurgence in Newark, they are not left out of opportunities to purchase a property in their neighborhoods they grew up in.”

Philadelphia, PA

The amount of Philadelphia residents who are in desperate need of housing assistance even surpasses a waitlist. Applications for Section 8 housing not only take ages to process, but their waitlist is even closed at this time. Philly has long struggled with a low poverty rate – 23.3% as of 2019 – and is often referred to as one of the poorest large cities in the country. Affordable housing is critical for The City of Brotherly Love, yet the government-backed assistance simply isn’t enough, or even available to many.

Advocates in the area are taking matters into their own hands and planning to make use of empty buildings in neighborhoods – such as Kensington – by renovating them into affordable homes. The Simple Way, an organization that supplies emergency housing, food, and other services to the Kensington community, opened another department devoted to assisting residents in buying and restoring uninhabited properties in the neighborhood. The branch, called Simple Homes, focuses on helping people’s dreams come true and involving them in the process as much as possible. “We want to stabilize families who live here. We won’t build a house for you, but rather, build a house with you,” explains The Simple Way co-founder, Shane Claiborne.

By putting communities first, everyone wins. The population will never stop growing, and safe, affordable housing has to keep up. Renovating and retrofitting deserted buildings utilizes a foundation within the city, rather than bringing outside expensive materials, developers, and ideas into the mix that are solely focused on profit. As Patriquin Architects say, “The concept of “sustainability” in architecture encompasses a wide range of practices and principles; one of the most fundamental is the reuse of existing building material.”


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