How The COVID-19 Pandemic Could Lead to More Affordable Housing

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is undoubtedly a transformative moment. We will look back and see life as divided into periods before the virus and after the virus.

For many, the loss of loved ones and health and wealth means transformation will be negative. But I also believe that there will be positive transformations from this crisis. That belief has lead me to think about zoning and affordable housing.

Pandemic Highlights Lack of Affordable Housing

As I write this, a majority of states in the US have issued recommendations or orders for workers who are not first responders or essential workers to stay at home. This change to our collective daily routine has created huge impacts on our economy.

Here are three things that stay-at-home orders have revealed:

  • Many of us can work effectively from home. It’s taken some adjustment, but companies are adapting. Many companies can function just fine with little or no office space. For me, much of my day job comes from these distributed companies and is done out of my house. It turns out, a lot of our former commuting and office space may be unnecessary.
  • Many of us can learn just fine at home. For years now, ed tech has been making forays into traditional classroom education. Email and cloud storage and social media have been augmenting classrooms for years. Whole programs and schools exist solely online; that’s how I earned my MBA degree. It turns out, many schools and learning communities function effectively with little or no physical classrooms.
  • (I do have to take a moment right here and acknowledge the parents, especially moms, who have been forced to juggle working remotely while supporting their children’s education at home. It hasn’t been easy.)
  • Many of us lack affordable housing. People who spend a majority of their income on rent are less economically resilient. Forcing homeless people to live in crowded, often unsanitary, public spaces or shelters creates a public health hazard.

The Pandemic Will Change How We Use Land

When you take these observations as a group, several conclusions arise:

  • The commercial office space market is not coming back anytime soon. Company owners will realize that they can reduce or eliminate the expense of physical workspaces. They may need to drastically cut their real estate costs, just to recover from the pandemic. If companies keep any physical space, it may be greatly reduced and dedicated to specific uses such as occasional face-to-face meetings between employees or with customers. (Oddly, this might be the world that co-working companies such as WeWork and IWG were actually invented for. Keep an eye on them.)
  • School districts that have been struggling financially will sell expensive real estate and move to less costly and more flexible options. If schools move to a hybrid delivery model, where classes meet physically for half the week or less, then districts may need only half the real estate. Here in the Bay Area, even before the pandemic, schools districts such as Oakland were pushing to close schools to make up budget deficits.
  • Citizens will push for more radical transformation of housing. Because of concerns about public health, safety, and economic resilience, cities will finally hear them.

Taking the next logical step in this thought process means that commercial office buildings and school buildings will be available to be converted to housing. To do that, we need to change zoning.

Re-zoning for More Affordable Housing

Zoning–rules about how a region’s various parcels of land can be used–is a design problem. Design principles and systems thinking should hold sway. Cities and developers will need to involve citizens in redesigning office buildings and schools into housing. Cities will need to think about the impact of rezoning and development on related systems such as transportation, water, and power.

Zoning is also a problem of governing the commons. After all, land in a city is a finite and shared resource. There are layers of decision making related to land use, and rules about who gets to make and change the rules that govern how land is used.

Converting schools to housing shouldn’t be too hard, especially elementary schools. Many are already located in or near residential areas and designed to accommodate bus traffic for transportation. Schools could become mixed-use buildings featuring both housing and common areas for work and learning. Within these mixed used buildings, teachers may be less of the “sage on the stage” in a centralized classroom and more of a learning support.

Office buildings could be harder to convert into housing. Because of historic approaches to zoning, they are often clustered away from residential and commercial areas. How many office buildings are within walking distance of a grocery store? The growth in delivery services might provide a bridge until newer models of commercial distribution emerge.

But I think that this is an opportunity to make the most of this transformative moment to build on new strengths in remote work, ed tech, and delivery services to solve a massive problem in affordable housing.

(Image courtesy of Pxfuel)

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