Packed In: How can empty offices fill the housing shortage?

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane needs more homes.

According to the Spokane Association of Realtors, the city was underbuilt by about 32,000 homes from 2010 to 2019. Homes are in high demand in the Inland Northwest, but offices are sitting empty.

Some companies thrived in the remote work model and aren’t even sure if they’ll bring all their employees back to downtown officers. Developers say converting these offices to housing options would fill the need, but it isn’t a simple switch.

“It’s tough to change uses in buildings. They make the regulation very difficult,” said Dave Black, CEO of Black Realty Management Inc. He says about half of his leased offices still don’t have people in them. He’s curious to see what companies won’t renew when their leases expire.

Black says his company did make the transition from office to residential in one of their buildings. They made new apartments that were rented in about a month.

“There’s just such a demand for housing and a need for it,” Black said.

While he’s happy they made the conversion, he won’t do it for all his properties because it isn’t easy. He says developers have to make a lot of updates to fire safety, parking and water lines most of the time.

“There are some incentives, but there’s a lot of regulation,” he said.

Keith Riddle is the owner of Synergy Properties, another local developer. He echos a lot of the same concerns and frustrations with the changes.

“The remodel and conversion of older buildings is just a much more difficult game,” Riddle said. He’s focusing more on filling the housing need with new builds.

However, both agree downtown can play part in addressing the needs of the current.

“I definitely think the housing shortage can be solved by conversion of office buildings and older buildings to residential, and that is happening,” Black said.

“I think that it’s a good thing to look at because you have a lot of the same features that you’re going to need in housing inside of office spaces,” Riddle said.

They’re hopeful the housing crisis will start to level out as soon as more supply hits the market. Riddle says the city has to take a progressive approach to get homes developed quickly.

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