Facing east on the 1500 block of K Street, N.W., in downtown Washington, D.C.

Facing east on the 1500 block of K Street, N.W., in downtown Washington, D.C.

Much has been made about the dearth of affordable housing in the Washington region, where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for renters and homeowners to live. But the region is also home to an overflow of commercial real estate properties, some of which are becoming less useful as workplaces. Architect and urban planner Roger Lewis joins Kojo to explore what it would take to repurpose such commercial space for housing.


  • Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park


  • 12:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. There may be a lack of affordable housing in the Washington region, but you almost never hear anyone bemoaning a lack of office space. Corners of our area are home to forests of office buildings, many of which are long past their prime as functional workplaces. But what if these workplace wastelands could be retrofitted into adequate housing for those who are struggling with their rent or with their mortgages? And what kind of potential lies in properties that were developed for commercial uses in bygone eras?

  • 12:07:31

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore these questions is Roger Lewis. He's an architect and urban planner. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, welcome.

  • 12:07:46

    MR. ROGER LEWISThank you. Always a pleasure.

  • 12:07:48

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation and have the pleasure of participating in this discussion by calling 800-433-8850. Where do you see untapped potential for improving D.C.'s affordable housing stock? 800-433-8850. You can send an email to kojo@wamu.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. It is one of the more comment laments you hear in the Washington region. The rent is too damn high. We're not doing enough to make housing more affordable, to the degree that there's only so much land available inside an urban area like D.C. Roger, how would you describe the challenge of simply maintaining the city's stock of affordable housing, let alone expanding it?

  • 12:08:33

    LEWISWell, the stock is diminishing, generally, here and elsewhere. One of the things that happens is that a lot of owners of properties -- housing that is under contract to receive subsidy -- as those contracts expire, often the owners decide to go market and convert them from subsidized housing to market-rate housing and for reasons that are very understandable. It's -- there are economic advantages. So we -- so you couple that with the fact that a lot of the housing is also substandard, in the terms of its construction and conditions, and we're not building -- we're just not building enough housing to keep up with the demand. So the overall picture isn't very favorable here in Washington and elsewhere.

  • 12:09:26

    LEWISThe politicians talk about trying to do something about it, but it's very, very difficult. Because ultimately, all below market-rate, i.e., affordable housing, requires subsidy. So the question is, who subsidizes? Where does the subsidy come from?

  • 12:09:43

    NNAMDIA government report earlier this year found that D.C. may be the most expensive place to live in the entire country. Some people have debated what exactly that study found. But no one disputes that costs are skyrocketing. What would you say is contributing to that spike from an urban-planning perspective?

  • 12:10:01

    LEWISWell, it's purely the increased cost of labor and materials, land. And of course in the District of Columbia, where land is essentially a diminishing supply, we're not making any more of it. And the land that we have, much of it is already developed, although there are still many sites in Washington that are underdeveloped, where you could put more than is there now. We keep looking out at one of them across the street through the window of the studio...

  • 12:10:31


  • 12:10:32

    LEWIS...where the density is clearly not as much as it could be. I think the -- all of these things, though, are contributing to increased cost. The one thing that is lower than it used to be -- the one expense in real estate development that is actually fairly favorable these days, is interest rates. Because construction loans, the money that we borrow -- most real estate is built with borrowed money -- that's one good thing. We can borrow money these days at much less rates than I remember having to deal with when I was building things.

  • 12:11:07

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Would you consider living in an office building that has been converted into affordable units? What would make you willing to live in such a space? 800-433-8850. Roger, I don't think anyone would argue, we have a shortage of office buildings in this region. How does the return on investment for a commercially used building compare to one that's purposed for housing, in general terms?

  • 12:11:36

    LEWISWell, there are always local conditions that can changed the balance. But in most parts of Washington, certainly, where land has been zoned for medium- to high-density commercial uses, building and getting leased an office building is going to be more profitable than building housing. And I'm talking primarily about rental housing. I mean I think we should make sure the audience understands that when we're talking about affordable housing, we're primarily talking about rental apartments or townhouses or units that people are not buying, but rather are leasing. I think the problem or the challenge is that there's not a whole lot of land left for building on that hasn't already got something on it.

  • 12:12:31

    LEWISSo then the question becomes, are there -- how much real estate do we have in this city that could be recycled? And in particular, are there office buildings around that have for whatever reason have lost their attraction as an investment for commercial purposes. I -- in the article that's going to appear in The Post Saturday, we mention, for example, that there's a building in Alexandria that's been converted from an office building to apartments. It's not affordable housing. But EYA, which is a developer here in the city, took an office building near old town Alexandria and has created a new residential building called The Oronoco -- totally transformed this building -- which demonstrates that it can be done.

  • 12:13:18

    LEWISWe know it can be done. And I predict -- I'm predicting that in the future there will be more such transformations. With some incentives from the public sector, some of those transformations could produce affordable housing.

  • 12:13:32

    NNAMDII'm assuming that the reason that the kind -- that kind of conversion has not been made in the past is because the incentives were not there. What would be the incentive for a developer to convert a commercial space into a residential one, rather than repurposing it for future commercial use?

  • 12:13:50

    LEWISWell, there can be a lot of reasons. Certainly, one of them is that the -- as newer buildings get built -- class A buildings, and a lot of these buildings are very attractive to tenants -- and those tenants, a lot of those tenants want to be in the latest, newest, fanciest building -- that certainly is not unusual here in Washington, where a lot of the tenants are law firms. So as you -- if the real estate commercial market, if the office demand goes down, if there's a softening in the market, or if a building simply is -- would require major retrofitting or even demolition to upgrade, the notion of perhaps repurposing it for housing becomes attractive. You used the right word, incentives. There need to be incentives.

  • 12:14:40

    LEWISAnd I think some of the incentives also have to be, as I said, public-sector incentives, making it attractive to the developer to not retrofit the building and make a fancier office building, but rather to change it to housing.

  • 12:14:53

    NNAMDIAnd you mention incentive. Alex, in Arlington, Va., thinks subsidize. Alex, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:01

    ALEXThank you, Kojo. The panelist just mentioned a moment ago that with subsidized housing, somebody has to offset that with a subsidy. The question I had, is there any precedent where either the District or other municipalities have provided a tax credit to property owners? So rather than bearing the cost after the fact and repaying that subsidy, just giving a write-off on the -- as in the form of a tax credit, whether that would be an income tax credit or a corporate capital gain credit. Just wondered if there's any precedence on that?

  • 12:15:38

    NNAMDIAny precedent for this, Roger?

  • 12:15:39

    LEWISYeah. Oh, yeah. That's -- in fact, tax abatement or tax credits -- those have been on the books for a long time. That -- there are both federal and state and local programs that involve subsidy through the use of tax policy, fiscal policy. So that exists. One of the things that we were just talking about, an article in today's New York Times about affordable housing being built up in New York...

  • 12:16:06


  • 12:16:06

    LEWIS...where there's no public-sector subsidy. But basically New York has said, we just -- we're just going to tell the developers, if you're building a bunch of units, a certain percentage of them have to be affordable, which means affordable to those people who presumably can't pay market-rate rent. And the offset, the incentive there often is increasing density allowance, so that instead of being allowed to build 300 units, they allow 350 or 400 units. But in return for that, they have to make a certain number of those units below market.

  • 12:16:43

    NNAMDIAnd they're not offering them any subsidy, explicitly (unintelligible).

  • 12:16:46

    LEWISThat's right. Looks good on the political -- looks good for the politicians. They don't have to raise taxes. And in fact, they can argue that ultimately it will produce more tax revenue, because there are more people living there, spending their money.

  • 12:16:59

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Alex. How would you, Roger, evaluate whether an office building is worth saving for this kind of purpose? What factors would you weigh in making the evaluation?

  • 12:17:10

    LEWISWell, there -- I think you could start with the building itself. I mean there are a lot of these older buildings that have asbestos in them. The buildings have deteriorating curtain walls, the facades are sort of obsolete. The HVAC systems -- in other words, all of the systems of which the building is composed may really be aging to the point where they -- you have to either rebuild them or tear the building down. So that's one of the first things you would look at.

  • 12:17:41

    LEWISLocation matters. Again, if you're in a great location, if you're in a location which is a demand location -- a place where people want to be -- it's going to be hard to justify transforming to housing, because it might pay off for the owner to just demolish the building, knowing the location is great, and building another building. Another consideration is whether the underlying zoning is such that the existing building is way below what's allowed by zoning.

  • 12:18:12

    LEWISSo if I'm -- if I've got a site where I could double or triple the size of a building versus what's there now, again I may be motivated to tear it down and build another office building, rather than to convert that building on what we would call an underdeveloped property, rather than redoing it as an office building. So those are among the primary considerations.

  • 12:18:36

    NNAMDIThat said, it would appear though that there are likely to be office buildings in the Washington region, in general, and in The District, in particular, that despite all of those concerns, can probably be converted.

  • 12:18:50

    LEWISOh, yeah. I mean I think it's physically, technically feasible to convert almost any office building to residential use.

  • 12:18:57

    NNAMDIWe'll get to that in a second. But go ahead.

  • 12:18:59

    LEWISSo -- but I think, you know, it would be interesting to do a study to find -- to identify how many buildings there are that, let's say, are marginal in terms of being maintained as office buildings.

  • 12:19:13

    NNAMDIHere is Louis in Potomac, Md. Louis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:20

    LOUISHi. I had two comments. And it's a pleasure to talk to Roger Lewis. I saw your cartoons recently at the AIA Building. I was very impressed by the spread of them. One is that...

  • 12:19:32

    NNAMDIThank you, on behalf of Roger.

  • 12:19:34

    LEWISThat, yeah, you beat me to it.

  • 12:19:36

    NNAMDINo, go ahead.

  • 12:19:37

    LOUISOne of the things is that we need to make this housing not only affordable but appropriate, and in particular in regard to the aging in the population. We need more accessibility, more universal design. And we need to really push developers beyond fair housing guidelines in the number of units that are acceptable and appropriate. And my second comment is that we have a lot of owner-occupied homes in the District. There's a great deal of capital there. And as they become -- you know, they're in bad shape and many of them are also inappropriate for aging, and I think we could do very well by pushing those -- pushing opportunities to help renovate their homes and make them more accessible in order to allow people to stay in their homes, age in place, keep their long term care in their home and avoid looking for affordable housing that is congregate housing.

  • 12:20:33

    NNAMDIThat is a conversation, I think, for another time but it is an idea that we can certainly explore in the future. But Roger, your response?

  • 12:20:41

    LEWISWell, I think he's -- I think Louis did a great job of summarizing what we need to do. I mean, I think that first of all, under the current ordinances in D.C. and many other places, any new housing has to meet current codes including accessibility requirements that are mandated both federally and by states and municipalities. The again in place movement, we've talked about that on this show more than once and certainly I think there are a lot of people who intend to do just that, to age in place.

  • 12:21:15

    LEWISAgain, what I think I'm concerned about is that there is great demand for -- among people who are not necessarily the aging. Some of it is people who are aging and the kids are gone, the dog is dead, I don't need to mow the lawn anymore, would like to live in reasonably affordable apartments in the city.

  • 12:21:36

    LEWISBut I think there's -- we know there's a great deal of interest now -- there were just some articles recently in the papers about how many more people among the millennials are renting rather than buying homes. That's been a steady trend of an increase in rentals. I know it well. My son and daughter-in-law with their kids, they are still renting a house. They have decided it's not a great investment these days to go buy a house necessarily.

  • 12:22:02

    LEWISSo I think there are a whole lot of moving parts to this picture or to this machine of housing. And I think for the foreseeable future I think we are going to see a sustained demand for rental apartments that are affordable by both young and old.

  • 12:22:21

    NNAMDIWe're having a conversation about the possibility, probability of repurposing commercial buildings in the Washington region for affordable housing. We'd like to hear your view, 800-433-8850. Would you consider living in an office building that has been converted into affordable units? You can send email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:24:37

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Roger Lewis, architect and urban planner who writes the Shaping of the City column for the Washington Post, and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. We're talking about repurposing office buildings in order to provide affordable housing. We are inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. And Roger, this one had to come up. Here is Phil who is on the Dulles Toll Road. Phil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:25:03

    PHILThank you, Kojo. Hey, there's a wonderful building with a lot of internal capacity, volume, space. And I wonder what's going to happen to it. The FBI would have to be suitable for, I think, low-cost housing. Would anybody want to live there?

  • 12:25:21

    NNAMDIThis is a building that, Roger, people cannot seem to get out of their thoughts and now out of their imagination.

  • 12:25:27

    LEWISWell, Phil raises a good point. One of the challenges -- and I talk about this for several paragraphs in the Saturday column that will appear in the Post -- one of the challenges of converting an office building has to do with the proportions and dimensions of the floor plates in office buildings. And that's because what is ideal for deploying apartments, usually a wing 60, 70, 75' wide with a corridor running down the middle and apartments deployed on either side, that's not how office buildings are generally configured.

  • 12:26:00

    LEWISOffice buildings tend to have very wide, deep floor plates. And what then, the challenge for the architect and the developer is, how do you take something which might -- from the core where you have the bathrooms and the stairs -- the fire stairs and the elevators, the distance from that core to the outer wall might be 70, 80, 100'. Whereas an apartment only wants to be 30' deep or 35' deep between the corridor wall and the window wall. I mean, I hope I'm not losing the audience here.

  • 12:26:33


  • 12:26:35

    LEWISSo one of the challenges is figuring out how to deal with something like an office building with a very large floor plate to convert that to housing. And what it's done is it's motivated our architects and developers to be more creative about how they design apartment units in such buildings. It motivates them to sometimes start cutting away the floor plates to introduce light wells or interior atriums. These are -- can cost a little more money but they can actually be very effective in bringing light and views into the interior of these very large floor plate buildings.

  • 12:27:14

    NNAMDIWhat about access to other functional things like bathrooms, elevators?

  • 12:27:18

    LEWISWell, the -- again, they may be able, in some buildings, to use the existing elevators, but very typically it's basically a gut job. You basically have to gut the building, pull everything out, including the stuff in the core, typically including new elevators. Again, it depends on the geometry of the building. So there's no one-size-fits-all in answer to this question. Every building is different. So there are -- if you go out into the suburbs, there are a lot of office buildings out there, by the way, in the suburbs and exurbs of this city that I suspect overtime will need recycling.

  • 12:28:01

    LEWISAnd we should mention one other thing that might affect or incentivize transformation, and that is that the demand, the need for office space in the future with technology changing with telecommuting, etcetera, we may not need as much office space annually year-to-year as we are using right now.

  • 12:28:21

    NNAMDIOnto Bernie in Silver Spring, Md. Bernie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:28:27

    BERNIEGood afternoon. I followed Mr. Lewis through his writings in the Post for years. And what he just said about gutting commercial buildings, I would like to emphasize from my perspective. I'm an environmental engineer and I work on indoor equality in commercial and residential buildings in this area, including in D.C. And the type of HVAC equipment that your standard Class A 12-story commercial building uses here is completely inappropriate for -- from a technical and a code point of view from what's needed in residential housing. So this is a cautionary flag, simple conversion is not practical for many buildings, in my view.

  • 12:29:13

    NNAMDIAnd I'm pretty sure that Roger is not implying that the conversion is simple.

  • 12:29:17

    LEWISNo, no.

  • 12:29:17

    NNAMDIIndeed what he's saying is that it is quite challenging.

  • 12:29:19

    LEWISOh, in fact -- yeah, and specifically, to just reinforce Bernie's point, one of the things that almost always has to be completely redone is the HVAC system, any heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, the plumbing. Essentially what -- the few buildings I know about where this has been done, everything has been removed. There's nothing left but the columns and the floor plates. And often the skin gets redone substantially.

  • 12:29:50

    NNAMDIBernie, thank you very much for your call.

  • 12:29:52

    BERNIEYou're welcome.

  • 12:29:53

    NNAMDIYou too can call us. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. We got an email from Jackie who says, "If the rent was right I would totally go into a place in an old office building, assuming it wasn't any place where I used to work, of course, because that would bring out weird feelings in me." There was an article in the Washington Post today, Roger, about how Chicago -- in Chicago they're repurposing so-called single-room occupancy hotels, making the city even less affordable. The developers are converting these building into luxury units. What do you make of that?

  • 12:30:29

    LEWISWell, it's a bottom line motivation. I assume -- I didn't see the article or I haven't read it yet but I assume that it's happening because the building owner has decided that they can make more money doing that than maintaining it as a SRO building. I should -- again, what -- there's no one-size-fits-all strategy here. I think every building has to be assessed on its own. I think every site is different, every neighborhood is different. And the needs -- the market is different as you move around. In fact, even within a given city market conditions vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. These are all factors that play into the decision...

  • 12:31:18

    NNAMDIMarket conditions differ but our cultural condition is also changing. You mentioned how millennials' expectations seem to be different. Do you find people's expectations have shifted for the kind of size they're looking to live in? In Chicago they are repurposing these small units that were used by people of low income. Now people of higher income find these units appealing. A lot has been made about the rise of micro living and about the prices people are offering to live in smaller units.

  • 12:31:48

    LEWISYeah, I mean, I think this -- we've done a micro unit discussion, it seems to me...

  • 12:31:52

    NNAMDIYes, we have.

  • 12:31:52

    LEWIS...on one of the previous shows. Again, it depends on whom you're dealing with in the marketplace. A couple who have been living in a 3,000 square foot house for 30 years, have an art collection and a lot of furniture, they're probably not going to move to a micro unit. But a 26-year-old who's come to Washington, has got a nice job and not a whole lot of stuff might be quite happy to move into a micro unit. He or she might end up spending very little time there other than to sleep.

  • 12:32:27

    LEWISI mean, I think some of -- judging how the city has changed, it wouldn't surprise me if the micro unit appeal is to the younger generation. It's probably that they see it as a place not to -- a place where they're going to furnish it and install a lot of stuff and have a family and lots of kids and guests. They see it as a place to go to sleep when they get home after doing whatever they do in the evening.

  • 12:32:57

    NNAMDINick in McLean, Va. wants to address this issue. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:33:02

    NICKHey, good morning, guys -- or actually good afternoon. So you touched on it just a little ahead of my question. And the, I guess, perspective I'm looking for is -- and I've seen the micro unit thing developing up in New York City. I've got three college graduate children who are -- two of whom are currently actively looking for apartments in the district. I'd like to get your take on, you know, what are the upsides and downsides of deploying this concept here in D.C.?

  • 12:33:33

    NNAMDIAre your kids particularly interested in small spaces, Nick? Have they indicated that to you at all?

  • 12:33:40

    NICKI think they're wide open to it and I think they're looking to be convenient to X, Y and Z, their work, their friends and, you know, the number of activities that are now prevalent in the district that weren't prevalent in the district when I moved here 30 years ago.

  • 12:33:55


  • 12:33:56

    LEWISWell, what's happening -- I think it's a very good question. I think that -- what I think we're going to see is -- and this gets back to the cultural comment that Kojo made a few minutes ago -- I think with these smaller units -- with these buildings with smaller units in them, efficiencies or micro units, one of the things they are including now in these buildings that you would not have found in buildings built 30 or 40 years ago like the one my wife and I moved into when we moved into D.C., where there was a teeny lobby, a place to pick up the mail and that's it and the rest of it is apartments.

  • 12:34:33

    LEWISWhat you're finding now is the developers are saying, okay, the apartment unit itself, the private space can be quite small. But we're going to deploy in the building some spaces that can be shared by the tenants for get-togethers, for having parties. In other words, some of the activities that we engage in in our daily lives with -- that are social activities can still go on but they don't have to be inside your apartment where all you've got is a bed or a refrigerator, a bathroom.

  • 12:35:04

    LEWISAnd so I'm noting that a lot of these projects that I read about have these other amenities. They have a workout room. they may have a spa. There may be a swimming pool somewhere, you know. So the building becomes kind of a commune. I mean, this -- what we're building, I think, with these micro unit projects is places that are more like communes where your private space is actually quite small, but you have a lot of other optional spaces in the building where you can -- that you can use either by yourself or more often with friends.

  • 12:35:37

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Nick in McLean. We have another Nick, this one in Potomac, Md. Nick, your turn.

  • 12:35:45

    NICKHi. Thanks a lot for having me on.

  • 12:35:47

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:35:49

    NICKI was wondering, you know, presumably anybody who's taking on a project like this, a developer or an owner are going to need lending to either keep it a commercial business or turn it into this multiunit dwelling. How do you approach highest and best use questions for doing this thing that's more for the people and might be looked at as semi-altruistic thing?

  • 12:36:20

    NNAMDIWhat do you say to your banker?

  • 12:36:23

    NICKWhat do you say to your banker when they say highest and best uses, keeping it as a commercial property? How do you get the money?

  • 12:36:29


  • 12:36:30

    LEWISWell, first of all, you won't get any financing based on altruism. Secondly, most -- the lenders generally -- their primary interest -- they don't necessarily say, well, we're not going to finance this because this isn't the highest and best use. You know, we want you to build a bigger building. They basically look at the arithmetic. They look at the numbers and they look at the value of the property, is the value of the real estate sufficient as collateral for the loan? They look at your spreadsheets about projected income and expenses. And if it all makes sense, if it looks like a reasonable business plan and you have -- you're credit worthy, you'll get the loan.

  • 12:37:20

    LEWISI say this based in part on my own experience because I've spent a little bit of time as a developer back in the day. I think -- so I think that that's how it works in the real world. And I think you have touched on something. I mean, it does mean there can be a bit of a challenge if you're trying to build 40 percent of your units as below market. You know, if you -- if in fact your numbers don't work out, and this can happen if you're trying to go in below market, that can be a problem, which is why subsidy generally again gets back into the conversation.

  • 12:37:58

    NNAMDIThank you for your call. Onto Dave in Newport News, Va. Dave, your turn.

  • 12:38:04

    DAVEHey, thanks, Roger, Kojo. So we mentioned earlier in the program that some office space is quote "past its prime." And so, A, what makes an office space past its prime? Is it just look and feel and furnishing or is it something more? And then also we touched on Chicago. What cities have cracked the code on this already where developer and architects and owners are already doing this on a larger scale in the U.S. and abroad? Who's already got this wired?

  • 12:38:35


  • 12:38:37

    LEWISWell, there are a lot of places. I don't know that there's any single city in the United States that is way ahead of the curve on this. You know, we have -- we -- the real estate industry has, for decades, been repurposing older buildings. Not just office buildings but warehouses, etcetera making old schools -- turning them into hotels or apartments. I mean, this is not a new idea or a new -- something that's not been tried.

  • 12:39:08

    LEWISAnd you can go to cities in Europe. I remember when I was a lot thinner and had more hair, I made a trip -- I was in Copenhagen and marveling at these huge number of old warehouses along the docks, along the harbor that had been converted into apartments and workspaces and studios and what have you. So this is not a new idea repurposing old buildings, saving them.

  • 12:39:36

    LEWISAnd we should mention that one of the advantages of repurposing an old building, whether it's for housing or anything else, has to do with sustainability. I mean, you do manage to save a lot of already invested energy and money and materials and labor when you keep an old building. And as I think we've said already that there's no one rule or one size-fits-all strategy here. I think every building, every neighborhood, every market has to be analyzed. And the decision gets made based on all of these factors. So it just depends -- maybe that's my best answer. It depends.

  • 12:40:20

    NNAMDIOn to Michelle, in Washington, D.C. Michelle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:40:25

    MICHELLEHi, greetings. Thank you for taking my call. And this is a perfect time for me to say what I have to say. You know, I am a human rights advocate and one who has worked to push for that repurposing buildings and sustainability. And someone such as myself has done such a great job of doing so that we've made it available for developers and the market to really think about this and create projects such as this.

  • 12:40:59

    MICHELLEBut now it's to our own demise because the very person, like me, who pushed for this type of movement to happen -- now, you all have made it cost prohibitive for someone such as myself to even be able to move to these types of places. So I want to know where it is that -- or if it is indeed possible for you to have an ounce of altruism with respect to this, to include people who are a single person in their 50's, who may have been impacted by the market due to the downward spiral with nonprofits.

  • 12:41:41

    MICHELLEAnd now also impacted by ageism on top of that, when we have held it down doing with low cost jobs and now having to pay enormous rents, if you will, to address social justice issues.

  • 12:42:00

    NNAMDIAnd, Michelle, of course you would like to stay in the city, correct?

  • 12:42:04

    MICHELLEI would love to stay in the city. So if anyone is listening, please call Kojo.

  • 12:42:10

    NNAMDIWell, no, we are, ourselves, here listening, Michelle. And it seems to me that when you see Roger's piece this Saturday in the Washington Post you will realize that you are precisely the kind of individual for whom he's talking about making housing available.

  • 12:42:24

    LEWISYeah, Michelle, you have identified a really serious problem facing this city and every other city in the United States, which is there's -- there is a gap. There are -- there is still a sector of the population that, like yourself, where even the so-called affordable units are not affordable. I'm going to -- I have to quote this article that was in the New York Times today, where they have -- they've just approved -- the city council's approved this very, very ambitious, very large housing project under their inclusionary zoning.

  • 12:42:58

    LEWISInclusionary meaning that the zoning requires a certain number of units be affordable or be below market rate. But here's what it says, "What the city and developer were calling affordable was far too costly for the neighborhood. Estimated rents could reach about $2,700 a month for a one bedroom apartment in a community whose median income is $56,000." We know, first of all, there are a lot of households where the income is not $56,000, where it might be half that.

  • 12:43:31

    LEWISThere's no way they can afford $2,700 a month for an apartment. And the article does go on to say that they've done -- they're going to work on trying to make some of the rents as low as $800. I think -- I'm not suggesting -- I wasn't suggesting earlier that altruism doesn't motivate us to do what we're doing. Or motivate a society like ours to do what it's doing. But there is still the issue of where does the subsidy come from. And the fact is if I -- in Washington, D.C., if you're going to build an apartment -- I don't care what you do or where it is -- to get the rent down, let's say, to $600 or $700 or $800 a month there's got to be subsidy.

  • 12:44:13

    LEWISYou just can't make it work. And so that's where we get into perhaps another show discussion about public housing, about whether -- we used to build that and the Europeans still do it, build, you know, the state actually builds that housing and they subsidize it big time. We don't do that anymore in the United States.

  • 12:44:34

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Michelle. Good luck to you. We're going to take a short break. If you have called stay on the line. If you'd like to, the number is 800-433-8850. Are there examples of commercial buildings in the Washington region that you feel have been repurposed successfully, either for affordable housing or for other uses? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:46:46

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Roger Lewis about retrofitting office space for affordable housing. Roger Lewis is an architect and urban planner. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post and is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. There are those of you who have called. Please stay on the line. We will try to get to your calls, but the lines are filled. So if you're trying to get through, shoot us an email to kojo@wamu.org or a tweet, @kojoshow.

  • 12:47:10

    NNAMDIBefore I go to the phones, Roger, it's my understanding that you feel that one solution for retrofitting a commercial building would involve cutting away central portions of the roof. What would be going on there?

  • 12:47:22

    LEWISWell, it would -- the idea is to create, essentially, an atrium in the middle of a building. You cut a hole in the roof, and in a number of floors. And you can bring light down into the building and it narrows, of course, the dimension from the outer wall to the inner wall of the atrium. And it's been done. It's not the cheapest way to do things, but that's what that was all about.

  • 12:47:51

    NNAMDIHow are the challenges of making room for light in an office building different from when you're designing a residential space from scratch?

  • 12:47:57

    LEWISThe difference is in the United States you can legally build office space and have spaces occupied by workers that are not right next to windows. You don't need to have natural light and potential for ventilation and exit. Whereas, under zoning laws and building codes, residential units, apartments, they're -- you cannot build, legally, a bedroom or a living area without having windows. I mean, that's a requirement. And that's both for light, ventilation and for safety.

  • 12:48:35

    LEWISThat is in many, many buildings the exterior windows are a second means of egress in case of fire. It's a life safety requirement. So that's one of the big differences. You know, there are -- you can just visualize a call center, you know, where there's 400 desks, people sitting there.

  • 12:48:54

    NNAMDIThat's true.

  • 12:48:54

    LEWISYeah, they, you know, people sitting at those desks on the interior don't even know if it's raining or sunny or night or day. So that's the difference.

  • 12:49:03

    NNAMDIOn, therefore, to Benjamin, in Anacostia, Va. Benjamin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:49:10

    BENJAMINAnacostia, D.C.

  • 12:49:11

    NNAMDIThank you, Benjamin.

  • 12:49:13

    BENJAMINThanks for taking my call. So I guess I have a question and comment, a question-ment, basically. So I live in Anacostia. And we have -- where I live, we have quite a bit of affordable housing. And although we -- I do respect the need for affordable housing, there's a tendency to feel like affordable housing drives down market prices.

  • 12:49:31

    BENJAMINSo where do you draw the line between too much affordable housing and -- and we do have buildings that could be used for -- they could be repurposed as affordable housing, but is that -- I guess, is that a good assumption that affordable housing, too much of it does draw down the market prices? And how do you find that balance?

  • 12:49:50

    NNAMDII suspect that in Anacostia it's going to be moving in the other direction, but that's another story. Roger?

  • 12:49:55

    LEWISYeah, that's, I mean, the problem is that for so many decades the city dumped a lot of subsidized housing, housing for low-income households in Anacostia. So there's this imbalance. I mean, this is another problem that we, again, we could do another show on this. The sort of deployment, geographically. As you know, Benjamin, there was a period when the tendency was to build affordable housing or public housing or subsidized housing in big complexes in areas of the city that were already not upscale, if you will, in terms of the real estate market.

  • 12:50:42

    LEWISSo what's happened historically in Anacostia -- or I should say on the east side of the Anacostia River -- because historic Anacostia is actually not all of Anacostia.

  • 12:50:51

    NNAMDIThat's true.

  • 12:50:52

    LEWISBut what's happened is there is an excess. There's too much what I would call low-income oriented housing in that part of the city. And there are other parts of the city where there's almost no affordable housing. So we have -- that's an imbalance, again, across the America. That's not unique to Washington. And I'm -- the good news is there are things happening and about to happen in Anacostia that are going to change the real estate over there.

  • 12:51:17

    NNAMDIExactly right. The increasing access that there will be to Anacostia when people take a look at some of the views that they have from Anacostia.

  • 12:51:24

    LEWISWell, and the values are going up. Houses are being sold for more than they were two years ago over there.

  • 12:51:30

    NNAMDIBenjamin, thank you very much for your call. Buddy, in -- on Capitol Hill. Buddy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:51:36

    BUDDYThank you so much. Roger, I really appreciate shows -- and, Kojo, I always appreciate shows with you -- but I appreciate when you're on. I have a background in this area and -- a little bit, but not anything close to yours.

  • 12:51:47

    LEWISWell, thank you.

  • 12:51:47

    BUDDYOne of the things that is a problem that I see happening is a question of density. And, of course, you know, when you start talking about affordability and how many people we can get in, you can start talking about having us all live in dorm rooms. You know, you talked about that a little bit when you were talking about, in essence, you know, the little nook…

  • 12:52:06


  • 12:52:07

    BUDDY…in Tokyo or even in New York. Which doesn't help with price, because in New York you can live in a nook and still pay far more money than you can possibly -- any common people can afford. But I think the density question -- I'd like to hear you talk about that a little bit on -- for the quality of life purposes. And in saying, when is enough enough, about how many people can live in a square area. I think converting the space -- I've seen some great progress with that that doesn't hurt that at all. But that's the question.

  • 12:52:39

    NNAMDIWhen is enough too much?

  • 12:52:42

    LEWISWell, you bring up a point that's worth noting, and that is that on a square foot basis often the smaller the unit the higher the cost per square foot, in fact, is paid for that unit. Because the -- you still have to have some, you know, the plumbing and a little kitchenette and a bathroom. So I would guess that in many cases the 350 square foot nook, or the 250 square foot micro unit -- if we get that small -- per square foot costs more or would be rented for more, you know, than a 700 square foot one or two bedroom apartment.

  • 12:53:28

    LEWISThat said, I mean, I think, again, the market dictates there are a certain number of people who are willing to live in -- are happy living in something very small, but there are plenty of people for whom that's not the solution. And what you hope for is that the private sector, when it goes and develops housing -- whether it's a retrofit of an office building or a new project, the first thing they do is look at the market. You know, what's the location? In this location who wants to live here? And, you know, what is the income spectrum and what can we sell or rent these units for?

  • 12:54:08

    LEWISI think that density -- I think the density issue is a really important one because that starts to link up, not just with quality of life for the tenant or the owner of an apartment, but density starts to affect how you plan for transportation and, you know, what your tax base is and what kinds of amenities and support, infrastructure and retailing and so forth go along with it. So that gets into real big city planning issues.

  • 12:54:41

    NNAMDIBuddy, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Virginia who thinks this is a good idea. She writes, "Use what we have instead of destroying existing affordable housing. It's perfectly good. Diverse neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, where invasive developers are attempting to turn the area into one giant luxury condominium."

  • 12:55:00

    NNAMDIBut here's the problem -- we got an email from Jessica who says, "Just make sure that the way they're converted is done more artfully than how D.C. General Hospital was converted into a homeless shelter. Because we all know how that worked out." It seemed to me that there was minimal repurposing or renovation that went on there.

  • 12:55:17

    LEWISYeah, well, I couldn't agree more with Jessica. But I, you know, that's -- I'm an architect and I -- those are the things we architects worry about. I think Jessica's absolutely right. I think that the best thing that can happen is to get -- make sure that you get good architectural talent focused on these conversions.

  • 12:55:36

    NNAMDIHere is E.W., in Upper Marlboro, Md. E.W. you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:55:42

    E.W.Thank you, Kojo. As usual, great show. I just had a couple of questions as it relates to the waterfront area in Southwest. It appears that a lot of micro units are going to be put down there. Will any of those have what they're doing now -- and that is the rooftop veranda where you can go out on top and look out over the city? And also, my second question would be given that that ward has more condos and co-ops now than any other ward, will these micro units saturate the market or will they cause the bigger units -- maybe a one bedroom -- to increase in value?

  • 12:56:20


  • 12:56:21

    LEWISWell, he mentioned -- you mentioned Southwest waterfront, E.W. I'm very familiar with it. I think you're talking about The Wharf development and -- yes. And, of course, in Southwest there are a number of projects that were built in the '60s and '70s that involve apartments and townhouses and so forth. I don't know the answer to the question. I don't know that there's -- that the apartments that are planned -- there are several thousand apartments going into The Wharf project on the Southwest waterfront. I don't know that a lot of them are micro units.

  • 12:56:55

    LEWISI mean, I think most of them are probably not micro units. I know there are some percentage of them that will be affordable. That's a commitment that's been made by the developers. I know that a number of them will probably be one and two-bedroom apartments, mostly ones. And this is because they're -- these days, no one's building three-bedroom apartments. That's, again, that's something we've talked about a couple of times.

  • 12:57:20

    NNAMDIWe have indeed.

  • 12:57:21

    LEWISI think -- I don't know that they're going to -- the building of small apartments will necessarily change the market value of the larger units. That's -- I don't know about whether -- what that -- that's likely to -- whether that's likely to happen or not.

  • 12:57:36

    NNAMDIAnnis (sic), thank you very much for your call. We got an email from David who says, "Most office complexes I've seen roll up and die after five. They lack food, entertainment, medical and other services, particularly for office buildings turned into low-income housing. Even if the building itself has some minimal level of services for its occupants, isn't there a risk that these buildings turn into self-enclosed mini ghettos because there's no reason for the occupants to go outside?"

  • 12:58:00

    NNAMDIDon't have time to answer that question, David, but the short answer would be no, they would have to include some of those services. Roger Lewis is an architect and urban planner. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. He's professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, thank you for joining us.2

  • 12:58:18

    LEWISWell, thank you. It's been great.

  • 12:58:20

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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