It’s clear that New York City is going to face changes in how—and where—people live and work. However, any program to convert empty office spaces and hotels to housing must be considered from both sides.’

Don Pollard / Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

During his State of the State address on Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called to convert vacant commercial spaces to supportive and affordable housing.

COVID-19 has devastated Midtown Manhattan, one of the nation’s largest business and tourism districts, in addition to impacting the commercial real estate industry across New York City. The damage caused by the emptying of offices, a stark drop in tourism that’s shaken the hotel industry, and the closure of many retail stores is more significant than many experts predicted earlier in the crisis.

Now, concerned that this shift could become ever-lasting, local leaders and elected officials are exploring proposals to turn empty office spaces and hotels into affordable and supportive housing. In the New York State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo himself called for converting vacant commercial space to supportive and affordable housing.  

It’s clear that New York City is going to face changes in how—and where—people live and work. However, any program to convert empty office spaces and hotels to housing must be considered from both sides. This means making it an inclusive process that works for property and business owners that we will be looking to partner with, if we’re to create any new opportunities to address this crisis and our housing needs.

Additionally, any potential program needs to work for the housing community and the New York City and New York State government. It needs to be a flexible program that can adapt to market conditions and answer questions that have not fully played out yet.

We should keep in mind that similar work to convert office space into housing has been done successfully before—to recover from a crisis that defined a generation, and separately as a part of our city’s affordable housing plans.

Following the devastation of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the government came together at all levels, partnering with local stakeholders to create new opportunities to rebuild and revitalize Lower Manhattan. This included the use of Liberty Bonds and programs like 421g to invest in the rebuilding of the neighborhood. While these efforts were impactful at the time, they were not necessarily executed in the most inclusive or collaborative manner.

Today, it is worth exploring how similar programs could be crafted and implemented, but in a way that focuses more on inclusivity, diversity, and affordability, and which also takes a citywide perspective. Any program would need to encourage the engagement with the owners of each of the assets being considered for conversion, in order to fully understand what works for them. In addition, any program would need to be inclusive in delivering a broad range of housing, including low-income and supportive affordable housing to the community.

We must also consider our reasoning for directing resources to Midtown Manhattan when so many other parts of our city are facing daunting challenges. For me the answer is simple: The whole city needs to be supported as we recover. As we faced one of our worst fiscal crises in the 1970s and 80s, we were able to come back stronger and more resilient than before because we invested in a citywide recovery strategy. This included the Bronx, Brooklyn, and parts of Manhattan that were ravaged by blight and abandonment.

So while we recognize the importance of Midtown and the significant revenue and resources it provides to the rest of the city, we can’t forget that there are other smaller commerce centers spread across the boroughs that are facing similar problems. These smaller downtowns and business districts are no less important to the communities they serve, and should be part of the citywide recovery. What we do in Midtown can be translated into solutions for empty office and commercial centers in Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island as well.

We all want our recovery plans to be as ambitious and sweeping as possible, but we also need to recognize that we are facing an unprecedented economic downturn with limited resources available from the city and state governments. Because of this, we need to be realistic about the resources we have, how they can best be allocated, and how they can be used now and in planning for the future.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have seen a renewed focus on putting facts, data, and science at the heart of our public policy decisions. As we consider a program to convert empty office space and hotels to housing, we should rely on data to help guide our policies, allowing us to have the right tools available should we need to deliver a program that can effectively and efficiently convert empty office space and hotels into housing in Midtown Manhattan and throughout our city.

Rafael E. Cestero is president and CEO of the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC).