Around California, bureaucrats on a large scale have not yet begun to recognize that the solution to the state’s housing crisis has been at hand from the moment the coronavirus pandemic struck.
All it should take is for some of them to venture outside their ivory tower homes and offices to read the vacancy signs on countless office buildings where billions of square feet once occupied by cubicles and conference tables now sit derelict as many lessees reduce their rent payments while awaiting the end of their leases.
In San Francisco, one-fifth of all office space now is vacant. That number will climb as white-collar workers continue operating from homes enabled by computerized virtual “commutes.”
The obvious use for the languishing square footage is housing.
All it takes is knocking down some drywall, altering electricity and plumbing a bit and voila!
California can have hundreds of thousands of new housing units in many sizes and price ranges without disrupting neighborhoods in ways that could prove ruinous to the investment of life savings by millions of homeowners now threatened by legislation that aims to end single family zoning.
This appears inevitable, even while a few companies like Facebook and Salesforce call on some of their work-at-home employees to spend a day or two weekly in an office.
Empty office space means less income for landlords, who then attempt to lower the payments they make to banks and other mortgage holders. If this happens on a massive scale, it will create a financial crisis. It will also spell trouble for cities, counties and school districts dependent on property tax money.
Lower income from commercial real estate translates to lower property values, which leads to less revenue for local and state governments.
Change will come, if only because — as every survey of the last year has shown — about two-thirds of employees sent home to work enjoy life more without long daily commutes eating up hours of their non-office time.
Most won’t be going back to offices full-time, as recognized by companies like Twitter and many others that will keep allowing employees to work at home most of the time.
This already translates to lower residential rents in a few big cities, and somewhat higher home prices in outlying areas.
Most employees staying home have not migrated out of California, but many have moved to what they consider greener pastures.
And yet, most local politicians are not ready to give up their traditional viewpoint that the only way out of the housing crisis is to build, build and build some more.
This is partly driven by heavy donations from developers and building trades unions to local politicians.
Example A might be the seemingly ultra-liberal city of Santa Monica, an enclave of about 93,000 persons surrounded on three sides by Los Angeles, with beaches and ocean on the fourth side.
There, city staffers taking note of housing allocations assigned by the state through the normally toothless Southern California Association of Governments in March began considering how to create about 9,000 new housing units by late 2029.
Like all recent housing plans in the city, this one endorses the build, build, build! motif.
Similarly, San Francisco supervisors are now considering allowing all single-family homeowners to substitute two duplexes for each existing house.
This completely ignores the rash of “for lease” signs displayed prominently on office buildings throughout both cities.
The millions of vacant square feet in both cities might by themselves satisfy most of their state-mandated housing goals. But the staffs never mention this possibility to either their elected bosses or the voters who put them in office.
Why not? Is it simple lack of vision, refusal to recognize the obvious reality staring all of California in the face? Or are they merely accustomed to doing the bidding of developers?
It’s not like office-to-housing conversions are new: Several large ones are underway in San Francisco alone, including the former headquarters of the California State Automobile Association on busy Van Ness Avenue.
Which makes the housing problem more solvable now than ever before, so long as it’s viewed with open eyes and minds.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].