Why can’t we just turn the empty offices into apartments? 'Search Engine' explores

PJ Vogt dives in on the latest episode of 'Search Engine'
Real estate broker showing office space to clients. Business people and real estate agent at empty office space, with estate broker pointing at something interesting.
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Podcast host PJ Vogt took to his mic this week to address the surprisingly complex, COVID-inspired question: why not change old offices into apartments and housing?

Listen Now: Why can’t we just turn the empty offices into apartments? - Search Engine

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Following the theme of his Search Engine podcast, Vogt asks listeners questions and acts as their human search engine for each episode. One listener wrote in to specifically ask why nothing has been done to office spaces since 2020, when COVID sent workers out of their buildings. The price of housing has gone rampant since the mass exodus to remote work, especially in US cities, where many office buildings gather cobwebs. The listener summed up this issue as a “shortage of affordable apartments, surplus of empty offices,” and it required a 45 minute podcast just to summarize.

Host PJ Vogt first brought on zoning professional Bill Fulton to discuss the laws behind classifying neighborhoods and areas. He said that, “underneath zoning is the assumption that different types of uses of land, you know, houses, stores, factories, they should all be separated.” This assumption goes all the way back to the industrial age, when chemically toxic workplaces needed to be removed from residential areas.

Over time, he explained, zoning became a corrupted social political tool to control what kinds of people lived in a place, and where that place would be. This not only contributed to segregation by race and economic status, but the housing crisis itself. “If you removed zoning, many of those single-family homes would be redeveloped to higher density and there would be a lot more housing available,” Fulton went on. “So to a certain extent, single-family zoning is used by homeowners to retain what they call the character of their neighborhood, which of course excludes others, right? And also inevitably increases the price of the houses.”

But host Vogt also addressed that office buildings themselves contribute to the lack of change, due to factors like age, regulations, and wear-and-tear. Not to mention, office spaces don’t make for the homiest environment.

He demonstrated, “You picture like a giant office bullpen with tons of cubicles, right? And you try to convert that into apartments when you have that much space, that would wind up being interior without windows. That's very hard.” A fix could be to tear down such buildings and then build them back up as residentials, but that would take time and money… not to mention, approval.

“The third reason [the listener] cannot have what she wants, an office building turned into an apartment building, the obstacle at the heart of most things, people,” Vogt said. With guest Raisa De La Rosa, the two discussed how the vast opinions of residences, homeowners and business orders naturally tend to slow down new developments, but some can stop developments entirely. “There could be any number of reasons why somebody owns a property, doesn't redevelop it,” De La Rosa said, building on her own experiences. “The other thing is neighbors... You know, sometimes neighbors, whether it be commercial, residential, have a very short term view and impacts that can greatly benefit them down the road.”

But fear not, as PJ Vogt also addresses how things will sort themselves out, just not as quickly as we may hope.

To listen to the full podcast and get into the nitty gritty of housing, check out the latest episode of Search Engine, available now on the Audacy app.

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