According to the California Housing Partnership, the golden state needs at least 1.3 million affordable housing units to truly begin to address the mounting housing crisis. Many lawmakers and activists see California’s underused big box stores and strip malls as a solution to this problem and in-person retail slump during the pandemic could be just the push the state needs to make the plan a reality.
More than 40 percent of commercial zones in California’s 50 largest metropolitan areas do not allow for residential development, but changing these laws would open up real avenues for housing availability. Re-allocating underused commercial space for residential use also prevents sprawl and is more sustainable than building brand new residential spaces on undeveloped land. California now has three bills on the table that would help convert unused retail space into affordable housing.
The first, Senate Bill 6, was introduced by State Senator Anna Caballero and would make it easier to turn land zoned for commercial uses into housing. Assemblymember Richard Bloom and Senator Anthony Portantino soon followed with Assembly Bill 115 and AB15, which would incentivize turning vacant big box stores into housing.
Some areas of the state have already successfully experimented with commercial to residential conversions. In Los Angeles, an adaptive reuse ordinance has helped convert lofts and factories into 14,000 units since 1999. UrbanFootprint, a software company that builds urban planning tools, estimates that converting commercial space to residential along just one 45 mile stretch of road between Daly City and San Jose would create 300,000 new units.
Those who oppose these conversions site lost commercial tax revenue and overdevelopment as potential issues, but building up communities with affordable and sustainable housing options will do more for economic growth than empty box stores and strip malls. Additionally, measures like restricted building heights and sustainability mandates will help ensure these developments are respectful to the community and environmentally-conscious.