What should we do with 45,000 half-empty public buildings?

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Could underutilized government offices, empty parking lots, or shuttered public schools help solve your community’s shortage of affordable housing or senior care facilities? Research suggests that it’s entirely possible. The U.S. government alone owns an estimated 45,000 underused or underutilized buildings, plus abundant surplus land. And, as a result of the current pandemic, organizations across the public and private sectors are now recognizing that many of us don’t really need to be in the office every day to get our work done. This underutilized space and property represents enormous untapped value which could be leveraged to finance investments in other areas.

Take the challenge of affordable housing. Today, nearly 40 million Americans cannot afford their current homes – spending as much as half of their incomes on housing. It’s estimated that as many as 7.2 million new affordable housing units are needed to meet demand. What if the public sector could leverage assets they already have to help bridge that gap?

In Canada, various governments have already done just that. By selling more than 240 surplus properties valued at some $120 million, the province of Ontario was able to save almost $10 million in annual operating costs. Some of those properties are now being repurposed for low-income and senior housing. Similarly, the city of Toronto launched an initiative to repurpose 18 city-owned properties into almost 13,000 affordable housing units.

What can we learn from these successes? There are several steps that policymakers and public sector officials — along with multidisciplinary teams of finance, human resources, technology, and corporate real estate stakeholders — should take in order to begin leveraging the untapped potential of unused buildings and property.

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