Converting Garages in Affordable Housing


Converting Garages in Affordable Housing

Many office workers would likely agree that one of the few positive developments to come out of the worldwide mayhem caused by COVID-19 has been their new found ability to work from home. 

Responding initially to quarantines and the need for workers to socially distance, many businesses quickly realized that their employees might be just as productive working from home (or a nearby coffee shop) as they were when they came into the office. 

This inevitably led to companies adapting new, flexible scheduling arrangements which enabled their employees to work wherever they wanted from a day or two each week to full-time. 

While remote work has been a godsend for many organizations and their employees, it has had just the opposite effect on everyone from the real estate firms which lease office space to the restaurants, dry cleaners, and other small businesses which depend on those office workers for their very existence. 

These businesses were hit hard. Who needs a dry cleaner when you are not dressing for in-person meetings?

Particularly hard hit have been garage and parking lot operators, many of whom were already struggling when the pandemic hit thanks to two converging trends – increased use of app-based, ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, and a rise in the number of people living within walking or biking distance of their jobs – both of which significantly cut demand for parking spaces in central business districts nationwide.

The pandemic took that already difficult situation and made it nearly impossible. With few coming into work when COVID-19 first hit and then only a fraction of the commuters that once used to fight for available parking slots, garage and lot operators were forced to confront the fact that their businesses might never be able to rebound. 

Certainly, that prospect is at the heart of many operators, such as one of Washington, D.C.’s largest parking firms, making the decision to declare bankruptcy.


Rethinking Parking Lots and Garages

Enterprising garage operators looking for a more permanent “fix,” however, took note of another victim of the pandemic: the 2.7 million homeowners nationally who were in COVID forbearance. With the help of local jurisdictions, a number of operators nationwide began retrofitting their garages with inexpensive housing modules, creating affordable housing options for families facing eviction or already on the street.

Because the dimensions for a unitized parking space are virtually the same regardless of who built the garage or where it is located, these prefabricated living units, or pods, can easily be inserted within any garage’s concrete shell. 

They can also take advantage of the structure’s existing vertical circulation and utility connections, both of which can be readily adopted for residential use.

Moreover, examples of successful retrofits can be found throughout the country, many of which can serve as models for operators considering converting their own garages. A derelict, 500-car parking garage in Wichita, Kansas, for instance, was recently converted into 44 one-bedroom apartments, each measuring approximately 650 square feet. In Boston’s Chinatown, a surface parking lot made way for an affordable housing high-rise, while a Brooklyn parking lot has been replaced by a 363-unit residential building.

Meeting the Challenges of Retrofitting Parking Areas

Garages, however, are not without some issues which can make retrofitting more difficult. Because garages weren’t designed and built for people to live in, they contain a number of features – from low ceilings and sloped floors to an inability to handle the same weight loads – that make conversions more difficult than simply tearing down the entire structure and starting over. 

New construction, however, may not be feasible from a financial standpoint, particularly for owner/operators already hit hard economically by the pandemic. 

Owner/operators also have to contend with existing city zoning codes and numerous other zoning and construction requirements which can make conversion or even new construction difficult. 

These run the gamut from rules requiring developers to include a certain number of parking spots for each new residential unit created to prohibitions against converting a commercial property (which would include a parking garage) into a residential property of any kind. 

There are also state regulations, such as California’s seismic standards, which are vastly different for office or apartment buildings than for parking lots and garages. 

These issues are being mitigated by relaxing minimum parking requirements in many jurisdictions.

Despite such issues, retrofitting underutilized garages and surface parking lots is not impossible. It usually comes down to operators’ ability to make the case to the right city officials (typically the Planning and Zoning Board) that 1.The structure in question occupies a site that is much too valuable to sit empty and 2. That conversion into moderately or low-priced living units can have a significant impact on those finding themselves in need of affordable housing as a result of unemployment caused by the pandemic. Retrofitting parking may also have positive tax implications. 

Wes Guckert, PTP is President & CEO of The Traffic Group, a leading Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business traffic engineering and transportation planning firm serving clients nationally and internationally. He can be reached at

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