Affordable housing idea: Repurpose struggling retail centers

Malls converted to mixed use might be an answer for badly needed transitional and low-income housing.

Tom Hoban

Tom Hoban

Last year the Everett City Council faced a difficult vote, pitting advocates for housing the homeless against a single-family neighborhood adjacent to a park in north Everett where Housing Hope, one of the region’s preeminent affordable housing advocates, was planning to build 50 to 60 multi-family housing units.

An emergency moratorium passed by council last June had halted their plans. Then a January vote effectively stopped further consideration, at least for now. Discussions continue, but the broader issue remains unresolved — where to place transitional or affordable housing for homeless families and individuals.

Councilmember Scott Murphy was opposed to converting the park to affordable high-density housing and took some heat from proponents. He criticized the conversation as “being painted as not caring about homeless children.” Murphy contends the discussion should be about where best to locate such high-density housing, rather than whether it’s needed. “Of course it’s needed,” he offered. “But we also have to preserve our single-family neighborhoods and open spaces.”

He is now pointing the conversation to retail locations that have felt the impact of online sales and need to be repurposed. “With cooperation from the city around zoning and other adjustments, struggling retail centers could be ideal locations” for affordable housing, explains Murphy.

“Housing Hope has the best of intentions, but why ask single-family neighborhoods to absorb the impact by giving up a local park when there are dozens of under-utilized and struggling retail centers that would be better locations?”

Murphy might be onto something. Forbes and other news sources report that a fourth of the nation’s 1,100 shopping malls will close by 2022. In some cases, underutilized and struggling retail centers could be converted to mixed use, including affordable multi-family housing.

The dialogue is healthy, and Murphy is happy to be in the middle of it with a goal of preserving single-family neighborhoods and open spaces while addressing the homeless crisis. “Everett retail is not immune to the impact of online sales” he notes. “We could be helping struggling retail landlords find a financially viable exit that also addresses a social need.”

Occasional contributor Tom Hoban is chairman and co-founder of Hoban Family Office, a real estate investment and services enterprise in Everett.

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