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Policy Study: Commercial Conversion

A housing shortage is plaguing the Portland metro area, diminishing the city’s livability. The high demand on the existing housing stock creates a spiraling lack of affordability, and rates of houselessness continue to rise without adequate support and services.

At the same time the vacancy of office spaces in the city, especially the westside core, continues to rise to unprecedented levels.

Commercial conversion studies provide us with a foundation for designing new policy that capitalizes on proven conversion strategies, while giving us space to innovate to solve our unique, local challenges.


Commercial Conversion Housing Policy Study (2)
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Data demonstrate a “flight to quality” (Goldberg, 2022; Miller, 2024) in the office space market. Businesses are downsizing their footprint and using the savings to lease in higher quality “trophy” buildings. This pattern is saddling older construction with the highest vacancies, and increasing business migration to more modern neighborhoods.

These older buildings tend to have the least efficient construction and design features, as well, making them larger climate burdens.

The impact of the vacancy issue ripples throughout the community, including negatively impacting local small businesses that previously relied on the 9-5 work force commuting to these office spaces.

The challenge, however, is that the cost of conversion for a property owner is high, at approximately $400-500 per square foot (Goldberg, 2022).

This is where local policy can move this much needed innovative approach forward.

Through incentives and public subsidies, local government leadership can create programs that compel private property owners to invest in building upgrades that meet the community’s needs and goals.

  • Providing affordable housing units

  • Partnering on supportive housing projects

  • Improving efficiency and reducing building lifespan carbon emissions

  • Increasing accessibility

The benefits of a conversion program designed with intention has the potential to to address multilayered local issues in a way that marries innovation with proven strategies.

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