Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Pace University
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 24 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
Editor: Brooke Mercaldi
Contributing Author: Colt Watkiss [*]


Old Tools to Fight Housing Insecurity: Adaptive Reuse and Infill Development


Adaptive reuse is the act of finding a new use for a building.” “Reuse strengthens a community feel by positively linking a city’s past to its future and offering cheap and robust infrastructure to emerging needs, which can spark wholesome renewal processes.” Adaptive reuse can help “[r]emove blighted properties and the accompanying crime from communities, [p]reserve natural resources and the environment, [p]ursue historic preservation, and [p]rotect important intangibles like the community’s sense of place.” Similarly, infill development is the process of developing on vacant or underused land in areas that are largely developed. These are effective solutions considering “[r]esearch link[ing] foreclosed, vacant, and abandoned properties with reduced property values, increased crime, increased risk to public health and welfare, and increased costs for municipal governments.”


While older buildings, underutilized structures, and vacant lots can be detrimental, they can also provide opportunity for creative re-imagining of spaces. Adaptive reuse can be a tool to promote affordable housing. The potential for reuse to fight housing insecurity was explored as a necessary public health resource during the COVID-19 crisis. California, Oregon, Vermont, and Hennepin County – which includes Minneapolis – all took steps to house homeless individuals in rehabilitated hotels, motels, and other structures that could quickly be converted into non-congregate housing and eventually permanent housing. California had great success with these conversions, starting with Project Roomkey which allowed the use of federal funds to acquire hotel rooms to provide non-congregate shelter for homeless people to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The success of Roomkey prompted the creation of Homekey, which followed a similar template but was broadened towards creating permanent housing. Homekey allocated $846 million, combining federal and state funds, to allow for the purchase and conversion of hotels and other structures into supportive and affordable housing. Between July and December of 2020, California was able to “create more than 6,000 housing units in 94 separate properties, 5,000 of which are destined to become permanent housing units.” In addition to the speed, the average cost of Homekey conversions was $129,254 per unit, compared to “the typical cost per unit to develop new housing in California rang[ing] from roughly $380,000-$570,000.” One of the keys to Homekey’s success was a provision in the statute which allowed Homekey projects as-of-right in whatever zone the purchased property sat in without further review.


Municipalities should consider amending their zoning ordinances to allow for more adaptive reuse in their towns and communities. A strong adaptive reuse ordinance (ARO) was enacted in Santa Ana, California. The ordinance allows for the adaptive reuse of nonresidential buildings to residential units in 4 designated “project incentive areas” if the building either “was constructed in accordance with building and zoning codes in effect prior to July 1, 1974” or “has been determined to be a historically significant building.” One noteworthy development resulting from the ordinance is the Santa Ana Arts Collective, a former bank which has been converted into affordable artist housing containing “58 studios and one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments in the existing building.” St. Petersburg, Florida adopted a similar ARO. Los Angeles is considered one of the preeminent adaptive reuse examples, especially downtown Los Angeles where over 14,000 residential units have been created by converting historic and underutilized buildings. Recent motions have been proposed in Los Angeles to expand the scope of adaptive reuse and promote housing affordability.


Tacoma, Washington launched the Residential Infill Pilot Program 2.0 to address housing through infill development. The program allows Planned Infill housing in single-family zoning districts, two-family or townhouse development, small-scale multifamily development, and cottage housing across five council districts. Bellingham, Washington adopted Chapter 20.28, “intend[ing] to implement comprehensive plan goals and policies encouraging infill development, more efficient use of the remaining developable land, protection of environmentally sensitive areas, and creating opportunities for more affordable housing” and providing special development regulations for housing forms that are not single-family dwellings.


Adaptive reuse is often considerably environmentally sustainable. It can help foster community density, fight sprawl, and some older buildings are built with seasoned materials that are often better quality and not even available today. One report found that “[b]uilding reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality,” and “that it takes 10 to 80 years for a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than an average-performing existing building to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts related to the construction process.” Infill can also benefit the environment by “helping to protect lands…and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”


For additional resources, the Gaining Ground Information Database is free and features best practice models used by governments to control the use of land in the public interest. Please direct your search toward the Healthy Communities topic.

[*] Colt Watkiss is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Student Associate at the Land Use Law Center.

Brooke Mercaldi is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.

The previous blogs in the series are listed here:

  1. Reframing Sustainability: Introducing the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
  2. Planning for Public Health: A New Beginning for Land Use Law
  3. The Role of Density in Combatting Climate Change and COVID-19
  4. Novel Coronavirus Claims Implicate Age-Old Property Rights Questions
  5. State & Local COVID-related Emergency Powers: Individual Rights
  6. COVID-Related Land Use Regulations and Judicial Deference
  7. Mediation of Eviction Disputes May Hold the Key to the Survival of Small Businesses
  8. Using Zoning to Help Eliminate Food Deserts: A Few Steps Forward
  9. Urban Heat Islands and Equity
  10. Urban Heat Island and Equity: What Can Local Governments Do?
  11. The Recovery Lease: Preventing Evictions of Commercial Tenants During the Pandemic
  12. The Role of Hazard Mitigation Planning in Promoting Public Health and Resilience
  13. Hazard Mitigation Planning: A Case Study
  14. Complete Streets: Protecting Public Health
  15. Zoning and Lease Mediation as a Way to Retain Critical Small Businesses
  16. Segregation by Law and the Racial Inequity Pandemic
  17. Combating Food Swamps to Improve Equity and Public Health
  18. The Pandemic Plan for Healthy Buildings
  19. Remediating Distressed Properties to Improve Public Health
  20. Housing, a Crucial Determinant of Health
  21. ADU Introduction
  22. NIMBY Restrictions to Poison the Prospects of Accessory Dwelling Units to Address Housing Insecurity
  23. Zoning to Fill the Missing Middle Housing Gap


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