The big question is if working from home is here to stay or a temporary blip, Source: Giannis Skarlatos / Unsplash

Could vacant offices be the solution for Brussels’ housing crisis?

Could vacant offices be the solution for Brussels’ housing crisis?

Research by the municipal organisation Perspective.Brussels looks at post-Covid empty office buildings as a possible way out of a tight affordable-housing market

A new report by Perspective.Brussels, a centre dedicated to better urban development in the Belgian Capital, says that a good idea to counteract the housing crisis quickly could be converting vacant office space into housing.

Brussels has an estimated total vacant office floor space of a million square metres, which can serve to absolutely transform the housing market. That transformation would be lightning fast in comparison to the alternative which is building more homes.

The housing crisis in Brussels, at a glance  

Like most European capitals, Brussels is suffering from a long and gradually worsening affordable housing crisis. According to another report by Perspective.Brussels from May 2022, the pandemic only exacerbated the situation.

In their report, researchers point to the fact that in both 2020 and 2021, the number of people applying for social integration funds jumped by an unprecedented 14%. Additionally, and to no one’s surprise, COVID-19 lowered economic activity and slowed the growing labour market, both in terms of employment and productivity.

The most frightening metric, however, is that around half of the tenants in Brussels have access to less than 20% of the rental housing market.

Researchers also note that there is a slight rise in vacant office space, brought on by home office arrangements. However, they also say that it is still up for debate whether and how the labour market will recover and if workers will return to offices en masse or not.

Converting office space into housing

According to the report, currently, there are one million square metres of available floor space in vacant office buildings. However, not all of it is usable and cannot be converted into decent living space.

The new research on whether and how that is viable is quick to point out that a lot of office buildings are actually located in industrial areas, far from basic amenities or residential areas.

Additionally, a significant chunk of the buildings have been built in the last five years to a very high standard and it would make little sense to convert them into housing. This is especially true, considering that it is not clear if workers will return to on-site work in the near future or if the home office is here to stay.

But that is not all. A lot of the vacant office space is spread out unevenly in the city and quite often there is a floor or two empty in an otherwise populated building. So the authors of the study only looked at completely empty buildings. Of these, there are 34, accounting for 200,000 square metres of space.

This is a considerable amount, but it would not actually transform the housing market. Antoine de Borman, the Director of Perspective.Brussels was quoted by the RTBF, explaining that every year 3,000 families settle in Brussels. Each of them needs about 100 square metres of space - meaning 300,000 square metres.

The situation might change, however, especially with a recent announcement that European institutions will shed almost half of their offices in the Belgian capital. Additionally, if working from home becomes permanent, it could lead to a contraction of the office space market, especially with the cost of living crisis pushing maintenance costs for buildings up.



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