Developers are getting creative with empty office buildings. How many of them can be turned into housing? 

This picture with a mock-up of downtown Cincinnati and Dayton office buildings, says from offices to housing
Cincinnati and Dayton have more than a dozen projects involving office to housing conversions.

Turning old office buildings into housing

Look around downtown Cincinnati and Dayton and you’ll find plenty of available office space. Dayton’s Fifth Third Bank Center and Stratacache, formerly known as Kettering Tower, sit half empty. In Cincinnati, Atrium I and II have no shortage of available space for lease. And the 27-story URS tower on East Seventh Street was 77-percent vacant before being sold to a developer in March 2024.  

Why all the space? COVID-19 is partially to blame for Cincinnati’s vacancy rate hitting 20-percent. In Dayton it’s 28-percent. That’s higher than the national average of 19.6-percent, according to Moody’s Analytics, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. That 19.6-percent is the highest national office vacancy rate since 1979. 

Some companies are set to reclaim their space as they require more workers back in the office. But what to do with the empty buildings? And can they be used for housing? This kind of conversion is called adaptive reuse or simply repurposing one space into another. 

The White House has a plan 

The Biden Administration is trying to jumpstart the conversion process from office to apartments. An October, 2023 White House news release spells out the details. Among the incentives, the Administration is releasing a Commercial to Residential Federal Resources Guidebook with over 20 federal programs across six agencies that can be used to support these kinds of conversions. They include community development block grants, below-market loans, and removing barriers to the transfer of property and affordable housing construction. 

But will developers take advantage of these incentives with high interest rates and expensive materials? And will the housing be affordable? The plan does face opposition and legal challenges from local governments, industry groups and homeowners who are reluctant to change zoning and land use regulations that limit housing density and diversity. 

Thousands of government buildings either sit partially empty or totally vacant. We asked the General Accounting Office for a number. It says there are likely more than the 2,700 vacant buildings it lists as vacant. The department is currently developing new metrics.  

Meanwhile, lawmakers have introduced new legislation. It would direct the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to facilitate the conversion of federal, state and local government buildings into affordable rental housing. 

Affordable and not so affordable 

Dayton’s first modern skyscraper is undergoing a $38-million transformation. Windsor Companies is converting the Grant-Deneau Tower into offices and 100 apartments. 

Get a look at the luxury apartments. Brick by Brick’s Hernz Laguerre Jr. went on a tour. Here’s his story. 

The Arcade is a collection of 9 buildings in the heart of downtown. You may have seen our ThinkTV documentary following the Dayton Arcade’s renovation over the past few years. At one point, it was listed for sale on eBay, but now has more than 100 affordable apartments for artists. Across the street is Centre City, one of the oldest office towers downtown. It is now slated for adaptive re-use, with a goal of creating hundreds of new apartments.  

Lasserre Bradley is President of Development for The Model Group. His firm is developing the 21-story Centre City tower. The historic building once housed the offices of Orville and Wilbur Wright.  

Many of the 200 apartments will be luxury but Bradley says, “There’s a unique aspect as well that is something we added just in the last year. Because the building is so large, we were able to take a portion of the building and design it specifically to senior affordable housing. That is an unmet need in downtown Dayton.”  

“Eighty residential units will be targeted toward senior residents of downtown Dayton at or below sixty-percent of the area median income,” says Bradley. 

Another affordable development 

In Cincinnati, The Barrister is not the norm, but it’s the first affordable housing in the downtown business district in more than 30 years. This former office building is now home to ground-floor retail and rented apartments for people making no more than $60,000. Fifteen-percent of the units are for residents who make less than $30,000.  

Brick by Brick’s Hernz Laguerre Jr. interviewed a new resident of the Barrister. Here’s a link to his story. 

Office to apartment conversions continue in Cincinnati and Dayton. Most are luxury. Here’s a partial list: 

(Cincinnati) 

  1. The Barrister (214-216 E. 9th St.)-retail and affordable housing. Tenants are moving in. Fifteen-percent of the apartments are for residents who make less than $30,000. 
  1. Carew Tower (35 W. Fifth St.)-a mix of retail and apartments. The 49-story office tower is being transformed into 385 apartments. 
  1. Central Trust/PNC/Fourth and Vine Tower-a mix of office, retail and 250 apartments, known as City Club, is now open. 
  1. Chong Inc. Building (612-628 Race Street)-mixed use, apartments. Historic architecture hidden behind a brick façade. 
  1. Freeport Row (Liberty and Elm)-305 apartments, parking garage and retail. 
  1. H&S Pogue’s Department Store (310 Race Street)-106 apartments of which a portion could be at 60-percent AMI (area medium income) Phase II with 5,000 square feet of street-level commercial space. 
  1. Macy’s Department Store (7 W. 7th Steet)-retail and 300 apartments on floors 8-21. 
  1. Mercantile Library and Formica Building (414 Walnut Street)-172 luxury apartments with a rooftop amenity and dramatic views of the skyline.  
  1. Second National Bank (830 Main Street)-60 apartments in Phase 1 and 70 in Phase II 
  1. Textile Building (205 W. Fourth Street)-282 market-rate apartments. They are a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. 
  1. URS Tower (36 E. Seventh Street) The Cincinnati Business Courier reports CIG Communities bought the building for $3.7 million and with its office to apartment conversion, “nearly every unit will have panoramic city views.” 

(Dayton) 

  1. Dayton Arcade-retail, hotel and 100 affordable apartments for artists. Centre City is now under development with a portion of the building for senior affordable housing. 
  1. Grant Deneau Tower (40 W. Fourth St.)-retail and 150 apartments. 
  1. Home Telephone Lofts (100 block of E. Third Street) 
  1. Longfellow School (245 Salem Ave.)-senior housing and LGBTQ+ community, shared community spaces on four acres. 
  1. Price Stores (Fourth and Jefferson)-19 apartments. 
  1. Reed-Steffan Building-retail, office and apartments. 

Cincinnati is a national leader in adaptive reuse 

Cincinnati is ranked #2 nationally in adaptive reuse, behind only Cleveland, according to the latest data from Global Commercial Real Estate Services (CBRE).  

Figure 3: Top 10 Markets for Planned/Underway Conversions as Percentage of Total Office Inventory 

Note: Data labels indicate total square footage of conversions planned or underway. 
Source: CBRE Research, Q3 2023. 

CBRE tracked 40 markets and reports in 2023 Cincinnati has 7-percent of its office inventory planned for conversions. (2.4 million sq. ft. planned or in progress across 11 projects) 

According to CBRE’s Cincinnati Senior Vice President Steve Timmel, “Office conversions are breathing  new life into Cincinnati, transforming our cityscape and revitalizing our downtown.” 

He says, ”By repurposing antiquated office buildings into vibrant mixed-use environments, we’re not only preserving our city’s rich heritage but also driving economic growth and fostering a sense of community.” 

Will the conversions remain strong nationally? 

Senior Analyst & Manager of Business Intelligence for Yardi Matrix Doug Ressler predicts the number of adaptive reuse conversions will slow slightly. 

Here’s a nationwide summary from the Rent Café and Yardi Matrix article: 

What are the limitations? 

It’s expensive to convert office buildings to apartments and most developers can’t make the numbers work for affordable housing. Additionally, It’s not easy to convert them. The windows, HVAC systems and plumbing aren’t configured for apartments. But it is doable. A new report says ten to fifteen-percent of U.S. buildings can be converted. 

Many wonder if this kind of conversion is really helping to fill the housing gap. The Business Journals quote CBRE’s Julie Whelan who says there is no evidence of a windfall. “We know more housing is needed. It’s just that fulfilling that demand in the way that it needs to be fulfilled is very difficult to make work when you’re putting numbers down on paper.” 

Goldman Sachs did an analysis and found about 0.4-percent of office space was converted into multifamily units annually before the pandemic and rose to only 0.5-percent in 2023, the Business Journals reports. 

“Current office prices would need to fall by about 50-percent or about $154 per square feet, for conversion costs to pencil,” says Goldman Sachs, as reported by the Business Journals. 

Also the article points out there is a limit to what banks are willing to lend to commercial projects. 

Adaptive reuse doesn’t only center around office buildings. Schools, strip malls and churches are also being turned into housing.  


A white woman in her 50's with shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes wearing a maroon leather jacket stands on a neighborhood street.

Ann Thompson – Host, Producer

Over the last thirty years in Cincinnati, Ann Thompson has brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported and anchored for WVXU, WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV and Metro Networks and freelanced for NPR, CBS and ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and she has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. She is a former News Director and Operations Manager. Ann has reported from India, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Belgium as part of fellowships. Ann thinks of the Brick by Brick project as “journalism for good.” She serves as host and producer. Ann lives in Anderson Township with her husband Scott. They have two boys. Jake graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2022 and Kurt attends West Point.