BY farah khalfe 3 MINUTE READ

A former Days Inn hotel chain in Branson, United States, sat vacant for eight years. Now, it has been transformed into affordable housing. The Los Angeles-based development company that completed the conversion thinks that this type of adaptive reuse could help quickly begin to address the housing shortage.

The project (now called Plato’s Cave) combined hotel rooms to create studio and one-bedroom apartments with rent starting at around R8000, designed to target renters who might be struggling to afford an apartment in the area but aren’t necessarily in the lowest-income tier—typically those making between 60% to 120% of the area median income. “We’re talking about folks that might not be poor enough to get subsidised housing,” says Richard Rubin, founder of Repvblik, the company that converted the property. Branson, like many American cities, has a severe shortage of affordable housing. Because the city’s economy revolves around tourism, many residents also lost work because of the pandemic.

As many large commercial spaces close because of economic impacts of the virus—and others, like malls, were struggling even before COVID-19 existed—Rubin argues that some of the buildings could find a second life as housing (though hotels are obviously easier and cheaper than other commercial spaces to repurpose into housing). Rubin, who is originally from South Africa, first began converting office buildings into housing in Johannesburg in the early 2000s, honing a technique to develop the properties as affordably as possible. By purchasing a building like the Days Inn at a steep discount, and making a low-cost conversion, it’s possible for the company to keep rents low.

Unlike typical affordable housing developments, the project in Branson didn’t rely on federal funding. “We were told with this market that it couldn’t be done,” says Rubin. “Everyone said, ‘You can’t do it without low-income housing tax credits,’ which is completely incorrect. You absolutely can.” For several years, he says, the company struggled to find investors for its unique model, but that’s beginning to change. The company is now working on around 10 adaptive reuse projects.

Rubin believes the same approach could be used to build supportive housing for people who are homeless, and that cities may be more open to the idea now than they were in the past. “I think with COVID a lot of cities around the country have tried to get the homeless folks off the street and put them up in hotels, and because of that, they’re saying, ‘Okay, well, maybe a hotel is a decent form of housing,’” he says. Adaptive reuse of an existing building may also receive less pushback from neighbors, who often oppose housing for homeless people.

The scale of the need for affordable housing is so large that there’s room for dozens of other developers to take the same approach, Rubin says. Repvblik plans to work as quickly as possible. “We’re in the process of creating about 2,000 apartments,” he says. “We hope to create about 20,000 apartments within the next five years.”