All over the globe, countries are facing a housing crisis. United Nations statistics put the number of people who live in sub-standard housing at 1.6 billion, and 100 million of the world’s population are without a home. As conflicts and climate change forces refugees to move to new countries, and as housing prices around the world continue to rise, cities are having to grapple more and more with how to provide safe and affordable housing for their residents.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused the loss of millions of lives, changed our spatial experiences of the cities we live in, and disrupted entire economic sectors. One of these sectors is the hospitality sector, with countless restaurants, bars and hotels worldwide not surviving the immediate lockdowns that countries undertook to mitigate the spread of the virus. The closure, and subsequent abandonment, of prominent hotels worldwide raises questions on how these buildings in their lifetime serve as symbols of social differentiation, and in their closure serve as empty vessels that highlight the lack of attention given to the most vulnerable in societies. With a framework that can be relatively easily converted into housing, hotels are an interesting angle with which to examine possible solutions to alleviating the housing crisis through adaptive reuse.
A prominent example of reclaiming abandoned hotels can be found in the town of Branson in the midwestern region of Missouri in the United States. A recently-initiated Los Angeles-based development company – Repvblik – converted hotel rooms from a Days Inn which had been vacant for eight years into studio and one-bedroom apartments. In a town that has a severe shortage of affordable housing, the apartments – with rent starting at 495 US Dollars – provide much-needed accessible housing in an area whose economy has been severely impacted by the ongoing pandemic.
The existence of an older organisation – Breaking Ground – being actively involved in the conversion of existing hotels into housing demonstrates the large number of historical precedents in this form of adaptive reuse. Their rehabilitation of the formerly grand Times Square Hotel in 1991 regenerated an area that had been in a state of decay, with the conversion combining affordable housing with supportive services for low-income persons and persons living with HIV/AIDS.
Another of their projects saw the conversion of the high-end Prince George Hotel into affordable housing. Built in 1904, the hotel was once a premier New York destination that had seen a steep decline due to neglect. The large, light-filled common spaces of the converted apartments are a much-needed departure from lines of thought which advocate for the bare minimum regarding the quality of housing provided to the unhoused.
The work of Repvblik and Breaking Ground, while highly effective, still requires extensive planning approval from local government, which can take a large amount of time, time which many of those who are unhoused do not have. What happens in many existing abandoned hotels is occupation by those who need housing, which with the help of volunteers can become very effective residential projects.
The City Plaza in Athens had closed due to the financial crisis that had gripped Greece, and in 2016, the Economic and Political Refugee Solidarity Initiative squatted the empty building with a goal to create a safe space to house refugees in the immediate aftermath of a deal between the EU and Turkey to restrict the movement of refugees to Europe. The 92 hotel rooms were occupied by 400 or so people, half of them children, with the hotel hosting a cafeteria, a clinic, and a café. The location of the City Plaza is a key part of its importance, its central position differentiating itself from government-run refugee camps in Athens which are placed on the outskirts of the city, with poor transport connectivity and essentially leaving migrants disconnected from Athens’ urban fabric.
While the keys of the squatted hotel were given back to its former employees in 2019 and the refugees moved to safe housing in the city, the three-year occupation of the hotel underlined the relative ease at which abandoned hotels can be converted into dignified residences, and most importantly, the ease at which close-knit communities are formed when a key human need – housing – is taken care of.
The limitations of adequately converting hotels into housing are many. However, we see how activists in Brazil have converted a derelict hotel in São Paulo into a thriving community amidst the governmental threat of eviction. It’s an indictment of the vast amount of real estate in our cities taken up by abandoned buildings – that could provide much-needed housing to so many.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Adaptive Reuse. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.