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Remote work can reshape DC's urban core for the better

Remote work can reshape DC's urban core for the better

The House 0f Representatives recently passed a bill calling for federal government agencies to report office space usage and give up any office space where they have less than 60 percent occupancy. While it appears to be perfectly logical to make the federal government give up space it’s not using, the bill actually represents the latest salvo in the telework war in the federal sector.

It makes little sense to treat office space as a settled matter with “60 percent occupancy” as some kind of arbitrary bright line, before we have seen the final outlines of what the long-term telework policies look like for the federal government. Efforts to shortcut this process through such a simplistic use-it-or-lose-it treatment of office space poses a serious risk of the unintended consequences that often accompany short-sighted government policies.

Consider, for example, the comprehensive February 2024 report from the National Capital Planning Commission and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which studies housing affordability.

Telework's surge during the pandemic was more than an emergency response; it was a revelation of an alternative work model's viability and its far-reaching implications for urban living and sustainability. The report navigates through an array of telework adoption scenarios, with the maximum telework scenario — a model where half of the federal workforce is eligible for 8-10 days of telework per fortnight — emerging as a harbinger of significant socio-economic shifts.

This maximum telework scenario represents a linchpin in the efforts to mitigate D.C.'s longstanding housing affordability crisis. By diminishing the daily necessity for proximity to federal offices, the report estimates that this scenario would catalyze a decentralization of housing demand, easing pressure on the overheated housing market in and around DC. This shift would broaden horizons for federal employees, opening up a spectrum of more affordable housing options beyond the traditionally expensive urban core.

The implications of this shift extend beyond individual benefits to broader urban sustainability goals. The reduced need for vast office spaces presents a golden opportunity to rethink and repurpose commercial real estate — the very ones the House voted on. Imagine transforming these spaces into affordable housing units, community centers and green spaces, thereby enhancing urban livability and resilience in D.C.

Certainly, the transition toward a telework-centric model is not without its challenges. The report rightly cites concerns about the vitality of urban centers and the financial viability of public transportation systems in the face of decreased ridership. Yet even these valid challenges are not insurmountable, but rather opportunities for innovative urban planning and policymaking.

The potential decrease in public transportation usage calls for a reimagined approach to urban mobility — one that emphasizes efficiency, sustainability and accessibility. The savings from reduced office space needs could go toward enhancing public transportation infrastructure to address these concerns head-on. This approach would ensure that the shift toward telework contributes to a more sustainable and interconnected urban ecosystem.

The narrative that urban centers derive their vibrancy exclusively from a 9-to-5 office-bound workforce is also ripe for reevaluation. A more flexible work model could usher in a new era of urban vitality, characterized by diverse, multi-use spaces that cater to a broader range of activities and needs throughout the day. This shift would enrich the urban fabric, making cities more dynamic, inclusive, and livable.

The prospect of maximum telework also aligns with broader environmental sustainability goals. The significant reduction in daily commuting would result in a marked decrease in carbon emissions, cleaner air and a healthier environment. This alignment with sustainability objectives underscores the multifaceted benefits of embracing a telework-centric model.

In contrast, the minimum telework model forecasts a return to a predominantly in-office working model. This scenario would lead to a rebound in demand for housing in closer proximity to federal offices, potentially reigniting upward pressure on prices in these areas.

The report notes that, from the onset of the pandemic, the D.C. metropolitan area has witnessed a substantial 12 percent escalation (to $2,000) in average rental costs, and that average home prices have surged by a remarkable 22 percent, reaching $533,000, mirroring a nationwide trend.

For marginalized communities, these increments bear a more pronounced impact. The report reveals a staggering $156,000 disparity in median home valuation between Black and white residents, underscoring the persistent inequities.

Thus, if we follow the demands by House Republicans to minimize telework, we are setting up D.C. for a huge spike in house prices — much higher than the average nationwide trend, with potentially bigger disparities for marginalized communities. This spike in housing prices will also fall on the shoulders of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has strongly demanded that federal workers return to their offices. Given the difficulty of building in D.C., including its district-wide restrictions on building height, it is much easier to fix the problem of low ridership than that of soaring home prices.

Thus, policymakers and urban planners must view telework not merely as a temporary fix or a perk but as a strategic lever for positive urban transformation. The maximum telework scenario offers a compelling blueprint for a more equitable, sustainable and vibrant D.C.. It is a vision that requires bold action and innovative thinking, but the potential benefits — a more livable, equitable, and sustainable capital region — are well worth the effort.

Gleb Tsipursky serves as the CEO of the hybrid work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of “Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams.

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