Re-Habit – Efforts To House Homeless In Empty Big-Box Stores Move Forward


October 5, 2018

At virtually every real estate conference or convention, attendees are sure to hear about two of the most pressing problems facing local governments and the industry: housing shortages for homeless people and the apocalypse befalling shopping centers.

Inevitably, someone questions why no one has figured out a way to turn the empty retail space into shelters. The ensuing discussion focuses on any number of difficulties, from finding the capital to convert and operate the properties to getting approval from cities and neighbors to change zoning. Typically, shoulders shrug, hands are thrown up and interest peters out as panelists move on to other potential solutions.

But the problems persist. Nearly 35% of the 554,000 homeless in the U.S. were unable to find any shelter in 2017. Meanwhile, the amount of retail space vacated as a result of store closings in 2018 is expected to exceed last year’s total of 105 million square feet. Sears alone continues the process of closing hundreds of its Sears and Kmart locations.

Progress is being made, however, albeit slowly and on a temporary or conceptual basis. The Howard Hughes Corp., landlord of the shuttered Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Virginia, recently donated the former Macy’s store in the mall to a nonprofit so that it could temporarily house homeless people until a new shelter in development is complete. It took about 12 weeks to prepare the space for the part-time residents.

Additionally, the R&D Studio of KTGY Architecture + Planning in Irvine, California, has taken the idea to the design table to produce a more permanent solution. Coined Re-Habit, the concept would transform big box stores into “essential uses,” including smaller retail spaces, housing, employment and support for homeless individuals.

In one example illustrated by the firm, a typical 86,000-square-foot big box store anchoring a mall would be reconfigured to include smaller stores lining a path to the shopping center. Sleeping pods, apartments, a courtyard, a dining hall, and spaces for job training, recreation and other uses would be situated above and behind one side of the shop space. The number of beds in the sleeping pods would range from 2 to 20, and residents would progress to accommodations with fewer beds and more privacy the longer they stayed in the program. Residents would also perform the housing chores and tend a rooftop garden intended to supply their own kitchen and small food shops.

A Re-Habit sleeping pod.

KTGY only recently introduced the idea, and like others trying to find ways to solve the homeless and retail problems by marrying the two, it acknowledges that costs, location and identifying development partners pose challenges. But Robert Probst, executive director of Long Beach Rescue Mission in California, said that he was excited about the idea. The KTGY R&D Studio team worked with the Long Beach organization and toured other homeless centers to come up with the most effective designs and ways to integrate the project into communities.

“Re-Habit, if run correctly, can be a self-contained environment with people living, working and then moving into affordable housing,” he said. “It would be a reward for people who are ready to change their lives.”

Heretofore, a tenant like Re-Habit wasn’t a landlord’s first choice when trying to fill empty space, but Marissa Kasdan, director of design for KTGY, is hopeful that will change. Indeed, as many big boxes and malls struggle to survive, property owners are adding apartments and other unconventional uses to their properties that they wouldn’t have considered previously.

“With big box stores such as Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Sears closing in record numbers, repurposing such vacant spaces becomes increasingly necessary,” she added. “At the same time, the housing affordability crisis and other factors are driving up demand to house and service homeless individuals. Re-Habit offers one adaptive re-use solution for multiple problems.”

Residents tend a rooftop garden in KTGY’s Re-Habit concept.