Could Empty Stores in Malls Be Used to House the Homeless?

Mall owners around the country increasingly have a lot of empty space on their hands — and they’ll need to get creative to replace the once-bustling anchor stores that used to occupy it.

While co-working spaces, entertainment venues, gyms, startup incubators and destination-worthy food courts are all becoming appealing options to many landlords, one Irvine, California-based architectural design and planning firm has a novel idea that also addresses a persistent crisis in America: homelessness. Currently in the research and development stage, KTGY Architecture + Planning’s Re-Habit concept proposes mixed-use transitional housing that would convert vacant department stores or other big-box retail locations into residences for dozens of homeless individuals, while providing job training and other social services.

Residents would sleep in multi-bed dorms and graduate to smaller rooms and eventually apartment units the longer they stay in the program. The project would be self-sufficient in that participants would rotate through jobs on-site, including working in the kitchen and cleaning the dining hall.

While unconventional, Re-Habit addresses a need that’s particularly dire in California, where homelessness increased nearly 14 percent between 2016 and 2017, and more than 91,000 people go unsheltered on an average night. Nationally, the homeless population also increased for the first time in seven years, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Mall vacancies around the country, meanwhile, climbed to 8.6 percent in the second quarter, the highest level since 2012, and one recent study estimated that between 1,100 and 1,200 department stores will close by 2023, cutting last year’s total by a fifth. Why not try to ease both problems in one fell swoop?

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