Jun 8, 2024 - Real Estate

Why some Chicago renters want to live in former schools

Stacked column chart shows the annual percentage of U.S. apartment conversions from former schools and churches from 2000 to 2023. The share of school conversions fluctuated over the years, peaking at 13% in 2000 and 11% in 2017. Church conversions remained relatively low, peaking at 3% in 2022. In 2023, the share of apartment conversions was 3% from schools and 0% from churches.
Data: RentCafe; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios

Chicago's hottest apartments could be inside an old school.

The big picture: Shuttered schools accounted for 3% of U.S. apartment conversions in 2023, data shared with Axios shows.

  • Former offices and hotels dominate the national conversion trend, comprising 28% and 36% of newly completed projects, according to a RentCafe analysis.

Why it matters: As cities and developers seek to repurpose empty space into much-needed housing, a mix of building types are on the table.

Zoom in: School flips are already happening in Chicago. Younger renters covet the tall ceilings, windows and antique cabinets that come with living in a Gilded Age school, says Nick Vittore, a developer of three such projects downtown.

What they're saying: "The market loves it," Vittore tells Axios. "People were fighting over [the bookshelves], saying, 'Can you move this one up to this apartment?'"

Between the lines: Peabody was one of 50 schools former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed in 2013, citing low enrollment and other issues.

kitchen in former classroom with arched brick entryway and antique cabinet
The Mulligan School Apartments in Lincoln Park. Photo: Courtesy of Svigos Asset Management

While turning cafeterias and gyms into homes is easier said than done, state and federal historic tax credits can incentivize school flips.

  • School buildings can also offer more of the natural light renters want, compared to offices, developers say.

Reality check: Conversions in general are complex, expensive and often hampered by local building restrictions.

The latest: Chicago is providing more generous public subsidies than any other U.S. city to alter outdated offices into apartments, the Wall Street Journal reports.

State of play: Several factors contributed to historical jumps in school conversions since 2000, including declining enrollment in some school districts and heightened interest in city living and historic preservation, according to RentCafe.

  • The 2008 financial crisis also led more developers to consider repurposing existing buildings like schools to reduce construction costs, research analyst Veronica Grecu tells Axios.

What we're watching: No churches were converted in 2023, per RentCafe's analysis of Yardi Matrix data, though Chicago has seen some adapted for housing in recent years.

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