Life in ‘The Arcade’: Affordable Housing Built Into Abandoned Shopping Mall

The Arcade - Affordable Housing in Shopping Mall

Crises abound in a world where virtually everything is rising but the median wage. Many of these crises overlap. A great example is the homeless, housing, and, arguably, climate crises.

At the intersection of stalled wages and skyrocketing rents sits the affordable housing shortage, quietly making homelessness explode (and, less quietly, making corporate landlords with massive rental portfolios excessively rich).

Put simply, the shortfall is more than 7 million affordable homes.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that for every 100 low-income renters, only 36 affordable housing units are available nationwide. In places like Nevada, where homelessness is so bad that people have resorted to moving their tent cities underground into the sewers, the affordability crisis is more precarious, with only 18 affordable housing units for every 100 low-income earning renters.

The Environmental Impacts of More Construction

At first glance, the answer to the problem lies right in front of us, in the lumbar and labor it takes to build more houses. However, the climate crisis grows deeper each day, and innovative approaches to provisions have become necessary.

As we stare out into the barren landscape of the United States, we find that 47% of the land here is completely uninhabited despite a growing misconception that we are somehow overpopulated. But just because there are 11.1 million census blocks in the United States of America that are void of people doesn’t mean they are blank slates waiting to be built upon.

Indeed, much of this land is taken up by rushing rivers, glistening springs, forests, and natural habitats that we need to keep our ecosystem going. But there is something else situated on the uninhabited land as well – empty buildings such as defunct factories and former office space, not to mention airports that are no longer in use, all of them taking up otherwise unoccupied space.

How Do We Capitalize on Buildings That Are Currently Just Taking Up Space? The American Shopping Mall Could be the Blueprint.

As mentioned in previous Invisible People posts, the dwindling iconic structure known as the American shopping mall could serve as a possible solution to the current housing/homelessness/climate crisis.

Once the centerpiece of modern capitalism, the shopping mall, and to a lesser extent, every brick-and-mortar store, has lost its place in the consumer market. Blame it on cybershopping. Attribute it to the pandemic. Look to the crafters of fast fashion, if you will.

The infinite number of reasons the American shopping mall is dying are of little concern in the grand scheme of things. The harsh reality is they are no longer in demand, at least not as massive venues for indoor shopping and perusal.

However, these same structures that once housed flagship department stores, trendy trinkets, and cafeteria-style food courts could very well be the wave of the future for something entirely new – a new kind of housing, that is.

Introducing The Arcade, the Oldest Mall in America, Has Just Been Converted into Housing for the Second Time

Providence, Rhode Island, already holds the title of one of the quirkiest cities in the nation. A top destination for foodies and art fans, this little city is also home to a pretty unique landmark, The Arcade, which happens to be the oldest mall in the country.

In the early aughts, developers set their sights on transforming the once legendary galleria into a never-before-seen type of housing. The building was converted into approximately 48 micro-lofts, similar to tiny homes but with one very important distinction – they’re communal rather than free-standing, making them a bit more like posh tiny apartments.

The model initially failed in 2008, when affordable housing reached crisis levels. It then regained traction in 2013, presumably as a response to the utter lack of other options on the market.

Zoning: Pros, Cons, and Limitations

Today, The Arcade has been successfully converted into a micro-loft community complete with all the bells and whistles.

Hip Toro reports that the building, decked out in Greek Revival style architecture and contemporary built-in furnishings, consists of dozens of moderately priced apartments ranging in size from 225 to 800 square feet. Shops are situated on the bottom floor like other luxury apartment complexes, minus the exorbitant price tags.

Overall, this is an excellent option for singles and seniors trying to evade homelessness by obtaining affordable housing. In other words, this is one viable option for a few specific subgroups of people in the homeless community. It certainly beats other prospects placed on the table by politicians, such as the highly flammable shantytown-inspired pallet shelters, the run-down emergency warming centers, and, of course, the closed-in walls of local prisons.

However, there are some limitations to be considered.

Firstly, due to the communal aspect of the mall-based micro-lofts, current laws require the structure to be zoned as a rooming house. This means erecting these kinds of structures in one- and two-family neighborhoods and residential districts will be difficult. With more than 300 dead malls dotting the national landscape and even more on the verge of shuttering, this restriction could potentially prevent tens of thousands of affordable housing units from being converted soon.

It’s also important to note that, like many potential solutions to homelessness, this is not a one-size-fits-all fix. It is relevant for a specific subset of people within the homeless population and fails to address other groups, such as homeless families that are, incidentally, on the rise. 

As the market stands, micro-lofts in American shopping malls are already in high demand, with an ever-growing waitlist of people eager to give this alternative, affordable housing option a try.

Talk to Your Representatives about Affordable Housing Investments

With a drastically shifting economy, now is an excellent time to discuss affordable housing investments with your local representatives. The lack of affordable housing remains the leading cause of homelessness nationwide. Talk to your legislators about prioritizing affordable housing on the legislative front.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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