How Can We Deliver Truly “Affordable” Housing in D.C.?

D.C.’s broad-based wealth can be a mixed blessing.

On the one hand: the more people who benefit from our city’s wealth, the better. No question.

On the other hand: our higher median household income creates unintended problems for our city’s lowest-earning residents.

Most notably: our definitions of who needs help with “affordable housing” skew high. And some of our lowest-income residents get lost in the discussion.

Some Good News and Bad News on D.C.’s Inclusionary Zoning Efforts

To start, let’s give credit where it’s due.

In 2009, our city government launched a new policy in their efforts to combat our affordable housing crisis. They launched an Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) policy that created some new affordable housing requirements for developers.

Essentially, the policy states developers now need to allocate 8–10% of their units within many of their new projects for low-to-mid income households. (The policy also gives developers get some benefits for compliance, including the ability to create larger projects than zoning laws would normally let them.)

This new policy got off to a rocky start. But, seven years in, it’s begun to show real progress. Between 2015–2016, the policy resulted in 191 new IZ units.

This is big news. These new units represent nearly half of the new IZ units produced over the last 6 years. And the program is just getting started.

But this success also highlighted a big challenge facing our city’s affordable housing efforts.

Affordable, Yes. But for Who?

In a city as wealthy as D.C., it can be hard to define who needs affordable housing and who doesn’t. And while the city’s new IZ units fit the technical definition of “affordable housing”, most of these units are only affordable a section of our population who we might consider non-traditional candidates.

First, most of the units did not go to families. 41% of the units went to single-member households. 29% went to couples.

This is not necessarily an issue. But it does raise eyebrows. And the next data point to emerge from the program appears more openly problematic.

Approximately 75% of the units went to households who earn $56,000 — $87,000 a year. No, these households are not openly wealthy. And with our high rents and home prices, many of them do require some help finding housing.

But a full-time minimum wage worker in D.C., earning $11.50 an hour, will earn an annual income of only $24,000. Only approximately 15% of our city’s total new rental units (beyond just the new IZ units) are available to residents who earn under 30% of our area’s median income.

In 2015 Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported that nearly half of D.C.’s residents are cost-burdened by rent. And 25% of our residents pay over 50% of their income on housing.

We’re not presenting these numbers to put down the city’s achievements in creating more affordable housing. We have a wide spectrum of residents who need housing options that are affordable for them.

We just can’t forget the people at the bottom of that spectrum.

How We Can Create More Truly Affordable Housing

Let’s be clear: it’s not all doom and gloom. Affordable housing is a solvable problem. And — aside from joining local government discussions — we in the private development community can take plenty of action to make sure D.C. remains a city for all of our residents.

The first thing we can do: remember that creating affordable housing options in our area does not negatively impact home prices. Montgomery County, Maryland has been working hard to solve the Inclusionary Zoning problem since 1974. We have a lot we can learn from them. Including the fact adding moderately priced dwelling units (up to 12.5–15% in each neighborhood) has put no downward pressure on property values. These affordable units have been high quality, they have produced no community outcry, and economic integration even became a selling point used successfully in many neighborhoods.

Montgomery County proves we can do good for others, while also doing good business.

In addition, the regional membership association HAND has put together an excellent, thought-provoking list of affordable housing strategies. They compiled best-practices that have worked throughout the U.S., and explained well how these could be applied within D.C. We suggest you check out their in-depth discussion of each:

  1. Tie affordability requirements to increased density
  2. Make use of public land for affordable housing
  3. Establish commercial linkage fees to fund affordable housing development
  4. Require mixed-income developments
  5. Revise and/or streamline the development review and re-zoning process
  6. Review and revise parking requirements
  7. Experiment with new building types

You likely won’t agree completely with every single one of their suggestions — or every action Montgomery County has taken. We don’t necessarily either. But they create a starting point for a creative, productive conversation on how to solve this problem — a conversation we’d like to share with you.