D.C. Is Rapidly Gentrifying and the Fate of its Affordable Housing Hangs in the Balance

Originally published in Washington City Paper on November 14, 2019.
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For D.C., the problem is major and it is imminent: How can the city avoid the fate of San Francisco, where housing has grown so costly that barely anyone can afford to live in it? Though D.C. has not reached the notoriety of SF, where everyone from custodial staff to high-earning tech developers feel priced out, it’s already one of the most expensive cities in the country. And leaders know things could get much worse—if nothing changes.

More than 700,000 people live in the District, an increase of more than 100,000 since 2010. Demographers expect population growth to continue in D.C. through 2045, and already new jobs have been outpacing new housing.

The flood of new residents moving in has added intense pressure on the people who hope to stay. Renters across the income spectrum are paying more of their (largely stagnant) wages toward housing costs, with average rents for market-rate one-bedrooms in D.C. reaching nearly $2,000 per month in 2018, and $2,500 for two-bedrooms. According to Apartment List, a real estate and research site, almost half of D.C. renters spent more than a third of their incomes on housing last year, and nearly a quarter spent at least half.

While D.C. rents may not yet mirror those in the Bay Area, the District did earn its own dubious housing superlative this year. Three national studies published in 2019 came to the same conclusion: that D.C. leads the nation when it comes to neighborhood gentrification and displacement of low-income residents. Many of these residents are being pushed out to the suburbs, partly due to the city’s uniquely high-earning renter population. One report published earlier this year found that 13.9 percent of D.C. renters earn over $150,000, and with Amazon’s new headquarters slated to open in Crystal City, that figure could surely rise.

City leaders say they grasp the stakes, are ready to act, and are committed to expanding affordable housing throughout the District. But some of the poorest residents, and those who have lived in the city for decades, are skeptical that the government’s money will ultimately be spent for their benefit instead of getting lost in the dense network of developers, consultants, and public agencies overseeing housing in D.C. Will these policy discussions really result in quality housing for low-income Washingtonians? Who stands to win and lose in the process?

***

Housing is a deeply controversial issue, but there’s at least one idea around which city leaders have newly forged a consensus: Increasing the supply of housing in D.C. is essential to relieving cost pressure in the housing market. Or, flipped around, that in the absence of more housing, the city will grow even more unaffordable.

The Urban Institute, a national think tank, published a study in early September estimating that the Washington metropolitan region needs to produce 374,000 new housing units by 2030 to accommodate projected population growth.

A week later, the board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which represents 24 jurisdictions in the D.C. area, passed a non-binding resolution calling for at least 320,000 new housing units in the region by 2030, with 75 percent of that housing targeted to low- and middle-income families.

The city’s plans, so far, are more modest. In May, Mayor Muriel Bowser signed an order directing city agencies to study how D.C. can create 36,000 new housing units by 2025, with at least 12,000 of those designated “affordable.”

Then last month, after nearly three years of negotiations, the Council voted unanimously to approve the “framework element” to the Comprehensive Plan—a city document that’ll chart the next two decades of growth and development in D.C. The “framework element” is the first of 25 chapters, and it sets the tone and priorities for the rest of the plan.

It’s been 13 years since D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan was last rewritten, and the biggest changes between then and now, experts say, is new language emphasizing the need for more housing and development in all parts of the city, as well as language officials hope will make it harder to block new developments in court.

A week after the Council took its vote, at a press conference held at ElectriCityBikes in Tenleytown, Bowser and her Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood released two new reports—draft proposals for the remaining 24 chapters of the Comprehensive Plan, and neighborhood targets for how the city should distribute 12,000 new affordable units by 2025.

There are roughly 52,000 “dedicated affordable” units in D.C. today, with the majority concentrated in Wards 7 and 8, the poorest parts of the city. The mayor’s plan notably calls for building many more subsidized units in more affluent neighborhoods, like Rock Creek West and Capitol Hill, which have just 470 and 1,820 affordable units respectively.

This recommendation is reinforced by a separate planning process, conducted by the city, to certify that it is in compliance with federal civil rights law. Released in late September, the city’s new draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice includes findings such as: Many historically black D.C. neighborhoods have become increasingly white, and zoning and land costs hinder affordable housing in Wards 2 and 3. (Ward 3 was once home to a thriving middle class black community—one that fought for decades for its right to stay.)

“We have all these conversations about cost-pressures, but a fair housing lens is so rarely applied,” says Megan Haberle, the deputy director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, which the city hired to conduct the analysis along with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The mayor’s housing proposals, Trueblood emphasized at the October press conference, were informed by the first-ever housing survey recently administered the Office of Planning and the Department of Housing and Community Development. More than three quarters of the 2,760 respondents said the current distribution of D.C. subsidized housing—with the majority packed east of the Anacostia River—was unfair.

Public review of the mayor’s proposals is ongoing between now and Dec. 20, with ANC resolutions due Jan. 31. The Bowser administration will then prepare its legislative package to introduce by March, with the hope that the Council approves a full Comprehensive Plan by the end of 2020.

***

Mostly omitted from Comp Plan conversations is the hot-button issue of zoning. About 28 percent of the city’s land is zoned for residential use, and many advocates say easing up on zoning restrictions to allow for more kinds of development will be key to addressing housing affordability.

Nationally, housing policy has become increasingly focused on the role zoning plays in clamping down on housing supply. Many urbanists were thrilled when Minneapolis undertook major zoning reform last year. In December, the Minneapolis city council voted to end single-family zoning throughout their city, and instead allow residential structures with up to three units to be built in every neighborhood. The state of Oregon followed suit this past summer, voting to allow duplexes to be built in any single-family zoned neighborhood in any city with more than 10,000 people.

Alex Baca, a housing organizer with Greater Greater Washington—a local urban policy group that generally supports increased housing density—says “no one is ready to touch zoning right now” in D.C., but thinks probably in a year or so, once the Comprehensive Plan is finished, there will be more bandwidth to take up the issue. “The 2016 re-zoning process was very challenging,” she adds, referring to three years ago when the city made minor adjustments to its zoning code, like allowing more homeowners to rent out their garages and basements, and lowering the number of parking spots needed for new construction. (Baca is also a former City Paper assistant editor.)

At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the Council’s housing committee, tells City Paper that she too expects zoning reform will be necessary to meet D.C.’s affordable housing goals. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, also on the housing committee, agrees. “Our zoning code was drafted in 1920 and based on prohibitive covenants and redlining, we have a dark history of segregation and unfortunately the modern era has not rectified that,” she says. “So what we have to do is legalize more diverse types of housing across the city … we got language on affordable housing, reducing segregation, and racial equity [in the Framework Element] so now we have to do the land-use changes that put our money where our mouth is.”

But some housing advocates are uncomfortable by all the buzz around making it easier to build more homes, and question how affordable these units will really be.

“When the mayor talks about affordable housing to push more density, we just don’t see how building more will actually benefit existing residents,” says Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC, a grassroots community organization. “If every time you put multiple units in the place where before there was one unit, it actually drives the price up.” And does building more subsidized units in affluent neighborhoods, she asks, mean there will be less money for housing in other wards?

“The reality is many single-family zoned houses are in black communities with black homeowners, and they are now facing pressure of rising tax costs, even when they’ve paid off their home,” Norouzi says. “If you want to use a racial justice lens, then you need to do a full analysis, and there are parts of the city where ending single-family zoning will do nothing but increase gentrification and displacement.”

Nancy MacWood, a Ward 3 ANC commissioner and trustee on the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a land-use group that generally backs tight D.C. zoning rules, also voices doubt that easing up on zoning would yield more affordable housing. “In Ward 7 where there is single family zoning, the land values are less than in the single family zoned areas in Ward 3, so a developer who buys a single family lot and redevelops it with multi-family housing is not going to be building affordable housing,” she says. “The real estate industry in the District, they’re always looking for new places to build, and new ways to make profit.”

Jeff Utz, a D.C. Building Industry Association board member focused on the Comp Plan, pushed back on the idea that the real estate industry is narrowly focused on its bottom line. “There is certainly no desire or focus on pushing people out, and that’s a sensitivity developers have as well, frankly,” he says. “Developers can be an easy punching bag and painted as a monolithic concept, but they live here and work here, on the same streets that are being developed. They are bought in on making sure that the city works and thrives for diverse communities.”

***

Amidst all this housing affordability discussion, a new citywide campaign just launched in October, dedicated to expanding and strengthening rent control.

In D.C., landlords with units covered by rent control can only raise rent once a year, and the rent can only increase by two percent plus the inflation rate. (Seniors and people with disabilities can apply for a lesser increase.) There is no official mechanism tracking how many units are still covered by rent control, though experts suspect the number hovers somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000. The Urban Institute estimates that between 1985 and 2011, due to redevelopment and loopholes in the statutes, the District lost approximately 50,000 units of rent-controlled housing.

D.C. rent control laws are set to lapse on Dec. 31, 2020, and councilmembers have already pledged to pass something before then, extending the program for an additional 10 years. The new Reclaim Rent Control campaign is aiming to use the Council’s upcoming rent control reauthorization to strengthen and expand its protections.

The campaign is driven by a coalition of over 30 local organizations, including housing and faith-based groups, and unions like the Washington Teachers’ Union, UNITE HERE, and SEIU. “Part of our theory of change is you need to unite the left and progressive interest groups and grassroots planning group to get this thing passed,” says Benjy Cannon, a UNITE HERE Local 25 spokesperson. He said coalition members plan on “confronting landlords head on.”

Just like zoning reformers in D.C. have been mobilized recently by actions in Minneapolis and Oregon, rent control advocates point to new victories in New York and California, where housing advocates successfully pressured lawmakers to strengthen tenant protections.

On Oct. 26, the coalition held a launch rally at Lamont Park in Mount Pleasant, turning out roughly 300 people. This week dozens of coalition members poured into the Wilson Building to testify in support of strengthening the laws.

“I did meet some members of the campaign, and they do have a very ambitious agenda, and I think some of what they are proposing can be realized, I really do, and I plan on working with them,” says Councilmember Bonds. “But I think at the same time we have to be realists about just how far we can move the needle because it is about dollars and cents as it relates to a company having the authority to make money and [also] provide our residents safe, sanitary, and hopefully attractive living environments.”

Earlier this year Bonds formed a working group of housing stakeholders—including advocates, landlords, and attorneys—to look at voluntary reforms to rent control. It ended in a stalemate. “Both sides continue to be very far apart,” she acknowledges.

***

Many questions remain about the mayor’s plan.

One is how leaders plan to prioritize the number of units versus the size. A study published this summer found a third of D.C.’s housing stock is considered family-sized, meaning it has at least three bedrooms, but most of those units are not affordable to lower-income families. The study was commissioned by the city amid protests over redeveloping Brookland Manor, a long-time affordable property in Northeast. Its owner wants to replace the property’s 535 large units with more than 1,750 luxury apartments, the majority of them being one- and two-bedroom.

“If someone says, ‘I can build you 50 affordable units, and they’re all one-bedroom, and someone else can do 30, and they’d be 3 and 4-bedroom, will the Bowser administration feel it has to go by unit count because they need to deliver on their 12,000 unit target?” asks Councilmember Nadeau.

It’s also not clear how exactly the city plans to overcome the “not in my backyard”-style political opposition that has derailed and killed so many housing projects in the past.

One strategy leaders are banking on is making it harder for anti-gentrification activists, as well as residents who want to block or control development in their neighborhoods, to use litigation to achieve their goals. Court challenges—one of the few ways people have fought against projects they worry could change a neighborhood for the worse—can delay construction for years and make an entire project much more expensive. Newly approved language in the Comprehensive Plan, leaders hope, will make it harder to stall future projects.

At the mayor’s press conference in October, an attendee asked Bowser if she’d be willing to go further, and support even more substantial changes to the legal standing of activists and residents who might want to challenge new development. She hinted that she would.

“I’m discouraging any developer who has the opportunity to build more affordable housing to not be scared away,” Bowser replied. “We will use every tool at our disposal that will discourage that … we need these units.”

The mayor is also sounding an optimistic note with regards to dealing with potential community opposition to new development, especially new affordable housing. “I think that we have to put [projects] in front of people that they can embrace,” she said recently on the “The Politics Hour” of the Kojo Nnamdi Show. “That add housing, that are close to amenities, that are close to Metro, and that they think add value to their quality of life. I think frequently when we talk about these things they are so abstract that people may have a knee-jerk opposition. So we want to give folks great projects that they can support.”

Yet while the mayor’s plan has developed specific targets for how many new units of affordable housing should be distributed throughout the city, it does not offer real details of how the city plans to manage and maintain those properties, or where in those neighborhoods new housing should actually go.

“Should they say how they’re going to build the 36,000 units?” asks Baca of Greater Greater Washington. “Yeah, but they won’t, and I’m not going to die on that hill. Having the mayor say we need more housing does more than we can do with 10 years of GGWash blogging.”

***

Unanswered questions about what affordable housing will really look like in practice also remain.

“Affordable” can mean a lot of things, but D.C. has adopted a definition that many cities use: housing that costs less than 30 percent of a household’s income, for households earning up to 80 percent of the region’s median income. Federal guidelines consider anyone earning below that 80 percent cutoff to be “low-income.” Households earning less than 50 percent are considered “very low-income,” and households earning less than 30 percent are “extremely low-income.”

As of July a “low-income” family of four in the D.C. region was one that earned up to $97,050 annually.

While the city has so far steered clear of detailing how affordable the 12,000 affordable units will be, Richard Livingstone, the interim deputy chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Community Development, tells City Paper that “the intention is to create significant affordable housing” for those at the extremely low-income level. Doing so, he says, will come primarily through investing in programs like D.C.’s Local Rent Supplement Program, which offers residents vouchers to cover market-rate rent, and the Housing Production Trust Fund, which has produced over 10,000 affordable units in D.C. since 2001.

But production from the trust fund has slowed in recent years, as construction costs and other expenses have gone up. Reports published over the last two years by D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson have also alleged leaders of the fund chronically mismanaged it and wasted tens of millions of dollars. And while the fund has been annually required to spend 40 percent of its resources on serving the city’s poorest residents, it met this target only once in the past five years, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

Despite all these concerns, Councilmember Bonds says she wants to try increasing the budget for the Housing Production Trust Fund in the future. “I’m going to try to increase it to as close to $130 million, I think that would be helpful,” she tells City Paper. “If we can increase it more to $150 or $200 million, wow, just think what we could do.” Bowser also proposed increasing the housing trust fund to $130 million this past cycle.

***

While city leaders discuss committing new money and attention to affordable development, there is one type of subsidized housing that is getting extremely short shrift: public housing.

“Public housing is the only program that’s permanently affordable and permanently targets the lowest-income residents,” says Norouzi of Empower DC. Most new affordable housing in the District has targeted households earning 50 to 60 percent of the area median income, not 30.

The easiest explanation for why public housing gets less attention is that the federal government has disinvested in the program over the last few decades, leaving existing units nationwide to deteriorate. Last December, after conducting a multi-million dollar audit, the DC Housing Authority concluded that nearly a third of its public housing—2,500 units—demanded “extremely urgent” attention, and were nearly uninhabitable. Another 4,445 units were considered in “critical condition.”

In April, the Housing Authority’s director Tyrone Garrett said it would take $2.2 billion over the next 17 years to get the city’s public housing back into good shape. The Council budgeted $25 million for public housing rehab this year, but advocates say there’s many more ways to increase those investments in the future.

“In the past decade, D.C. has found funding for costly but important priorities such as WMATA and school modernization,” says Doni Crawford, a housing policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. “The District has even found hundreds of millions for sports stadiums, so why not public housing?” She suggests scaling back development tax breaks, tapping into the city’s surplus, and using general obligation municipal bonds as some possible sources of revenue.

In late August, the Housing Authority published a draft “Transformation Plan” to address the future of city public housing, and accepted public comment on its plan through Sept. 27. Much of the Housing Authority’s vision involves transitioning units into the private sector through the federal government’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which converts public housing into Section 8 subsidized rentals, with affordability contracts that are supposed to renew in perpetuity. Housing advocates worry tenants may lose many of their rights through RAD conversions, and a coalition of eight advocacy groups, including Empower DC, Legal Aid Society, and Bread for the City submitted joint-comments to this effect. The draft plan, they wrote, is “virtually silent on the rights of residents [to return and once they are newly developed properties], the impacts of displacement, the very real challenges of renting with a voucher, or the years of harm endured by residents living in slum conditions.”

The Office of Planning tells City Paper, “public housing is a critical part of the District’s housing ecosystem” and says it is working with the Housing Authority and other agencies “to refine, improve, and implement their [Transformation] plan.”

***

In addition to producing more housing, funding new affordable units, and opening up land for denser construction, leaders say a key element of maintaining affordability in the District is preserving affordable units that already exist. But between 2006 and 2014, the city lost at least 1,000 units of subsidized housing, and another 4,700 dedicated affordable units have subsidies set to expire by 2025.

Peter Tatian, the Research Director of the Urban–Greater DC initiative at the Urban Institute, emphasized that not all projects with expiring subsidies are at risk of being lost as affordable housing, because in some cases the subsidies just renew. Nonetheless, Tatian helps maintain a database of subsidized housing that flags which properties are particularly vulnerable to being lost.

One way the city hopes to preserve affordable housing is by funding community-based organizations that work with tenants. These groups help low-income residents take advantage of city programs like the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which entitles tenants to buy the property where they reside if their landlord wants to sell.

Councilmember Nadeau thinks political action is key to preserving existing housing. “How do you preserve the units that have expiring subsidies?” she asks. “You do that by having an army of people out in communities who are talking to tenants about what that means and getting them organized so they can fight to preserve their affordability.”

In 2017, the city also established a $10 million Affordable Housing Preservation Fund, to leverage private dollars to help maintain, acquire, and rehabilitate existing affordable units. According to LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation), a community development financial institution which helps manage the fund, the fund has already helped over 1,000 residents stay in their homes. While the Council almost zeroed out the preservation fund’s budget this year, lawmakers ultimately approved $11.8 million for it.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder if the investments are large enough, the long-term vision bold enough, or even whether the city has the basic capacity necessary to meet its goals. City Paper has found, time and again, across several different government affordable housing programs, properties in desperate conditions. Many tenants deal with things like insect infestations, doors that don’t lock, debilitating asthma that is, at least in part, attributable to their housing, and sewage bubbling up in their tubs.

And planning officials seem relatively resigned to the fact that some affordable market-rate units currently available to residents just won’t be around in the future.

Older market-rate units that have lower rents without government subsidy are known as “naturally occurring” affordable housing. This subset of D.C. housing has been shrinking: According to the Office of Planning, there were 18,300 fewer “naturally occurring” affordable units available to lower-income families in 2017 than there were in 2006.

“Dedicated affordable” units, meaning subsidized housing for those earning up to 60 percent of the area median income, make up about 16 percent of D.C.’s housing stock. Add the “naturally occurring” affordable units to the mix, and you have roughly 21 percent of all housing in D.C.

But in its recently released Housing Equity Report, the Office of Planning noted that the loss of 18,300 “naturally occurring” affordable units suggests that over the next decade or two the remaining supply will no longer be affordable to low-income households. The city’s solution is to ensure that a third of its new housing production will be affordable, so that D.C. can make up for this loss. In other words, three decades from now city planners envision there will be roughly the same percentage of non-rent controlled dedicated affordable units in the city as there is now—21 percent.

If D.C. loses some of its existing subsidized units between now and 2025, will the city then adjust its housing production goals? Would a loss of 2,000 affordable units mean the city would commit to producing 14,000 new ones in a half-decade instead?

For now the city is saying yes, the 12,000 target is a net goal. “Lost units [would] increase the number of new affordable units that must be created,” Livingstone tells City Paper.

Marian Siegel, executive director of Housing Counseling Services, one of the community-based groups that works with residents who are fighting to protect their housing, says that while the city is making some efforts to ensure people who have lived here can stay, it’s not enough.

“The city has tremendous resources and has chosen to use many of those resources to engage new residents in feeling comfortable,” she says. “In general it’s a progressive city, but it often loses sight of how people are living.”

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