Columbia Heights photo by M.V. Jantzen

Someone sitting in the lively plaza in the heart of Columbia Heights or enjoying a bite to eat at 5th & K’s Busboys and Poets might not know that the shiny new apartment buildings nearby house both well-off residents and and those earning modest to very low incomes. The new mixed-income buildings, built on formerly city-owned land, contain 20-35% affordable housing that reaches down to deeply affordable levels.

While demand to live in DC rises, its stock of low-

priced homes is shrinking. Projects on city-

owned land have created many mixed-income housing opportunities throughout the city. A new paper (PDF) by the Coalition for Smarter Growth examines how DC has used public land to provide affordable housing and other community benefits.

From Walter Reed in upper Northwest to St. Elizabeths in Southeast to smaller projects in between, city-owned land will play a meaningful role in shaping the future character of DC’s neighborhoods and providing housing choices for moderate and low income residents.

Want to know more about what the city is doing, or could do, to use public lands for more affordable housing? How might a library be a good candidate to become mixed-use and mixed income? Join us on Wednesday evening, June 6 for a conversation with the leading thinkers and decision-makers on what gets built on city-owned land, including Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor Hoskins and DC Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper.

DC’s history of affordable housing

Throughout the 2000s, DC has provided thousands of housing units, including a large share of affordable and deeply affordable units, by aggressively managing its surplus lands. 9 parcels on 13 acres of land in Columbia Heights produced nearly 600 new affordable housing units, or 35% of all new units.

The City Vista project at 5th and K NW generated a robust mix of 685 units of housing and retail. 138 units, or 20% of the total, were made available at moderate to deeply affordable levels, including some for those earning no more than 30% of the area median income (AMI).

During earlier decades of disinvestment and population decline, the District acquired substantial amounts of vacant and underutilized land. Many of these properties are now valuable assets that have been or can be redeveloped for housing, commercial uses, or new public facilities. The District also owns large parcels of former federal property as well as scores of aging schools, libraries, and other public facilities with the potential to meet a range of community needs.

Since 2000, starting with Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration, the District government has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments putting surplus lands back into productive use through public-private partnership deals. Affordable housing has been a priority for these redevelopment projects, with DC seeking to designate 20-30 percent of the overall units as affordable.

Going beyond some affordable housing deals, DC sought to create a mix of housing opportunities at very low income levels. It’s most difficult to pay for deeply affordable housing, but there is the greatest need for this housing because it’s expensive to build and most low-wage jobs don’t pay enough to cover even that cost.

A promising success story: The Hine school

The Hine School project stands out as an example of how a project on public land can balance affordable housing and other public benefits with market-rate development.  Located between the Eastern Market Metro station and the historic market house, the Hine School project has an extra challenge of rebuilding in an historic district. 

Residents and prominent local community groups engaged early in the decision-making process to express their vision for the site and influenced the selection of the developer, design, and uses.  The project will include 46 low-income housing units, with 5 units at 30% area median income (AMI), 29 at 60% AMI, and 12 at 80% AMI.

In addition, the project would rebuild C Street SE as a curbless street and plaza and provide room for weekend vendor tents that can accommodate much (but not all) of the flea market currently using the existing school parking lot. Unlike many public land deals, the developer is also adding office space, which can diversify the activity in the area throughout the day and generate revenues that contribute to what the city collects as both taxes and rent.

In all, the Hine project adds up to a winner of a public land deal. Its design fits the historic context of the neighborhood while offering a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, along with office, retail, and public space in a highly desirable neighborhood and adjacent to a Metro station.

A missed opportunity: The Tenley Library and Janney School

One of the big ones that got away was a mixed-use proposal for the Tenley Library and Janney School. Few chances exist to provide affordable housing in the affluent upper Northwest neighborhood of Tenleytown. This project would have provided 53 units (30% of the total) at 30% AMI, offering low-income residents the chance to live in the community, rather than only commute to it.

The deal would also have accelerated needed upgrades to the popular Janney Elementary School at the same time, using up-front payments from the private developer, and it would brought $5 million in cost savings to the library. 

The plan followed a lengthy and tortured path until 2009, when leaders decided to defer the project’s housing elements with a promise to allow for putting it partly on top of the library in the future. However, it’s hard to see how that would be feasible, let alone affordable.

Instead of using money from the project to fund Janney, the city reallocated money to pay for the school, exacerbating an already inequitable tilt in capital school expenditures towards Ward 3. The result was no affordable housing, no added resources leveraged by private investment, and a more inequitable distribution of school modernization dollars.

Community supporters for the mixed-use plan were disappointed. “The [school and library] agencies had no interest in combining land and resources, said Allison Barnard Feeney, a Janney School parent and advocate for the mixed use proposal. “By the time the mayor got behind it, this idea had quite a lot of entrenched opposition.”

What’s next?

Public land deals have delivered a lot of affordable housing in the District through the 2000s. But the future direction for public land redevelopment is unclear.  The recent request for proposals for the site near the Shaw Metro station (Parcel 42) has not specified specific amounts of affordable housing, which is a change from practices in the past decade.

The administration of Mayor Vincent Gray has not established its policy for future public land dispositions but has continued to execute deals with substantial amounts of affordable housing. 

As for future deals, according to Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins, the city may no longer insist that projects on public land require a specific amount of affordable housing or target income levels as they did under the Williams and Fenty administrations. Instead, the administration may ask developers to maximize affordable units below 80% AMI in their proposals, as with the Parcel 42 request.  Under such an approach, achieving affordability reaching all the way down to 30% AMI is less likely. Deputy Mayor Hoskins has suggested that the Mayor’s Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force, convened in February 2012, will help provide broader guidance on this question.

High costs of construction, a tighter District budget, and a shrinking federal role make the path to more affordable housing uncertain. While the District has completed many successful projects, many more opportunities remain to realize public benefits from public land.