Image from the report.

The District controls a significant amount of land, much of it in desirable locations, ripe for development. The DC government needs to put this land to its maximum use, and to ensure that there are affordable housing opportunities incorporated into these developments, says a new report from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

After the 1968 riots, commercial corridors were decimated, DC’s population declined and private investment dried up. The District acquired vacant lots, aging schools, federal property, and other facilities. As post-recession construction heats up again, DC will be looking to develop this land.

The report details where and how the District can make better use of its ownership leverage to increase affordable housing opportunities on public land. Where previous mayors made strong commitments to affordable units in development projects on city land, Mayor Gray’s administration has been more lax.

"Our public lands are so valuable, and we’re concerned the city is not going to deliver the affordability that it’s achieved in the past,” says Cheryl Cort, Policy Director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “We urge the Mayor and the Housing Task Force to recommit to leveraging city-owned land to create a substantial amount of affordable housing, including at deeply affordable levels.”

According to Cort, the study’s “main finding is that while the previous administrations were able to produce significant amounts of affordable housing down to deeply affordable levels in city-land redevelopment projects, we aren’t seeing the same level of commitment from the new administration.”

Major developments like CityVista at 5th and K St, NW and around the Columbia Heights Metro station have integrated significant amounts of very affordable housing into larger, mixed use developments, says Cort.

"DC has had some successful accomplishments when it comes to city-owned lands transformed in to vibrant mixed use, mixed income developments. However, without keeping specific and ambitious affordable housing requirements in future deals, we are likely to see less and less affordability in these valuable city land projects,” said Jenny Reed, Policy Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, in a statement.

Ideal sites for producing affordable housing are the McMillan Sand Filtration site (25 acres), Walter Reed’s Georgia Avenue Campus (67 acres), Saint Elizabeths East Campus (183 acres), and even Poplar Point (110 acres) which is seemingly stuck in place. To maximize the housing potential of public lands adjacent to Metrorail stations and Metrobus routes, the city must override some desires to build a “one or two-story library or other public facility with a surface parking lot,” the report says. Instead, a “robust mix of compatible uses” and full use of the building envelope should be a guiding design principle.

The report highlights the development of the Hine School site at Eastern Market, which will provide substantial amounts of affordable housing units, including some at 30 percent of Area Median Income (AMI). However, recent solicitations by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development’s land disposition office indicate that housing set asides for people with 30 percent of AMI in larger projects, are no longer in place as they have been in the past.

While earnings for lower-wage workers have remained flat over the past 10 years, housing costs have shot up. According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, between 2000 and 2010 more than 36,000 rental units, priced at $750 or less a month, have been lost. Compounding rising costs for low-wage workers is the natural expiration of federal Section 8 subsidized housing credits. Started under a program created in 1974, Section 8 contracts for private landlords usually run for 20 to 40 years. Many landlords are now turning their properties into market-rate units.

"If the city no longer asks for deeply affordable units as part of an overall project, we don’t expect developers will provide them,” Cort says. “As our city’s housing market gets more expensive, we need to do more, not less to address the challenges that our lower income residents face. Public land is a unique tool that the city has and can continue to leverage to provide substantial amounts of affordable housing, even at very low income levels.”

DC has a shortage of affordable housing, but it has no shortage of public land. The District needs to use this land to guarantee more affordable housing so that we can remain an economically diverse city.