Photo from 2910 Georgia Ave.

DC’s Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) affordable housing program has suffered from serious administrative problems in its start-up phase. As a policy, however, it is still sound, and is the right policy for DC’s future.

A handful of IZ units are on the market, along with over 900 units in the pipeline. There are also 1,000 units that came through the Zoning Commission’s Planned Unit Development (PUDs) process since 2000, using the same policy standards as IZ.

Unfortunately, 2 early IZ units sat on the market for more than a year, and the developer has sued the city to get out of the IZ requirement. This doesn’t reflect a fundamental flaw in IZ; rather, it arises from understaffing at the DC government and rigid local and federal regulations. There’s not much time to fix the sputtering implementation of this important affordable housing policy tool.

IZ brings many benefits

IZ sets aside 8-10% of new housing construction for households earning 50-80% of Area Median Income (a 50% AMI household of 3 earns $49,250 per year, a 80% AMI household earns $78,221 per year). IZ is worth fixing because we have plenty of evidence that this kind of program can produce results beyond what other housing programs can. IZ provides affordable housing in mixed-income and wealthier neighborhoods throughout a jurisdiction rather than concentrating it in a few neighborhoods.

This benefit of economic integration has been documented. Low-income children in programs like IZ perform better in school than their peers, because they live in low-poverty neighborhoods and attend local low-poverty schools.  Another other advantage of IZ is that it does not require a direct subsidy from the government to construct the affordable unit, but rather lets the developer to build extra market-rate units, and uses that value to pay for the below-market ones. 

Other than a nominal administrative cost, IZ is a very cost-effective way to sustain the city’s production of new moderately-priced homes.  There are many successful similar programs throughout the country, including Montgomery County’s long-running IZ program, Moderately-Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs). 

DC IZ also has a sister program which creates affordable dwelling units through PUDs and public land deals. (Confusingly, these are often called ADUs, which is the same acronym, but not the same thing, as Accessory Dwelling Units, market-rate basement or garage units inside someone’s house). This program does not appear to have problems filling units at the same income levels.  That success shows that IZ can also overcome its challenges with some concerted attention.

Three problems have stalled IZ

Three debilitating problems with the program’s administration can be fairly easily corrected and get it back on track: severe understaffing, rigid regulations, and rigid FHA lending rules.

Severe understaffing: Only 1-2 people administer the program inside DC’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Without a few more staff people, IZ and the sister affordable dwelling units (ADUs) cannot be administered effectively. The Mayor and DC Council need to provide a few more staff positions to manage these programs.

An alternative to administering the program entirely inside the DC government would be to give responsibility for the for-sale units to a nonprofit experienced in managing permanently affordable homeownership programs. CityFirst Homes is already doing a similar job with the District’s first major housing land trust. Evidence suggests that more hands-on assistance from a non-profit like CityFirst Homes can drastically cut foreclosure rates and yield more successful homeowners. 

The other component that requires sustained support is the housing counseling agencies who educate applicants and help them through the process. Ensuring the city’s budget provides for this is another key ingredient to success. In all, these administrative costs amount to a modest budget item and are a fraction of what it costs to subsidize new affordable housing construction.

Rigid IZ regulations: DHCD manages a process for connecting a person who qualifies for affordable housing to available units. This involves a centralized application and lotteries. Details of that process have proven too rigid to accommodate the realities of matching housing seekers and available units.

The city is in the process of revising the regulations to give the program necessary flexibility.  This revision should be in effect in a few months.

An alternative to the current lottery system would be to let the developers market the units to qualified households, and simply have the District housing agency certify the applicants as qualified and provide general oversight. This is already the process for the PUD and public land “ADUs.”

With sufficient support from housing counseling agencies, residents in search of an affordable home should be able to get enough help to conduct that search, especially with the city’s useful website, dchousingsearch.org.

Rigid FHA lending rules: The Federal Housing Administration has emerged as the predominant mortgage backer in the post-2008 affordable homeownership world. Nationwide, most local housing programs have encountered a critical conflict with FHA rules where local programs (like IZ and ADUs) often require that the affordability provisions survive foreclosure.  FHA does not allow for this

The only way to deal with FHA mortgage lending standards that conflict with local program requirements is to change the program to conform to FHA’s standards, and get FHA to sign off on the changes.  DC is acting to change its standards to comply with FHA.  The timeline for receiving FHA’s approval is uncertain but the city hopes it will happen shortly, we hope in the next month or so.

If a unit goes into foreclosure and then sells on the market, the city would lose its investment in an affordable home. There are other safeguards the city could put in place that do not conflict with FHA. They would at least allow the city to recover the value of the affordability of the unit, should a foreclosure occur and the unit sell on the market.

With these three administrative fixes in place, DC should be ready to smoothly operate a program to place the right applicant in the right unit as 900 more IZ units come online.

Mend it, don’t end it

IZ’s growing pains have led to some calls to more fundamentally modify or scrap the IZ program. We should consider and debate these suggestions only once DC fixes the immediate problems and the program administration is running smoothly. 

Some opponents continue to question the policy itself, but experience across the country points to IZ as a valuable and effective tool to create moderately-priced housing in strong markets with virtually no direct cost other than a small budget for staffing the program.