We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about housing with candidates for Ward 1 on the DC Council. See all of the discussions here.
The District is adding 1,100 people a month right now, and a GMU Center for Regional Analysis report estimates DC needs 41,000 to 105,000 new housing units over 20 years. Where will this housing go? Or will supply fall far short of demand?
I asked the candidates in DC’s April 1 primary this question, and the answers from Ward 1 councilmember Jim Graham an his challenger, Brianne Nadeau, illustrated a clear difference in how we think about growth.
To start with, Graham and Nadeau both support building multi-family buildings along the ward’s main corridors, such as 14th and U Streets where there has already been a lot of development, especially near Metro stations.
I’m an advocate for developing the core. The areas around our subway stations, areas with excellent bus transportation, should be areas where all of this is developed, because what we found is ... people are coming without cars and contributing to the fact that ward 1 has the fewest number of car owners per capita of any ward in the city.
We’ve watched key populations, such as our Latino population, be pushed out of the ward and over the border into other wards or even other jurisdictions because of rising costs. One of the things we have to do is increase density where it’s appropriate. We want to maintain the distinct character of our historic neighborhoods, but what we can do is increase density around transit hubs.
Both also spoke up in favor of affordable housing programs, including providing more money to DC’s Housing Production Trust Fund. Nadeau cited how the Home Purchase Assistance Program actually helped her afford a down payment on her own home 5 years ago. “Without that down payment assistance, I would still be renting,” she said, “and what it’s given me is long-term stability.”
What income level should affordable housing programs serve?
Nadeau said she wants to ensure that enough affordable housing goes to people making below 60% of Area Median Income (AMI), and that there are enough units of appropriate sizes for families as well as singles. Graham was even firmer about the 60% threshold:
When we reach 60% of AMI, which I think is almost $100,000, everybody would like to have some kind of housing subsidy, but I can’t bring myself to believe that they are as much in need as other income levels, particularly those who are at $60,000 or less. To give somebody a housing subsidy at $100,000 a year of income is puzzling. It’s more than puzzling, it’s unacceptable to me. I think that’s too high of an income to merit a rental subsidy.
(Note: I believe Graham is confused about the AMI levels here. According to DHCD, the 2013 60% AMI level for a 3-person household is $57,960 and for 4 people is $64,540. 100% of AMI for a 4-person household is $107,300.)
Nadeau disagrees with Graham’s bright line. “We talk a lot about people below 60% AMI because we recognize that there’s a great, great need there. But once you get to 61% we can’t be forgetting about those people either.”
Many affordable housing advocates indeed push to ensure that our affordable housing programs benefit those significant below median income, especially 60% of AMI and even some at lower levels like 30% and 50%, but housing is a challenge even for people above the median income. What about those who have higher incomes and might not qualify for, or perhaps deserve, explicit government subsidies?
Increase the supply of housing? Where?
Even though there are some significant parcels of land, like McMillan, Saint Elizabeths, and Hill East where new growth can go, the Office of Planning estimates that in 10-20 years DC will hit a ceiling of how much housing can be built under current zoning and the Comprehensive Plan.
I asked Graham, “What do we do for people making 60% of AMI or more so they have the opportunity to live in neighborhoods in Ward 1?”
"They may not have that opportunity,” Graham replied, though he did cite the Inclusionary Zoning program which creates some units at 80% AMI. Other than that, he pointed to neighborhoods like Brookland which is seeing significant new development to accommodate new residents.
If each ward grows comparably, that would be 5,000 or more units for Ward 1 and every other ward. Should Ward 1 find room for that much housing? Nadeau said, “I don’t know what the percentage [of new housing between wards] would be, because we are the most densely populated ward so we need to control for that,” but she suggested a planning process or and housing audit to identify needs for affordable and market-rate units, and “providing enough housing so we’re bringing the market down.”
To the same question, Graham said, “The answer to that question is we may not find those 5,000 units in Ward 1. ... I don’t know whether Ward 1, with its current boundaries — we have so little vacant land left because we have wisely developed all of the major parcels.”
Graham talked about how Anacostia is on the cusp of becoming a neighborhood many people want to move to, and how prior to 1965 it had large numbers of white residents as well as some long-time black residents. But, I asked, people in and around Anacostia are nervous about “overdevelopment” and “changing the character of the neighborhood” just as people are in Ward 1.
"I don’t want to cut off my nose to spite my face,” said Graham. “If we wreck the historic character of the neighborhoods, we’re just becoming a neighborhood that’s closer to downtown jobs. That’s not a neighborhood I want to move into. If we wreck all of that for the sake of more people, we make a poor bargain indeed.”
See the whole discussion about housing:
We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood. Thanks to Martin Moulton for organizing the space and recording and editing the videos.