DC mayor Muriel Bowser appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday. In response to a question about whether DC is “full,” she said DC “is going to keep growing” to 800,000 people in about 20 years. A recent report from George Mason University says it’ll take a lot of new housing, of all types and for all income ranges, to get there.

Bowser’s appearance on Morning Joe. Click to view the segment.

Here’s the exchange, which starts around four minutes into this video:

CNBC’s Brian Sullivan: Over the last ten years a number of major corporations — pretty much all the defense organizations, by the way — are either based in DC or around it. DC’s population has surged. I have a lot of friends there and I’ll speak for you and them: What are you going to do about the traffic? Is DC full? Because it seems full when I’m on the Beltway.

Mayor Bowser: It’s not full. We’re going to keep growing. Keep in mind that in the fifties we had 800,000 people that lived in DC. We’re at about 660,000 now, and probably in the next 20 years we’ll get up to 800,000 again. Now we have to be smart, we have to invest in our infrastructure…”

Sullivan: The Silver Line Metro has been expanded. That’s nice …

Bowser: … And it’s going to continue to expand. We’re going to invest in our Metro. And part of the things that all of us mayors are talking about is what the Congress can do to help us. It’s important that we get a permanent transportation bill and fund it.

Disregarding the whole panel’s apparent confusion between the District and the larger region (where the Beltway, Silver Line, and most of the defense companies are located), Bowser’s statistic fits with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) recent projections.

How much housing does our area need?

The George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis recently published a report projecting the amount of housing needed in all the jurisdictions in the Washington region over the next ten years. This updates a 2013 report, which Aaron Wiener summarized as saying, “We Need More Housing. Lots More Housing.”

Starting with projections including the COG population forecasts, author Jeannette Chapman estimated the numbers of new housing units that each jurisdiction will need, and broke it down among single-family houses (attached, like row houses, and detached), multi-family (like apartment buildings), rental units, and owned units. The report also looks at the need for people in different income ranges, from less than 30% of Area Median Income up to 120% and more.

The bottom line, in Wiener-ese, is: “We Still Need More Housing. Lots More Housing. All Kinds. And All Prices.”

Here’s a table showing just DC data, which I assembled from various tables in the CRA report:

District of Columbia, 2023
<30% AMI 30-49.9% AMI 50-79.9% AMI All Low Income 80-99.9% AMI 100-119.9% AMI 120%+ AMI Total
Total DC 75,250 41,330 22,980 139,550 49,880 23,450 103,130 316,020
Single-family 16,840 13,010 8,060 37,910 17,770 8,700 49,590 113,960
Multi-family 58,400 28,320 14,920 101,640 32,110 14,760 53,540 202,050
Owner 13,270 12,640 7,610 33,520 21,080 10,500 66,270 131,380
Renter 61,970 28,690 15,370 106,030 28,800 12,950 36,860 184,640
New units from 2011
<30% AMI 30-49.9% AMI 50-79.9% AMI All Low Income 80-99.9% AMI 100-119.9% AMI 120%+ AMI Total
Total DC 12,600 4,960 1,920 19,490 7,450 3,030 17,380 47,340
Single-family 1,791 -105 -24 3,696 1,347 253 4,467 7,753
Multi-family 10,804 5,069 1,946 37,916 6,089 2,770 12,918 39,630
Owner 3,278 1,242 1,284 13,081 4,121 963 10,014 20,884
Renter 9,319 3,720 634 28,579 3,313 2,068 7,396 26,422
Percent Change from 2011
<30% AMI 30-49.9% AMI 50-79.9% AMI All Low Income 80-99.9% AMI 100-119.9% AMI 120%+ AMI Total
Total DC 20.1% 13.6% 9.1% 16.2% 17.6% 14.8% 20.3% 17.6%
Single-family 11.9% -0.8% -0.3% 10.8% 8.2% 3.0% 9.9% 7.3%
Multi-family 22.7% 21.8% 15.0% 59.5% 23.4% 23.1% 31.8% 24.4%
Owner 32.8% 10.9% 20.3% 64.0% 24.3% 10.1% 17.8% 18.9%
Renter 17.7% 14.9% 4.3% 36.9% 13.0% 19.0% 25.1% 16.7%

Numbers may not add due to rounding.

Sources: 2011 American Community Survey microdata, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and GMU Center for Regional Analysis

Except for single-family housing for people making between 30% and 80% of AMI, DC needs more housing in every box.

The top-line number is 47,340 new units from 2011 to 2023. That’s 3,945 units a year over 12 years. But according to this data, DC added only 3,226 units a year on average from 2011-2014, and that was during a massive boom. The average from 2005-2014, which includes the previous boom and the intervening recession, was 2,153 units a year.

Plus, most new units were not in the lower-income affordable ranges, where DC needs to be adding 1,050 units for people under 30% AMI a year and 573 a year for people making 30-80% AMI.

This challenge is not just in DC. Here’s a table from the report for the whole region:

Housing needs, 2023
<30% AMI 30-49.9% AMI 50-79.9% AMI All Low Income 80-99.9% AMI 100-119.9% AMI 120%+ AMI Total
Dist. of Columbia 75,250 41,330 22,980 139,550 49,880 23,450 103,130 316,020
Montgomery 43,230 45,940 33,350 122,520 77,770 36,560 170,760 407,610
Prince George’s 57,020 55,380 37,830 150,220 79,360 32,440 81,350 343,370
Rest of Sub. Md.1 40,730 31,710 19,980 92,420 56,790 27,230 81,490 257,930
Suburban Md. 140,980 133,030 91,150 365,160 213,930 96,220 333,600 1,008,910
Arlington 13,860 7,560 5,790 27,210 20,780 10,310 56,950 115,260
Alexandria city 9,710 8,450 6,310 24,470 16,090 6,940 32,070 79,570
Fairfax2 41,070 36,480 24,640 102,190 86,390 42,880 213,590 445,050
Prince William3 19,500 22,260 15,360 57,120 43,940 20,080 70,780 191,920
Rest of No. Va.4 40,730 38,010 28,500 107,240 71,250 35,130 154,060 367,680
Northern Va. 124,860 112,760 80,600 318,220 238,460 115,350 527,450 1,199,480
Entire Region 341,090 287,110 194,740 822,940 502,270 235,030 964,180 2,524,410
Increase from 2011
<30% AMI 30-49.9% AMI 50-79.9% AMI All Low Income 80-99.9% AMI 100-119.9% AMI 120%+ AMI Total
Dist. of Columbia 12,600 4,960 1,920 19,490 7,450 3,030 17,380 47,340
Montgomery 5,290 6,550 3,120 14,960 7,400 4,860 20,900 48,110
Prince George’s 13,450 11,090 6,990 31,540 5,190 110 4,780 41,620
Rest of Sub. Md.1 14,710 6,740 1,810 23,250 8,890 4,980 14,450 51,580
Suburban Md. 33,450 24,380 11,920 69,750 21,480 9,950 40,130 141,310
Arlington 4,740 170 1,910 6,820 4,440 1,510 11,100 23,870
Alexandria city 2,760 2,320 520 5,590 2,740 490 6,030 14,850
Fairfax2 2,240 4,760 1,030 8,020 9,750 6,910 15,690 40,380
Prince William3 3,610 6,400 2,480 12,490 9,690 4,720 15,720 42,610
Rest of No. Va.4 11,790 7,910 7,140 26,840 12,190 8,780 52,200 100,010
Northern Va. 25,130 21,550 13,080 59,760 38,800 22,420 100,740 221,720
Entire Region 71,190 50,890 26,920 149,000 67,730 35,400 158,260 410,380

(1) Includes Frederick County, Calvert County, Charles County, and St. Mary’s County

(2) Includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church

(3) Includes the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park

(4) Includes Clarke County, Culpeper County, Fauquier County, Loudoun County, King George County, Spotsylvania County, Stafford County, Warren County, and Fredericksburg city

Numbers may not add due to rounding.

Sources: 2011 American Community Survey microdata, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and GMU Center for Regional Analysis

This is still a lot of sprawl

The GMU report considers the Washington region to be very large, spanning all the way to southern Maryland and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, while the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ definition ends at Prince Wiliam. The report estimates a lot of housing and job growth out in those mostly-undeveloped areas; it would be far better to concentrate job and housing growth in the built-up counties and cities, but that would require even more new housing than the high numbers in this report.

On top of that, the GMU report forecasts that a lot of the new workers who fill new jobs in the region will actually live outside of its definition Washington region and commute in. A lot of them commute to jobs outside the more central jurisdictions, but by far the most job growth is in Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and DC, plus a lot in Loudoun and Arlington, in this forecast. Again, people commuting from so far away to these jobs is not ideal, but adding even more housing will reduce the sprawl pressure.

It’s not impossible

The region can certainly accommodate these new people. As Bowser noted, DC once had that many people, though this was in an era when people lived in much smaller spaces and had larger families. The bigger obstacle is the widespread opposition to nearly any growth anywhere.

If that continues, displacement will increase and new jobs and housing will get pushed to the edges of the region. The report suggests, however, that it’s not just poor workers who will lose out: it’s seniors. Baby boomers will retire in great numbers and without jobs, and then make up many of the lower-income households.

DC and the other jurisdictions in the region will need to proactively plan for where this new housing can go, and get community buy-in ahead of time, to make it possible to build the housing the region needs.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.