Image by La Citta Vita licensed under Creative Commons.

Record numbers of homes have gone up in DC in the past decade, which has helped not just to give our growing population a place to live, but also to keep rents from skyrocketing. Still, there aren’t that many options for families who need to rent apartments with three or more bedrooms, and as this map shows, what is available isn’t well-distributed throughout the District.

What am I seeing here?

The map above, made by the real estate advisors at RCLCO, uses a very specific subset of data. It shows apartments from buildings that look something like this:

CityVista apartments in Mt. Vernon Triangle is an example of an “institutional quality” building. Investors are willing to fund these because they are considered safer real estate investments. Image by NCinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

These large apartment complexes (typically 50 or more units and recently constructed) are labeled “institutional quality” by the real estate industry, a term that pension funds, hedge funds, or real estate investment trusts use to help them decide which projects to invest in. Those same parties are often less willing to invest in smaller projects.

This map analyzes the nearly 62,000 rental apartments in DC that exist inside “institutional quality” buildings. In DC, this type of unit makes up about 37% of all rental apartments.

This is important because as DC grows, most of what’s being built are large apartment complexes, and it’s important for those to be able to house families.

With those parameters, the map’s creators searched all 62,000 institutional quality apartments for those that had three or more bedrooms: rental homes that would be comfortable for growing families. This map shows where those three bedroom rentals are located by zip code.

Apartments are going up for more people, but not for more families

Since 1990, the market has only added 507 family-sized rental apartments. Something that really stands out is that from 1990 to 1999, not a single 3+ bedroom apartment unit in an institutional-quality building was built.

But since 2000, DC has seen an incredible uptick in large-scale apartment building construction. Of the 62,000 apartments available in this building type in DC, 42% have been built in the last 17 years. But only 1.9% of the apartments in these newly constructed complexes have had three bedrooms or more.

Renting as a family is not much of an option in certain neighborhoods

For families looking to rent a place to live, only certain neighborhoods offer the opportunity.

When considering all of these institutional quality apartments on the market, no matter the year of construction, DC has 1004 family-sized apartment units east of the Anacostia River. By the same measure, there are only 128 family-sized rentals available west of Rock Creek Park. In four of the 23 zip codes represented on the map, there aren’t any 3+ bedroom rental units. In three other zip codes, fewer than five exist.

Of course, part of this is because of zoning. Many neighborhoods have zoning restrictions that limit the height of what can be built in the area as well as how many people can live in a building. These institutional quality rentals are often in buildings that are tall and dense, thus they aren’t allowed in some zones.

Besides zoning restrictions, the market is simply not producing family-sized apartments where many families can truly afford to live. With prices as they are in DC, a building owner might charge well over $4,000 a month in rent for one of these units. When we limit how many family-sized units can go up, the ones that do exist are going to be prohibitively expensive.

And beyond just prices, without incentivizing the construction of family sized units, we are stuck in a cycle of building apartments with fewer bedrooms, perhaps ideal for the young and elderly but not families.

This data does not represent all of the housing options available to families, but it does reveal a dramatic absence of family-sized rental apartments in DC and is a warning for future growth. Not only that, those that do exist are clustered in only a few areas of the city. What else do you notice?

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.