Wah Luck House, one of the few remaining affordable housing communities left in Chinatown. Image by Corey’sWorld (MDCoreBear) licensed under Creative Commons.

A coalition of business groups, tenants' groups, developers, affordable housing advocates, faith groups, and over 350 residents have unified to support more housing, more affordable housing, and targeted support for communities as DC rewrites its Comprehensive Plan. One of those priorities: preserve affordable housing.

The coalition, which includes Latino Economic Development Center and many other groups, has agreed on a statement of ten priorities. In a series of posts, coalition members will go through many of the priorities to explain what they mean, why there's a problem, and how the group reached agreement. Do you support the priorities?

Sign the Priorities Statement!

DC is losing affordable housing options at dangerous rate

Amidst a development boom, DC is gaining thousands of new homes, but we’re losing homes that are affordable to residents with the greatest need. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has found that between 2002 and 2012, almost 30,000 low-cost apartments renting at $800 or less — about half of the District’s supply of such apartments — disappeared. In a housing needs assessment for DC, the Urban Institute projected that by 2020, the city will lose another 15,000 homes that are affordable to the third of local households making 50 percent or less of the area median income (currently $43,680 for a two-person household or $54,060 for a family of four).

Despite unprecedented local investments in the development of affordable housing, DC is expected to face a significant net loss in the coming years of housing that our poorest residents can actually pay to live in thanks to a confluence of legal loopholes and development pressures.

The consequences of the affordable housing shortage are well known. Washington, DC has the highest rate of homelessness in the country: more than 8,000 people, many of whom are children and their parents, lack a place to live.

The city is becoming more segregated as affordable housing disappears in developing neighborhoods. Nearly half of renters pay more than a third of their income, and a quarter pay more than half their income; these “rent-burdened” households need to cut back on other necessities like food, healthcare, education, and new clothes.

DC loses affordable housing in a wide variety of ways:

  • Subsidies expire, and owners who have had contracts to provide affordable housing decide to take rents up to market rate.
  • Loopholes in rent control law give room for owners to to push rents as high as they can.
  • Affordable rental units are converted to condominiums. Landlords allow conditions to deteriorate in low-rent buildings until poorer tenants vacate. Low-cost homes are demolished to make way for luxury development.

New housing options created by the market are far too expensive for people with the greatest need. Even new affordable housing created through inclusionary zoning or subsidies like low-income housing tax credits tends to be more expensive than the old units that are being lost. That’s why preserving the low-cost housing we already have needs to be a top priority for DC’s elected officials.

The Comprehensive Plan can help preserve low-cost housing, but doesn’t right now

There is a lot that the local government can do to fight the loss of low-cost housing, and the Comprehensive Plan can be an important resource to protect our existing stock of affordable homes in areas undergoing redevelopment.

Even when redevelopment complies with inclusionary zoning or includes additional below-market rate units, it can lead to a net loss of affordable housing. A case in point is the controversial plan to redevelop Brookland Manor off of Rhode Island Avenue NE. It is a place where clearer affordable housing preservation priorities in the Comp Plan would make a difference.

The existing complex contains 373 subsidized units as well as 150 low cost rent controlled apartments, many of which are occupied by poor families with housing choice vouchers. The 1,700 units planned for the site would replace the subsidized units, but the rent controlled units would be permanently lost. In order for the developers to carry out this plan for Brookland Manor, the zoning commission must approve a planned unit development (commonly known as a PUD), relaxing certain regulations on the site.

The Comp Plan coalition says:

When redevelopment occurs on properties with housing made affordable through subsidy, covenant, or rent control, the District, Zoning Commission, and neighborhoods should work with landowners to create redevelopment plans that preserve such units or replace any lost ones with similar units either on-site or nearby. These entities should provide the necessary density and/or potential funding to ensure it is financially feasible to reinvest in the property with no net loss of affordable units.

The Comprehensive Plan should help ensure that developments like Brookland Manor are only approved when they preserve or replace each and every subsidized home affordable to the poorest households. Meanwhile, policymakers should provide the necessary resources to developers for one-for-one replacement of low-cost units. This could be by delivering subsidies and permitting denser development that can cross-subsidize below-market rate units.

Indeed, policymakers should take a broader view of the relationship between redevelopment and the loss of affordable housing. Economic development and accompanying rising property values clearly create an incentive for owners of cheap rental housing to displace low-income tenants and find more profitable uses for their assets. In areas where the disposition of city-owned land is likely to initiate a new cycle of development (around the St. Elizabeth’s campus or Walter Reed for instance), DC should go beyond mandating the creation of new affordable housing.

We should strategically provide resources to preserve housing in developing neighborhoods, such as subsidies, enhanced enforcement of rent control and other regulation, and support for community-based initiatives that educate and organize tenants to protect their rights.

Sign on to the priorities!

“Preserve affordable housing” is one of ten priorities where the coalition reached agreement. We'll be following up with articles on more of the 10 priorities by a variety of coalition members. (Note: While the coalition agreed on the priorities, this article is my commentary about one of the priorities, not an official coalition statement, and all members have not signed onto the specific wording here. The same goes for the other posts in this series.)

So far, over 65 organizations and over 350 individuals have put their names on the priorities statement. Will you join them? Sign on today!

Rob Wohl is a tenant organizer with the Latino Economic Development Center.

Phil Stump Kennedy is a manager in LEDC's Affordable Housing Preservation Program. He would love to drive you around the District and point out buildings where tenants were able to form housing cooperatives or protect affordable rental housing. Originally from Hershey, PA, Phil has also lived in North Carolina, Arizona, and Sonora. He now lives in Brookland with his wife.