Image by Ann Wuyts licensed under Creative Commons.

As DC booms, housing for families, with three or more bedrooms, has not boomed with it. That's a problem.

A coalition of business groups, tenants' groups, developers, affordable housing advocates, faith groups, and over 400 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: Include families.

Do you support the priorities?

Sign the Priorities Statement!

Three+ bedroom rental homes are very hard to find in the city, as this map shows. According to an Urban Institute study, four and five bedroom units make up only eight and four percent of the homes in the city, respectively. Given that almost 12% of families that rent have four or more people, even the unsubsidized market for multi-bedroom rental homes is fairly tight.

Add to this that about one in five families with children in DC is below the poverty line and 1,491 homeless families are in shelters and you can see the need for affordable family housing is indeed quite severe.

Why is DC short on multi-bedroom rental homes?

Construction is priced per square foot — there's no discount for buying in bulk. Larger units have more square feet, so they cost proportionately more. Since zoning limits a building’s square footage, larger units also necessarily mean fewer units, which means higher prices since there are fewer ways to spread costs across a development. With the majority of new entrants to the city being one and two person households, many developers of larger scale buildings respond to both demand and cost by building more smaller units for these clients, who are often wealthier.

Second, homes with three or more bedrooms tend to be concentrated in older buildings. With the heavy demand for luxury housing, many of these older buildings undergo redevelopment and are replaced predominantly by studio, one bedroom, and two bedroom apartments.

Finally, a more insidious and dangerous trend is appearing: language that implies the idea that families with children don’t belong in neighborhoods with childless millennials and empty nester baby-boomers. When the Washington Post reported on the redevelopment of Brookland Manor, which is set to lose all 134 of its existing four and five bedroom apartments, a spokesperson for the development company was quoted as saying that four and five bedroom units “are not consistent with the creation of a vibrant new community.”

It is vitally important, even as a financial investment, that DC ensures that low and moderate income families can live throughout the city. (See more on our priority to equitably distribute housing). The research of Raj Chetty and others has shown that the earlier a child moves away from an area of high poverty, the higher his or her lifetime income and probability of going to college.

All this means that we need to be especially focused and innovative when it comes to ensuring that the District has affordable housing for families.

A GGWash post suggested two ways to achieve this. One suggestion was to build more affordable studio and single bedroom units so some non-related tenants sharing family-sized housing move out and free the space up for families. A second was to use smaller developments spread across the District. This could include building townhouses or small sets of multi-bedroom apartments on a large lot that currently has only a single detached home.

At the same time, we need to be sure to preserve older family-sized affordable units, like those at Brookland Manor. Redevelopment, as stated in our priorities statement, needs to mean more of all types of housing. And that includes replacing any lost family-sized units either on-site or nearby.

Let’s change the Comp Plan to address these issues

For these solutions to work, we need a Comprehensive Plan that prioritizes housing, and affordable housing, for families. Targeted legislation on this issue is also a vital step.

The coalition working to make these Comp Plan changes happen, which includes All Souls Housing Corporation (my organization) 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.

On including families, the coalition says:

The District should be a city that houses people of all income levels and of all household sizes, including families. Through the Comprehensive Plan, the District should promote the creation and preservation of 3+ bedroom units along with other housing types.

We want an inclusive city where all people of different incomes, ethnicities, and family configurations can find a home, and we certainly want to make room for families with children.

Sign on to the priorities!

This 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, 70 organizations and over 400 individuals have put their names on the priorities statement. Will you join them? Sign on today!