Image by Max Pixel licensed under Creative Commons.

Whoever at the Washington Post wrote this headline should get a pat on the back: “Wealthy DC residents blame wealthy DC residents for city’s spiking housing costs, poll finds.” It's a grabby headline for a fascinating poll, but the lead question doesn't really tell us much, because it didn't give people the important choices.

The question was, “Who is to blame for the District's shortage in affordable housing?” The offered responses were:

  • New high-income residents (75% of people said this was a “major reason”)
  • City government catering to developers (64%)
  • Insufficient city spending on housing (64%)
  • City government not getting help to the neediest (54%)
  • People seeking government aid they don't need (30%)

If you read Greater Greater Washington regularly and/or follow the national debate over housing constraints, you know what's missing. Options like:

  • Zoning that restricts the ability to build housing
  • Neighbors who oppose affordable housing in their communities
  • Regulations which make housing too expensive to construct

Not to mention:

Unfortunately, these were not choices in the poll, apparently. It's also a bit silly overall, in that the causes of a complex economic effect (rising housing prices) is something the general public might be willing to take a gander about, but it's unlikely to be truly informative. (Next poll: Who is to blame for rare earth metal shortages affecting electronics manufacturers?)

The real culprits

Indeed, many people's instinctual first reactions to housing unaffordability is to assume that the people moving into new, more-expensive housing must be making housing expensive, but that confuses cost and effect; or, since housing is generally administered at the city level, to assume the city government isn't doing enough. (And it's not - it should do more!) But there are a lot of other factors too.

Federal tax credits have long been a backbone of affordable housing creation, but less and less so in recent years. And if some Trump tax proposals take effect, it'll be far less valuable to get a tax credit (if corporations, who invest in these tax credits, are already paying lower corporate taxes). That's led investors to already hold back capital from tax credit projects.

Most of all, it's impossible to talk fully about housing affordability in a high-demand city like DC without looking at the effect of neighborhood rules that make affordable housing very difficult. Just look at some upper Northwest residents' reaction to the proposed Ward 3 homeless shelter, or this reaction to a Habitat for Humanity project in Redwood City, California, or these oh-so-welcoming Dallas-area neighbors.

How the poll broke down among types of residents

The poll also found that 67% of residents said efforts (it said, “by the DC government”) to redevelop areas and attract new people and businesses was “good for people like [them].” But 88% of white residents did while only 52% of black residents felt the same way; likewise, 86% of people making over 100K thought so, versus 51% of people making less than $50,000.

79-85% of people who'd lived in DC for up to 20 years were sanguine about redevelopment, compared to 55% of people who'd been here 20 years or more.

Since race and income are very highly correlated in DC (more so than elsewhere, and similarly for education levels) we can't tease these apart without more cross-tabs; did upper-income black people give a different answer than white people of the same income level? What about for low-income whites vs blacks? But, it is a bit surprising that majorities in all groups shared this view, though not surprising that the magnitude differs.

What can be done

Shaking our fist at new residents in popular neighborhoods is like blaming swimmers at the beach for making the day hot. This is not to discredit the complex and at-times difficult reactions long-term residents might have to neighborhood change, but it helps no one to ignore underlying causes.

We need housing for everyone at all levels. With the right public policies, development at in-demand locations, and harnessing some of the potential profit involved, we can help meet the housing need while also funding more affordable housing and protection against displacement.

Greater Greater Washington has been working for most of the last year with a coalition of groups to propose amendments to the city's Comprehensive Plan which take this approach. Instead of making new residents and growth the enemy, make it the means to grow a truly inclusive city. Let's pass them into law!

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.