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Creating cities where people of all incomes can live reasonably close to where they work is increasingly the preeminent challenge of our time. In DC and elsewhere, we need a comprehensive policy approach – and there’s no single solution that gets us out of this.

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Someone asked me when I first started this job what was I advocating for. I told them quite simply that I want to be able to live comfortably in this city, and I want the person who wraps my Chipotle burrito to also have a place to live here. I’m not interested in our city becoming a place that excludes all but the highest earners.

We are still struggling to meet that vision. Next month The Wharf waterfront is scheduled to open and with it over 900 restaurant jobs, but restaurateurs find it harder and harder to find people for those jobs, despite the region’s 6.4 percent unemployment rate. This is not simply a workforce training problem. We can’t ignore the fundamental housing issue: if you work for restaurant wages, where can you afford to live within reasonable commuting distance?

Construction at The Wharf. Image by Aimee Custis licensed under Creative Commons.

There are many tools to address housing affordability, and it doesn’t work to only use a few

There are a dozens of programs (and acronyms that come with them) in DC that work towards greater housing affordability. While that scattershot approach can seem frustratingly unfocused to outsiders, experts at Urban Land Institute’s recent Housing Opportunities conference say that DC’s actually got that right.

“The underlying problem [for cities addressing housing affordability] is one of complexity,” said Jeffrey Lubell of Abt Associates. Lubell shared that his organization is completing a survey of all the varied city initiatives to address affordable housing across the nation, and they’ve identified 82 distinct strategies and programs in operation. Abt is organizing these varied strategies into a toolbox that governments can access and utilize under broad four categories that together form a comprehensive housing policy:

1. Preserve and expand designated affordable homes

One way to make homes affordable is to subsidize them. You can do this with existing homes, meaning you seek out currently cheap homes and preserve them them at that price with direct subsidy or long-term covenants on the lease. You can also create new affordable homes through programs like inclusionary zoning, which require private developers to build below-market rate homes within their projects, or through issuing tax credits or other benefits (like legalizing an extra floor) to incentivize the construction of affordable homes.

Many strategies in this bucket effectively tap the private development industry to help maintain a supply of below-market rate homes. But in high-cost regions like ours it is increasingly difficult to partner with for-profit developers to create or preserve homes that are affordable to the lowest-income residents, more specifically those who make below 30 percent of the Area Median Income ($32,600 for a family of four).

Exacerbating that problem, the city is woefully short on public housing units. There are nearly 40,000 individuals on the public housing and voucher waiting list, which has been closed to new applicants since 2013. If you are making minimum wage in DC ($26,000 a year) or are unable to work and are on public assistance, the housing available and affordable to you is incredibly scarce.

2. Helping people access private market homes

Another policy type helps renters and owners directly with the costs of private market homes. This could mean directly helping individuals pay their rent (like DC’s Local Rent Supplement Program), or helping people with their mortgages and downpayments (like DC’s Home Purchase Assistance Program, which provides low interest loans and other benefits to qualified home buyers). Those two examples are locally funded, but there are also federal programs that help individuals and families bridge the gap of what they can afford and what the market-rate rent price is, the most used being the Housing Choice Voucher Program.

Many of these programs directly assist the lowest income individuals and families and the demand for this money far outweighs what is available, especially as federal cuts have consistently compounded since the 1980’s. Stagnant wages and climbing housing costs mean the the amount of subsidy needed is constantly on the rise, and rising home prices mean these programs become increasingly expensive.

Rosslyn and courthouse at sunset in Arlington.  Image by Jason OX4 licensed under Creative Commons.

3. Maintain quality homes and fight displacement

Maintaining a broadly affordable city means you need to look at the challenges facing those who currently live here. Cities need to enforce quality building codes, identify buildings fallen into disrepair, penalize bad actors and provide assistance to those who can’t afford basic maintenance.

There are also strategies cities can take on to help existing residents stay where they are as the benefits of a growing city affect the local cost of living. Some homeowner residents want to benefit from their rising land values, and will sell and move. But for those that want to stay, there are policies (such as this one in Atlanta) that help residents with rising property taxes that could, if unmitigated, lead to displacement.

4. Expand overall supply of homes

If the overall supply of homes does not increase and new people are moving to the city, lower-income residents will be displaced. Growing cities need to find ways to meet the demand for market-rate homes, or else those with more money will continue to outbid those with less. Increasing the supply of market-rate homes also sustains a healthy tax base to help fund the three previously-mentioned policy buckets of a comprehensive housing strategy.

Whether it’s strategic up-zoning to allow for taller, denser buildings, or maintaining a permitting and regulations system that works and doesn’t discourage investors and developers from building in the city, this pillar of a complete affordable housing program cannot be ignored.

A former Columbia Heights methadone clinic is now an apartment building. Image by ctj71081 licensed under Creative Commons.

Cities need to use all four strategies to be effective, and DC is doing that

According to Lubell, too often governments pick and choose only a few policies out of the four categories he identified, and implement them without considering the others. Lubell and Abt argue unless you have a comprehensive package of tools that addresses all four of these main pillars, your affordable housing strategy is not going to be successful.

Stepping back and looking at DC through that lens, we are increasingly doing a lot right. The city has not only been able to attract development, but has enacted increasingly progressive affordable housing initiatives and funds a diversity of programs that address the strategies listed above. To that end, the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) recently won a prestigious award recognizing its varied approaches and strategies.

We can and should do more

While it’s appropriate to recognize the good things DC is doing, it’s easily apparent that many people still can’t afford to live here. Comparing ourselves to other cities can be useful, but our real metric should be whether or not we are meeting the demand for affordable homes. With over 7,000 homeless on the streets at night, 40,000 on the voucher waiting list, and over 60 percent of younger residents considering leaving the city because they can’t afford to stay here, I’d say the answer to that second question is: no.

Progressing in all four of these policy buckets takes long-term planning. Recently GGWash worked with a diverse group of housing stakeholders to submit amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and our consensus package addressed these pillars directly: promoting the expansion of the housing supply overall, identifying key affordable housing preservation and creation policies to plan for and support, and supporting a variety of policies in the Housing Element chapter that range from direct rental support to better data collection to quantify and track our progress towards meeting the need.

We need all the District’s agencies – from DHCD to the Zoning Commission – on the same page with a comprehensive agenda to ensure people of all incomes can live and stay here.

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.