A new report unpacks what is behind the crunch for affordable family-sized homes in DC. Image by Erin used with permission.

Urbanists and YIMBYs in DC have been making some of the same arguments for a long time: we need to build more homes, studios and one-bedrooms help and don’t hurt, too much of DC is zoned to look like a suburburban area and that’s exclusionary. Ever wish you had more to back that all up? I mean more than: “It’s simple economics really.”

Well have we got a report for you. Recently the DC Policy Center published a treasure trove of data and analysis that is pure candy to District YIMBYs and urbanists. There’s a lot in this lengthy report and we’ll continue to unpack its conclusions in later posts. Here are some highlights about one particular issue: the acute shortage of affordable family-sized housing.

DC actually has a lot of single family homes

Advocates from all sides of the housing affordability debate have been calling for more affordable family-sized homes to address the District’s pressing need. The DC Policy Center’s report confirms this acute need, but adds nuance to how we understand this problem and its solutions.

According to the Policy Center’s data, there are 93,470 single-family units (including rowhouses) in the District, which accounts for 30 percent of the the city’s entire housing stock (which the Policy Center estimates at 303,950 units).

It goes on to point out that these single-family homes occupy 80 percent of the total available residential buildings in the city, which is to say that “the footprint of small, single, or double unit buildings in the District is extremely large, giving certain parts of the city a suburban feeling.”

In other words, the problem isn’t necessarily that we don’t have family-sized homes. We actually have a lot, and they are taking up a vast majority of our land. In the words of the report, “For a land-constrained city, the District has set aside a significant amount of land for low-rise, low occupancy housing units.” This of course is doesn’t even account for the actual suburbs in Maryland in Virginia. Considering all of the DC Metro area, we have a lot of single-family, suburban style land use.

Setting aside such a large amount of our land for a type housing that 1) takes up a lot of land for a small amount of residents, and 2) is typically more expensive because it takes up so much land, is problematic. Undoubtedly there should be neighborhoods that consist primarily of single-family homes and rowhomes in the District, but denser options and building types could also meet the family-sized housing need, would not use up so much land, and could potentially be cheaper.

Triplexes in Montreal, a denser family housing type rare in today's US cities. Image by Google Maps used with permission.

That leads to how we got here in the first place. According to the report:

This configuration of the housing stock is mostly a creature of zoning and land use regulations. Almost the entirety of Ward 3’s land zoned for residential use is occupied by single-family units. It is the same through large swaths of Wards 2, 4, 5, and 7. Multifamily units [larger apartment buildings] are concentrated in the Downtown area and occupy a majority of the residential land in Ward 8.

In other words, we have zoned some of the most expensive wards to contain the most expensive of housing types. No wonder so many family-sized units are so expensive.

Not everyone living in a family-sized home has a family

So if we don’t actually have a shortage of family-sized homes, why is it so hard to find affordable ones? There are a few reasons.

First, as noted above, the District has a lot of the most expensive type of family-sized home (single family homes and rowhomes), and it has a lot less cheaper family-sized options (like a big apartment).

The report finds that “31 percent of the housing stock (95,600 housing units) can accommodate a family of four, and 82 percent of these are single family units, and only 8 percent (7,216 units) are large rental apartments.” When our zoning places those expensive housing types in the most expensive land areas, then it makes sense that we’d get a lot of expensive family-sized homes.

But another answer is that, frankly, families aren’t always the ones living in those family-sized homes. Many of us who have lived in or know people living in group houses know this anecdotally, but the report points out that many wealthier seniors are also occupying homes that could house an entire family. The chart below compares the kinds of homes available (in red), to the number of occupying residents (in grey) who are living as a single, a couple, or in a multi-person living situations.

Image by DC Policy Center used with permission.

So in essence, many of the larger homes in the city are being underutilized, in the sense that they could house a family of four, but they are not. This dynamic is confirmed if you look at an analysis of comparative incomes:

The District has a lot of affluent singles and couples who compete for housing units. The median income of households with two persons in the past 12-months (adjusted for inflation) was $104,831. This is equivalent to the median income among households with four persons, and higher than the median incomes for households with five or more persons. Furthermore, at every income level, there are more single and two-person households compared to households with three or more people.

This is purely a function of the city’s demographics… These smaller households, especially if they do not have to incur the expenses related to having children, can spend a larger part of their incomes on housing, and put pressure on prices.

So smaller households are outcompeting families for the same limited amount of family-sized housing. They can afford it, especially if multiple people living together can combine their incomes.

The report draws a few conclusions from this:

The report finds that a significant pressure on the District’s housing market is the fierce competition for larger units from affluent singles and couples… Meanwhile, there are not enough smaller units to satisfy the demand from small households.

Furthermore, land-use and zoning policies restrict the amount and mix of housing supply in many parts of the city with public and private amenities. Other parts of the city have affordable family-sized units but lack the resources families need to thrive. Both dynamics limit the city’s inclusiveness, amplifying gentrification, economic segregation, and the loss of low- and middle-income families.

So what should be done?

The report points to a couple of solutions. First, the District simply needs more homes, and building homes targeted at singles and couples does actually help.

This discrepancy between capacity and occupancy has important implications on how we think about affordability. First, it tells us that market rate units of all sizes, including small units, to the extent that they can satisfy the demand from smaller households, can help preserve affordability and reduce displacement. An influx of small units alone would not necessarily remove all the competitive pressures. Smaller households do value space and many of them can often pay for it. But smaller units in neighborhoods favored by singles, young couples, or even empty-nesters could help.

In particular, building more of both family-sized and smaller homes in the wealthier, lower-density parts of the city would create more opportunities for people across the income spectrum if done right, including both wealthier residents and those with middle or lower incomes.

Restrictive land use practices that favor single-family units in the District are a major factor of exclusion. Even small changes in the mix of buildings can make meaningful improvements to the inclusiveness of the city. Consider the eight assessment neighborhoods in Northwest (Hawthorne, Colonial Village, Woodley, Foxhall, Burleith, Kent, Spring Valley and Berkley) with an average of one unit per building—all single-family homes. These eight neighborhoods, collectively have 4,876 housing units in 4,748 buildings.

Adding just one single low-rise multifamily building with 100 units in each of these neighborhoods would increase their housing units by 16 percent while increasing the number of buildings by 0.2 percent. That is, potentially 800 new families would benefit from the amenities offered by these neighborhoods – good schools, safe streets, access to employment centers—with the addition of just one apartment building per neighborhood.

Fox Hall, a neighborhood in DC. Image by Farragutful licensed under Creative Commons.

Ultimately, the report advocates for the kinds of new housing that many rail against. In wealthier, lower density areas, neighbors often fight hard to keep out bigger buildings. In lower-income areas, neighbors sometimes fight against an influx of smaller units targeted for newer wealthier residents rather than those who currently live there. The report acknowledges those fears at the end of this section, and hopes that this analysis broadens the scope of those debates:

To be sure, many residents fear such changes. Some worry that once their neighborhood becomes more desirable, gentrification will displace the lower-income residents who currently live there. They worry that the units that now serve the very-low income households will disappear, pushing these residents out of the city.

Others, who want to preserve the look and feel of their neighborhoods, worry that increased density and new development will dilute the housing values. Understanding where our housing stock falls short of meeting the demand is important in shifting the conversation to finding ways to increase access, affordability, and inclusivity, and ease these fears.

I’d argue that we won’t simply build our way out of this problem with only market-rate building. But I agree with central point of the report that without building more to meet the demand, we are ignoring a large contributing factor to our current mess.

Here’s one opportunity to push for more and more affordable family homes in the District

There is a real chance to bring about some of these recommendations in DC’s land use policy in the coming months and year as the city amends its Comprehensive Plan. GGWash has been working with a diverse coalition of housing stakeholders for almost two years on this process (this post reflects my own writing, and is not an official statement that of the coalition).

You can sign the coalition’s priorities statement, which includes calling for an emphasis on planning for families, and help us continue to advocate for a better Comp Plan that truly lays the groundwork for an inclusive DC.

Sign the Priorities Statement!