Image by Matthew Yglesias.

Matthew Yglesias has a bold idea for DC housing and anti-displacement policy: Build a lot of new homes in areas like west of Rock Creek Park, Dupont/Logan, and Capitol Hill, and use some of the tax revenue to cut property taxes east of the Anacostia River.

Is this something that DC should really do? Should Greater Greater Washington try to organize for it? What do you think?

This isn't the free-market "build more housing and supply and demand will take care of housing affordability" idea (which I for the record don't think would actually fix the problem). Rather, this is a more explicitly redistributive policy: build more housing in expensive areas specifically to fund other programs that more directly tackle affordability.

Anti-displacement programs are expensive (though I think DC should do them regardless). But there's also a trove of money just essentially buried in the ground: zoning. In high-price areas, more housing would generate more tax revenue, essentially "for free" to the District. Some would have to go toward schools and police and trash collection, but not all.

This isn't skyscrapers everywhere, either. The most cost-effective housing to build is actually low-rises. Minneapolis right now is considering legalizing four-plexes in all single-family detached house areas. Something like that can mean a lot more homes without very tall buildings at all.

There are lots of options

Yglesias readily admits this is an MS Paint/Photoshop/whatever sketch, not a fully realized real plan. For instance, the line shouldn't necessarily be exactly where it is in that image.

Also, is lowering property tax, as he spitballs, the right thing to do? For long-time homeowners on fixed incomes in areas experiencing rapid rises in housing prices, that may be important. As prices rise, so do property taxes, and while DC caps the rate of increase to 10% a year, 10% is far from nothing. (California's Proposition 13, which has created many of its own problems, limits increases to 2% or less.)

However, that doesn't help renters, for instance, who often face displacement before homeowners. A hypothetical "anti-displacement fund" could help renters in a plethora of ways.

Residents of east of the river neighborhoods also want amenities like parks and grocery stores and more. The fund could work to bring some of these in as well.

Finally, should some of the new homes in the expensive areas be below-market ("affordable housing")? It's more expensive to create a below-market-rate unit in more expensive areas than low-cost ones. However, helping some lower-income people live in fancier neighborhoods reduces segregation, breaks up concentrated poverty, helps kids attend higher-performing schools, and more. And the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (under Obama) warned the District that it was not doing enough to reduce segregation and affirmatively further fair housing in this way.

Would it sell politically?

We've tentatively explored some related ideas in the past, and I think this kind of approach is really interesting. Would an effort to do this in DC succeed?

On the one hand, DC is a pretty liberal city. Leaders talk a lot about improving equity. A strong civil rights push around housing would have a lot of supporters.

On the other hand, homeowners in wealthy areas are still the ones with most of the political power. Many would support the idea, but it's a good guess even more would not like to see their neighborhoods allow larger buildings than what's there right now.

Of course, many civil rights efforts seem unlikely to succeed until people's minds change and then they succeed.

What do you think of Matt's ideas? Give your thoughts in the comments, and click on the thumbs up button below if you're interested. If you click, it'll ask if you want to give your email — if we end up pushing some kind of approach in this vein, we'd love to involve you at that time!

GGWash sometimes organizes around issues affecting our region. Should we consider advocacy around this topic? Let us know!

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.