Image by Rich Renomeron licensed under Creative Commons.

Housing in DC is as unfair as it is expensive. There’s a clear discrepancy between the parts of the city with the strongest schools, plentiful amenities like grocery stores and health services, and frequent and reliable transit, and where the most housing—and the most affordable housing—is and is built.

Overall, very few homes—market-rate or subsidized—are built in Wards 2 and 3 around downtown and west of Rock Creek Park, while lots of homes are built in Wards 1 and 6, including U Street, Columbia Heights, H Street, and Navy Yard. More specifically, only four projects in Ward 2 and one project in Ward 3 received funding from the Housing Production Trust Fund, the District’s primary tool to produce and preserve affordable housing, and only 53 units west of Rock Creek Park were completed since 2015.

Image by DMPED.

Greater Greater Washington has been advocating for DC’s housing construction and funding to do more to reduce segregation and improve equity. That means adding opportunities for people of middle and lower incomes to live in areas like central DC and west of Rock Creek, while improving the quality of public services in lower-income areas.

Each fiscal year, DC’s Department of Housing and Community Development develops an “action plan” to guide the best uses of federal housing funding. (You can see previous years’ action plans here.) The agency is currently developing its 2020 action plan and is in the process of conducting a needs assessment, to which residents and stakeholders are encouraged to provide input.

GGWash submitted testimony focusing specifically on the need for DHCD to comply with the Fair Housing Act and the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule when developing housing or providing relevant services in the District—regardless of whether that funding is federal, local, or private. You can read it below.

DHCD will hold a meeting for input on its 2020 action plan on Thursday March 28, at 6:30 pm at All Souls Unitarian Church, 1500 Harvard Street NW. You can also submit your own testimony to Polly Donaldson, Director, DHCD, via opm.questions@dc.gov by May 19.

Testimony:

Greater Greater Washington is a volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization that brings people together online and offline to discuss, organize, and advocate for an inclusive, diverse, growing Washington, DC region where all people can choose to live in walkable urban communities. In early 2017, GGWash led the formation the Housing Priorities Coalition, a group of coalition of business groups, tenants' groups, developers, affordable housing advocates, and faith groups advocating for amendments to DC's Comprehensive Plan that would meet the District's housing needs. Over 250 people signed on publicly to our statement of 10 principles.

Within that statement, which was submitted as amendments to the Comprehensive Plan, the Housing Priorities Coalition called on the District to fight segregation, foster equitable access to opportunity, and comply with Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing priorities by incorporating relevant language into the Comp Plan.

We maintain that the District should require that every part of the city participate in adding housing to meet the need for all income levels, with an emphasis on transit and commercial corridors. Any work by the Department of Housing and Community Development should similarly adhere to the tenets of the Fair Housing Act and the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule.

The latter “clarifies existing fair housing obligations with a streamlined process to analyze the local fair housing landscape and set fair housing priorities and goals through an Assessment of Fair Housing,” which “begins with the provision of data, guidance, and an assessment tool that will help program participants identify fair housing issues and related contributing factors in their jurisdiction and region. Program participants are required to set goals to overcome fair housing issues and related contributing factors. Those goals must inform subsequent housing and community development planning processes.” Per AFFH, assessments of fair housing must address patterns of integration and segregation, racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty; disparities in access to opportunity; and disproportionate housing needs.

As we wrote here in 2017, DC's growth is uneven, and unfair. Two-thirds of new housing permits have been in two of DC's 10 planning areas: Central Washington, which includes downtown and NoMa, and “Lower Anacostia Waterfront,” which encompasses Southwest Waterfront and Navy Yard/Capitol Riverfront (as well as Poplar Point, which has not had any development yet). The 2006 Comprehensive Plan predicted these two areas would get about 30 percent of the growth rather than two-thirds.

Notable parts of the city are particularly off-limits to those who make less money. Only four units in Ward 2 and one unit in Ward 3 have been built with local Housing Production Trust Fund dollars—which can be combined with federal dollars in affordable-housing developments—since 2001. Of course, the land in some parts of the city costs more than in other parts, and that changes the calculus of what gets built. But is reasonable to conclude that the District's wealthiest areas are also its most exclusive, and that this is no fluke of the market: City-sanctioned policies like restrictive zoning and historic districts keep housing artificially scarce by prohibiting multifamily buildings or imposing tight restrictions on accessory apartments. Neighbors with the luxury of time and resources are able to exploit these policies for their own purposes, which regardless of intent functionally results in fewer homes for fewer people in the parts of the District with the best access to transit, schools, green space, and amenities.

This has resulted in a city and region needlessly segregated by race and income where people of color, and people who make less money, spend more time commuting, have inferior access to good schools, and, overall, face unwarranted limits to opportunity. It has also likely undergirded the displacement of longtime residents. In a National Community Reinvestment Coalition report concluding that DC saw “the most African-American residents—more than 20,000—displaced from their neighborhoods, mostly by affluent, white newcomers,” one recommendation is to use the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing process, which, per NCRC, “provides an opportunity for community groups to engage with municipal leadership in the planning process. AFFH provides a mechanism for identifying areas that are vulnerable to, or may be in the early stages of gentrification. Community groups can then work to develop strategies to avoid displacement of incumbent residents by attracting investment and providing affordable housing.”

The current presidential administration is actively rolling back civil-rights regulations generally and refusing to investigate housing discrimination specifically. It is more important than ever that DHCD, alongside the mayor’s office and the Office of Planning, dedicate their efforts and staff time to funding, preserving, and creating better, stronger policy around affordable housing, special-needs housing, homelessness, homeownership, and community development and public service activities, whether those policies and programs are locally or federally funded. And it is critical that this work is conducted fairly and in a fashion that accounts, and redresses, systemic discrimination and denial of access particular to D.C. Without a federal commitment to affirmatively furthering fair housing, only DHCD can ensure housing is in D.C. assessed to address patterns of integration and segregation, racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty; disparities in access to opportunity; and disproportionate housing needs.

The mayor’s 2020 budget, released on March 20, includes some housing-related provisions. There are plenty of reasons to desire more spending on housing, and homelessness, than what the budget in its current form provides. But an issue larger than the city’s budget, and thus an issue that budgets cannot address alone, is where housing is built, or where people can afford to live. Regardless of the rate at which housing and homelessness programs are funded, and regardless of whether that funding is local or federal, the city will be complicit in furthering the place-based inequities—longer commute times, worse access to amenities and services—that its poorer residents, and residents of color, already face if programs and developments are confined to only certain parts of the District. DHCD should ensure, by complying with the Fair Housing Act and the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, that any production of housing, or the distribution of resources devoted to bringing housing within greater reach of people, is not constrained by particular geographies.

GGWash has, for over 11 years, advocated for growth in the city in the region. We have written about the need for more housing, and more affordable housing, as well as for increased public transit service—which is vital to ensure that people can get to where they need to go, regardless of where they live. We have gotten residents involved in critical decisionmaking processes to publicly voice their support for more housing in more neighborhoods, and asked, via the Housing Priorities Coalition’s 10 principles, for the city to set targets and plan to build market-rate and subsidized, affordable housing in all parts of the city.

We ask that DHCD adhere to a similar goal and complement any efforts by other agencies, including Office of Planning, to fairly and equitably distribute housing, whether market-rate or subsidized, or federally or locally funded. Placing in the Comprehensive Plan, the Consolidated Plan, and DHCD’s fiscal year 2020 action plan language that ensures commitment to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Act is the bare minimum that the city can do to move toward more accessible, more affordable housing for all, in all parts of the District.

Alex Baca is the Housing Program Organizer at GGWash. Previously the engagement director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the general manager of Cuyahoga County's bikesharing system, she has also worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in DC, San Francisco, and Cleveland. She has written about all of the above for CityLab, Slate, Vox, Washington City Paper, and other publications.