A “transect” of housing types in DC by DC Office of Planning.

At her second inaugural address, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser called for DC to add 36,000 new housing units (and 240,000 in the region), and set targets to ensure each neighborhood plays its part in meeting this need. On Friday, she released more details of what her administration is going to do to get there.

A new Mayor’s Order on housing “direct[s] District agencies to identify new policies, tools, and initiatives to begin fulfilling her bold goal of creating 36,000 new housing units, 12,000 of them affordable, by 2025.”

Bowser calls for equitably distributing affordable housing

A significant part of the order directs the Office of Planning to look at the amount of housing, both subsidized affordable and market-rate, which has been built in each of DC's 10 “planning areas,” which are similar to wards but have two more and don't change with each Census.

Then, the Office of Planning will define “fair share targets” by September 2019 for housing, including for creating new affordable housing and preserving what's already there. The goal is to “create an equitable distribution of affordable housing across the District” by 2045.

Thus far, that distribution is far from equitable. Only 1% of housing dedicated to people with lower incomes created in 2018, for instance, is in the affluent “Rock Creek West” area, while half is east of the Anacostia River.

Distribution of Income-Restricted Affordable Housing, 2018 by DC Office of Planning.

The order further orders agencies to “identify new ways of promoting opportunities for affordable housing throughout the city, especially in high opportunity areas that provide access to good jobs, schools, and transit.” As research by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren found, children of low-income families who are able to grow up outside areas of concentrated poverty are more likely to succeed. So reducing our housing segregation, mixing people of various incomes in more parts of the city, is an important goal.

Bowser said on Friday, “This [order] makes it clear that we will take an all-eight-ward approach to affordable housing.”

The order also calls on agencies to increase incentives to build new affordable housing, take efforts to preserve existing affordable housing, lower regulatory costs that make new affordable housing more expensive to build, encourage homeownership, and create a web “front door” that helps people find affordable housing programs that might help them.

Bowser calls for enough overall housing

DC's need is greatest for affordable housing, but also it needs to ensure that enough overall housing is being built. As Payton Chung wrote in 2015, while the Comprehenisve Plan predicted the most growth in “Central Washington” (including NoMa) and “Lower Anacostia Waterfront” (the SW and Navy Yard areas), those two areas far exceeded their targets while other areas fell short of even much more modest ones.

Image by Peter Dovak.

On new housing, Bowser's order says District agencies should “incentivize the production of market-rate and affordable housing units, including specifically changes in zoning and the land use entitlement process, enhanced inclusionary zoning incentives, increasing allowable building height and density, and changes to the Comprehensive Plan needed to accommodate increased affordable housing.” That's what we want, too!

As Alex Koma reported in the Washington Business Journal, one tool in the box is raising the height limit, and the administration has expressed openness to this idea. It's important to also note, however, that only in small parts of DC (almost entirely the aforementioned Central Washington and Lower Anacostia Waterfront planning areas) does local zoning allow building up to the federal limit. Building housing in the whole city is mostly about changes to planning and zoning rather than federal law, though it can play a part.

What about the Comp Plan?

One document which can help or hinder achieving these goals is the Comprehensive Plan. The Office of Planning sent the DC Council a proposed new Framework chapter last year, and is still working on the other chapters. It's launched a new DC2ME site which lists eight potential values, from accessibility to safety, and has a survey you can take to give input. OP is planning some in-person public sessions later this year as well.

DC2ME’s 8 values by DC Office of Planning.

Unfortunately, even though many of you participated in a 13-hour hearing over a year ago and the Office of Planning revised its Framework chapter of the Comp Plan to address our and your recommendations last August, Chairman Phil Mendelson has not brought any proposal up for a council-wide markup session or vote. He didn't take action before the current budget season. Once the budget is complete in just a few weeks, will he get it done before the July and August recess?

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.