14th Street in Columbia Heights by Bekah Richards used with permission.

The region needs to build 374,000 housing units by 2030. Most of them—preferably, three-quarters of them—need to be affordable. Otherwise, housing costs will ascend from merely expensive to stratospheric, about 220,000 households will be displaced, and the local economy might slow down to a sludge.

That target number comes from a new report from the Urban Institute called “Meeting the Washington Region’s Future Housing Needs.” It confirms we don’t build enough housing for the people who live here, nor for those who have moved here because of the region’s job growth.

What we do build is priced at the higher end, due to a tangle of policies that allow residents and lawmakers to exempt their neighborhoods from new home construction. Federal support for maintaining or building subsidized housing is nearly nonexistent. In turn, we’ve created a climate in which it’s more appealing to redevelop existing homes than it is to build new ones, especially in places close to transit and other amenities. Land has become excruciatingly expensive because it’s scarce, and it’s that—not amenities—which drives housing prices.

The report offers a number of strategies to make housing more affordable overall, but it’s tailored toward one recommendation in particular: That the region’s jurisdictions formally adopt targets for the amount of new housing they should produce. Next week, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) board of directors will vote on whether or not it will adopt the regional target of 374,000 new homes. Ideally, COG will do so, and local jurisdictions will follow suit of their own volition.

Mayor Muriel Bowser has already committed Washington, DC, to building 36,000 units of new housing by 2025, based on COG’s recommendation. Will that happen? Where will those 36,000 units go? What will they cost? It’s unclear! The city is, ostensibly, working on it. A mayor’s order mandates Office of Planning to release a report by September explaining some of this.

Even if the logistics are unclear, it’s fabulous that DC has willingly embraced this target. It’s easier to hold governments accountable when an elected official visibly commits to a specific number. But no municipality exists in a vacuum. DC’s housing prices are influenced by what happens in Loudoun County, or Prince George’s County feels the effects of what happens in Montgomery County. That’s why it is critically important that other regional jurisdictions follow DC’s (and hopefully COG’s) lead.

Targets aren’t teeth

Beyond that, though, there’s some trouble with targets: They’re just, well, targets.

California’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) program is instructive here. Here’s how the Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional planning organization that’s the Bay Area’s equivalent of COG, describes RHNA:

This state mandate is called the Housing Element and Regional Housing Need Allocation, or RHNA. As part of RHNA, the California Department of Housing and Community Development, or HCD, determines the total number of new homes the Bay Area needs to build—and how affordable those homes need to be—in order to meet the housing needs of people at all income levels.

ABAG then distributes a share of the region’s housing need to each city, town and county in the region. Each local government must then update the Housing Element of its general plan to show the locations where housing can be built and the policies and strategies necessary to meet the community’s housing needs.

This sounds a lot like what Urban’s report suggests, but unfortunately, RHNA is considerably flawed. Its methodology has invited critiques that “It creates needless tension between subsidized and market-rate housing, and as a result generates too little of either.” The targets it sets are far too low (for example, Beverly Hills was only required to build three new units over eight years), and nothing happens if localities don’t meet them.

The lack of accountability has led to a lot of bluster (such as from Governor Gavin Newsom, in his inauguration speech), but very little new housing. This is notably acute in bonkers-wealthy places like Santa Monica and Palo Alto, which have added lots of jobs but almost no places for workers to live.

Since California’s municipalities have blatantly refused to build enough housing for their residents, some state lawmakers have attempted to override local control with state preemption. This is, effectively, why SB50, the More Homes act, exists. It would legalize fourplexes statewide and upzones areas near jobs and transit.

If more than 3% of California’s municipalities had met their RHNA goals—which they didn’t, because there are no serious consequences for not doing so—SB50 would not be viewed as a relatively effective way to build the housing that California so desperately needs. Alas, it’s painfully clear that local control can’t be trusted to provide shelter, a basic human need. Sooner or later, someone in California was going to think that top-down state intervention was a good idea. Thus: SB50. (And some 200 other housing-related bills.)

Again: Adopting jurisdictional targets gives us a concrete way to tell if Alexandria, or Hyattsville, or Fairfax, or wherever is building its fair share of what the region needs. We want COG’s board to adopt a regional target, and we want the region’s jurisdictions to willingly adopt their own. But if they do, it’s just that—an if.

The carrots of building new housing are diffuse and far-off, particularly for individual homeowners who are more politically active (and whiter, and wealthier) on average. As Robert McCartney writes in the Washington Post about the study, “homevoters” really do not like new housing:

Then there is the political challenge. In practical terms, the region needs more multifamily housing for less-affluent residents, including in communities where single-family homes are the rule.

That’s certain to get political pushback from residents worried about congestion, property values or preserving the character of their neighborhoods. Truth be told, some NIMBYs also don’t want poor people — especially those of different races or ethnicities — living in their communities.

“Local leaders can’t complain about the lack of affordable housing and, at the same time, not confront the NIMBYs in their localities,” Urban Institute Senior Director Gustavo Velasquez said.

We do not have a public, national commitment to ensuring that Americans have places to live. There is no meaningful social housing here, and it’s doubtful that such a system will exist in the near future. Barring that, it’s up to states and local municipalities to build and, when they can, subsidize, new housing, in addition to preserving what they’ve already got.

But no elected official wants to stick their neck out when they know a pack of pissed-off homeowners have the time and resources to coordinate phone calls. What councilmember or supervisor wants to invite claims that they’re in the pocket of big developers and face endless complaints that new construction will tank someone’s home value, strain school capacity, and make it impossible for one to park in front of their house?

What are the sticks?

So targets alone, while important, basically further doom us to a California-style dystopia in which we know the solutions, but prefer ineffective policies to actually implementing them, because doing so is, like, hard. That would be a shame, because Urban’s report includes a comprehensive set of solutions that would go a long way to ensuring that the region’s residents are comfortably and safely housed for the long term.

I’m particularly fond of the “produce, preserve, protect” approach to housing policy, which inherently acknowledges that there is no single solution that makes housing more affordable, prevents displacement, eliminates residential segregation, and eases access to housing. Urban’s report follows this categorization for the policies that it recommends:

Preserve

  • Loans for repairs and rehabilitation
  • Preservation network and inventory
  • Public housing rehabilitation
  • 
Financing for acquisition and rehabilitation

Produce

  • Land value taxation
  • Zoning for higher densities
  • Reduced parking requirements
  • Equitable transit-oriented development funds

Protect

  • Home purchase assistance
  • Land trusts, cooperatives, and shared-equity ownership
  • Emergency rental assistance
  • Local housing vouchers

GGWash is on board with all of these. We’d like them to happen, en masse, and quickly.

The Greater Washington Partnership and JPMorgan Chase, which sponsored this report, also have a vested interest in this. As McCartney reports, GWP would like regional leaders coalesced around a big, top-down housing-affordability strategy to forestall some sort of economic downturn, in the same way that the similarly business-aligned MetroNow coalition secured dedicated funding from Maryland and Virginia for Metro in 2017.

But unsticking housing is far more vast and far more complex than funding transportation. MetroNow was essentially a really big fight for a really important budget line item. It was high-stakes, but followed a predictable pathway that was dependent on known actors in state governments. Restoring a balance to the region’s housing needs, on the other hand, is much more existential and is not solely dependent on increasing the amount of public money available. I don’t see how this will happen without a considerable set of sticks.

If we get past the enormous if that is the region’s jurisdictions taking on these targets, what might some of those sticks be?

State preemption, a la SB50 in California, is less practical here. Maryland and Virginia would need to legalize apartments statewide (like Oregon has just done), preferably alongside anti-gouging laws. While this would be an incredible step forward, preemption in DC runs into the nasty legacy of Congress meddling with District affairs.

Other strategies willingly undertaken by state legislatures could model Massachusetts’ 40B, an “affordable-housing program that allows developers to bypass some local planning and zoning regulations if at least 20% of the units in the development are deemed affordable”; California’s SB35, which, for jurisdictions that have not met regional housing need targets, “will streamline approval processes for eligible infill projects by speeding up the project approval process allowing construction to happen more quickly”; and/or New Jersey’s Mount Laurel cases, which “declared that municipal land use regulations that prevent affordable housing opportunities for the poor are unconstitutional and ordered all New Jersey municipalities to plan, zone for, and take affirmative actions to provide realistic opportunities for their “fair share” of the region’s need for affordable housing for low and moderate-income people.”

But perhaps it’s time to get creative. Perhaps COG board members should be stripped of their votes if the jurisdictions they represent don’t build a certain percentage of their targets by a certain date. Perhaps it’s time for a flurry of fair housing lawsuits, legitimate or stunt-like. Perhaps the kind of funding that COG disburses, which largely funds road and transportation projects, should be withheld from jurisdictions that don’t meet their targets.

Rather than ask nicely, perhaps the business leaders in this report should make good on their threats to leave a certain market if their demands for more housing aren’t met. Elected officials and administrators can be ready to aggressively counter by taxing corporations more to fund more affordable housing.

Homeowners, who are too easily let off the hook in all of these scenarios, should also see their taxes spike precipitously if they don’t back down from opposing new development. (Or, maybe they should be paid off by their government to curtail their process-meddling.)

Why do we have to do this, anyway?

People need places to live, and there are not enough places for people to live in the Washington region. It’s common to interject, when someone says, “We need to build more,” that we need to build more affordable housing, not necessarily more housing. Urban’s research explicitly acknowledges that the most urgent need is for more affordable and missing middle housing and calls for the vast majority of these 374,000 new units to be affordable in some fashion.

So: We need to build housing. Lots of it, and lots of different kinds of it. We can’t subsidize ourselves to affordability, and even permanently affordable housing must get built somehow. We have zero shot of closing the racial wealth gap, which in many ways was shoved as wide as it is through the systemic denial of property ownership to black Americans, without doing so. And we are not going to economically or racially integrate neighborhoods without making it so more people can move in to ones that have historically kept people out.

Our zoning laws, which enshrine whiteness and heteronormativity, are structured to keep people out by mandating the sizes and types of homes and lots. This has a considerable environmental effect, too, because it’s driving sprawl at the precise point at which the window to mitigate climate change has slammed shut.

We can look to California to see the ravine in which an entire state has landed after falling off its housing-crisis cliff. It’s not pretty: Homelessness has spiked; economic mobility has declined; and any forthcoming recession will not eat the rich but rather ground pensions to a halt and drastically harm those who are already on precarious financial ground. Our region’s leaders—public, private, nonprofit, and philanthropic—are right to feel a percentage of the panic that’s plagued anyone who’s felt unstable in their living situation in this market.

We know what we need to do. We’ve known what we need to do. The strategies that Urban’s report offers will sound familiar because housing experts have been sounding the alarm for decades to rehabilitate public housing. Loans, financing, vouchers, and home-purchase assistance are proven strategies that should be beefed up rather than starved in municipal budgets. How zoning makes housing more expensive has been long documented. Henry George wrote Progress and Poverty, in which he describes a land value tax, in…1879.

Now, numerous ways to counteract the flawed way that housing currently works in our region are conveniently packaged in a well-researched report from some of the best policy analysts in the nation. Elected officials, through COG, are poised to take the first big step and adopt a target that will allow for some level of regional accountability. If all goes well, the region’s localities will do the same and codify their own targets. Doing so would be a powerful signifier that their elected leaders realize the scale of the housing crisis, and their role and power in solving it.

Holding jurisdictions to their word, however, will mean withholding things they desire until they provide housing for their residents. That includes the people who live here now, and those who are still yet to join us. And if only because the jobs are here, join us they no doubt will.

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.