Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

How does a growing city ensure that affordable housing is available to its population? As DC gains population for the first time in decades, we must take advantage of creative new tools and cross class and cultural boundaries if the city wants to be affordable for all.

Tuesday’s Coalition for Smarter Growth forum, “Urban Hipsters and Long-time Residents Unite! Housing Strategies to Preserve Mixed Income Neighborhoods as DC Grows,” featured David Bowers of Enterprise Community Partners and DC planning director Harriet Tregoning.

The speakers discussed the city’s changing demographics, various affordable housing tools at the city’s disposal and the role transportation plays in ensuring affordability. The bottom line is that, as Bowers said, “whether you’ve been here 40 years or if you just got off the Bolt Bus from New York… we all have the need for safe, decent affordable housing.”

David Bowers is a minister, and his oration shows it. Standing before the audience, Bowers told stories: of an African American couple in their 70’s that moved to the District five decades ago, when they were redlined out of certain neighborhoods; of growing up all too aware of the 8th & H gang; of his coworker, a 25-year-old Georgetown graduate who lives with friends and volunteers at her church. He punctuated the end of each anecdote with, “And that’s DC!”

The point? As Bowers says, “DC is a diverse city that has changed over time and will continue to change.” That change includes housing. “People have been priced out of neighborhoods, not by some nefarious plan, but by the market… It’s not going to be static.”

Bowers also serves as the vice president and impact market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., which through its Continuum of Housing Campaign, works to promote a diverse mix of housing that can accommodate low- and moderate-income earners.

During his presentation, he asserted three key points critical to that end: acknowledging that all people have inherent worth and deserve dignity and respect; all people have the need for safe, decent affordable housing; and that all housing is affordable, but the question is, “for whom?”

Tregoning’s presentation, in contrast to Bowers’, was filled with data points on the District’s demographics. Since 1960, the District lost 200,000 people, with some neighborhoods in the city’s core losing up to 50 percent of their population. Within the past decade, however, DC has been regaining population. The release of 2010 Census data later this month is expected to show the population again surpassing the 600,000 mark.

“I like to think of Washington as the city of the future,” Tregoning said. With our smaller household sizes and concentrations of both recent college graduates and retirees,  “we already have the demographics of the United States in 2050,” she said. “Part of the challenge is to right-size our housing stock so we can have the type of housing that matches the needs of our residents.” For example, Tregoning pointed out, the multi-unit building she inhabits in Columbia Heights used to be a single-family home.

Photo by smartergrowthdc on Flickr.

Along with this changing population comes a change in how District residents get around. When compared to our region, DC residents are three times less likely to own car and three times more likely to walk to work. And while the city’s population grew by 1.7 percent between 2005 and 2008, the number of motor vehicle registrations dropped by nearly 6 percent during the same period.

What does transportation have to do with affordable housing? First, the cost of parking is usually bundled with new housing, even if homeowners or tenants don’t have cars. In DC, only 65 percent of households own a car, and in neighborhoods like Columbia Heights that plummets to only 20 percent. Developers often overestimate how much parking is actually needed, and in other cases parking minimums require developers to spend lots of money to build parking spaces. Structured parking, for example, costs between $35,000 and $50,000 per space. That’s a high cost to include in the price of housing.

Second, reducing transportation expenses to households makes living in our region more affordable for everyone’s bottom line. Washington-area households in neighborhoods well-served by transit spend an average of $9,000 per year on transportation, while the regional average is closer to $19,000. In some car-dependent areas of our region, households spend up to $25,000 per year on transportation.

Don’t believe it? Ask AAA, which estimates the annual cost of car ownership at over $9,500. It’s easy to see that car-free and car-lite households save money on transportation, and households in denser areas like the District have access to more transportation options.

Because housing and other land-use issues are inescapably linked to transportation, these related costs should be factored together when considering affordability. Especially in DC, where the median income is lower than the region at large, increased transportation costs have a dramatic impact.

Already, 90,000 households in the city pay more than a third of income to housing, while 47,000 households spend more than 50 percent of income on housing. Ensuring low transportation costs is especially important for these families.

Tregoning said that the city’s transportation efforts — such as more transit options and better places to walk and bike — aim to reduce household expenses. 40 percent of all DC auto trips are 3 miles or less. “Those trips can be converted to walking, biking, or transit trips,” Tregoning said. “I don’t expect anyone to make an extraordinary effort” to bike, walk or use transit, she said. It’s up to the city to ensure that “for many trips, it should make more sense and be easier” to use modes that save residents money.

Both speakers mentioned inclusionary zoning (IZ) as the primary tool that could be used to keep housing in the District affordable and diverse. The city’s IZ policy was enacted in 2006, when data demonstrated that, as Tregoning said, “we were either re-segregating the city or reinforcing the segregation” through development patterns. Currently, all new construction of 10 or more units must set aside 8-12% of those units as affordable housing.

In the future, and when the economy rebounds, Tregoning suggested that as many as, if not more than, 170 units per year would be set aside for households earning between $32,000 and $80,000. And, per the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative’s mandate, new construction in some East of the River communities must comprise of at least 30% affordable units.

Though inclusionary zoning has its detractors, it’s not just a hot topic for the Office of Planning. Mayor-Elect Vince Gray has repeatedly referenced IZ as a way to mitigate potentially skyrocketing housing costs. IZ is here to stay for the foreseeable future. If wielded effectively, it should keep the District more affordable than it would be otherwise.

Beyond the statistics and the programs, the most important takeaway from the forum was Bowers’ call for engagement. “Get informed and get involved,” he told the audience. “These conversations about the urban hipster vs. the long-time resident, black vs. white, black vs. Latino — that divides.” The city’s chances of overcoming these challenges, he said, hinges on involvement from a cross-section of its population.

Bowers encouraged forum attendees to substantively engage in places where not everyone looks or talks like them. He counseled the audience never to be apologetic in the face of hostility as they attempt to bridge the city. As complex as housing policy can be, it begins with simple discussions. “Start talking with people,” Bowers preached, “instead of about people.”

Stephen Miller is a former Greater Greater Washington contributor and DC resident. He now works for Transit in Montreal.

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