Posts by Elizabeth Falcon
|Elizabeth Falcon is the campaign organizer for the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED), an association of affordable housing developers, community organizations, government agencies and more in DC. She writes about how policies affect affordable housing at the Housing For All blog.|
DC has a program for helping people buy houses, but the money it awards doesn't line up with how much houses in the city actually cost. The program might start awarding more money soon.
Programs to support first-time home buyers help spur economic security and neighborhood stability across the US. In Washington, the Home Purchase Assistance Program has been the key tool for the District to support first-time homebuyers.
On January 7th, the DC Council held a hearing to consider raising the maximum amount applicants can receive, from $50,000 to $80,000.
The proposed increase in loan amount would increase HPAP buyers' purchase power and give them access to more homes on the market. The figures below are based on 38% front end ratio (the proportion of monthy income that would go to the full cost of the mortgage) and a 5.5% interest rate, so maximum purchase prices could be higher. Tables from the Housing Advocacy Team.
HPAP helps people jump one of home buying's biggest hurdles
When someone buys a house, they take out a regular mortgage loan from a traditional bank for the bulk of the home price. HPAP augments that money by providing what's known as a "second trust loan." HPAP money can also go toward a down payment, and the program offers an additional $4,000 to help with closing costs.
The actual amount that the borrower is eligible for is based on their income, with lower income households eligible for more assistance. Those receiving the highest loan amounts make 50% of the area median income or less. Participating owners receive both pre- and post-homebuyer education, and they pay back the second trust loan with zero interest starting in the fifth year of their mortgage.
Saving for a down payment is often the greatest barrier to owning a home. Many people already pay high monthly costs in rent and could afford the monthly cost of a mortgage and upkeep, but cannot also save tens of thousands of dollars towards a downpayment. In fact, according to the real estate website Trulia, it is 27% cheaper to buy in DC than it is to rent. Having a significant downpayment also lowers interest rates and monthly mortgage costs for the length of the loan.
A greater award amount would help buyers in a tougher market
Over the last decade, the maximum amount of money that HPAP awards a buyer has fluctuated greatly. That variation hasn't been based on housing prices, but rather DC's budget and spending pressures.
In 2008, the award amount was capped at $70,000. But when the recession hit, federal and local resources shrank, and the award amount dipped to $40,000 per purchase. While that rose to $50,000 in 2014, that jump paled in comparison to the rapid increase in the cost of buying a home here.
With HPAP's limits being what they currently are, most low-to-moderate income buyers could only afford homes under $300,000. According to Zillow, the median home price in DC right now is $502,600, and on average, between 2012 and 2014 there was 4.7 percent reduction in the number of condos and homes affordable to most HPAP borrowers.
MANNA, a nonprofit that has helped DC residents purchase homes for decades, crunched some of the numbers and put them into to charts:
As purchase prices have increased, the number of houses at prices affordable to HPAP buyers has dropped.
Should the DC Council increase HPAP's maximum award amount, houses in the $300,000-$400,000 range would be available to a lot more prospective buyers.
Thursday's hearing demonstrated wide interest in changing the award amount. Housing and Community Development Committee Chair Anita Bonds chaired the hearing and was joined by Councilmembers Nadeau and Silverman. All of the public testimony supported the increase, and Polly Donaldson, the Director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, which manages the program, expressed interest in increasing the award amount.
DC has a rich history of housing cooperatives, in which each resident owns a share of the entire property, not just their unit. While relatively unknown, there are at least 120 co-ops in DC, many of which are a great source of stable, affordable housing.
In a cooperative, each resident owns a share in the corporation that owns their property, entitling them to reside in a specific unit. The corporation has a board of directors and a management company, which maintains the property, screens new residents, and determines monthly fees or carrying charges.
Nationally, cooperative housing began in the late 1800s, but contemporary co-ops first appeared here in 1920. Banks would not finance the purchase of co-op units and condominiums did not yet exist, so early co-ops were a way for wealthy urban dwellers to own their homes and have control of their buildings. DC's earliest cooperatives were built along Connecticut Avenue, and the most famous example may be Watergate East, built in the 1960s.
Today, the creation of a co-op in DC usually takes a different path. Empowered by the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, many residents of low and moderate incomes consider cooperative ownership when their apartment building goes up for sale.
The DC government supports some tenants who choose this route by committing public funds for the purchase and rehabilitation of these buildings to make them affordable to the current tenants. Previously, federal Community Development Block Grants were a major source of funding for co-op development; now, the most likely source is DC's locally-funded Housing Production Trust Fund.
The cooperatives created with public funds are limited equity co-ops, meaning that there are restrictions on the price and resale value of a membership share. This ensures that cooperative units remain affordable in the long term.
Public investment in co-ops makes ownership available to low-income residents and helped maintain a much more diverse group of co-op residents. Today, there are co-ops in every ward of the city, with 3,000 residents living in 86 limited equity cooperative buildings.
Co-ops are tucked into neighborhoods around the city: garden apartments like Brightwood Gardens in Ward 7, an eight-story building in Logan Circle, a cluster of apartments in Columbia Heights named after civil rights worker Ella Jo Baker. These housing co-ops were created to preserve affordable housing and provide opportunity for residents of low and moderate income around the city.
Although many are skeptical that these tenants can own and maintain their own properties, 61% of DC's limited equity co-ops have been around since before 2000. This proves that co-op residents can own, maintain, and revitalize homes and communities.
On Saturday, organizations that support DC's co-ops will hold a DC Co-op Clinic to help strengthen the internal functions of DC's housing co-ops. Workshops will focus on how to be strong stewards of a collective property for this unique form of home ownership. For more information, check out this flyer.
Many DC renters can't access the tax benefits, stability and capital that a limited equity co-op provides, and traditional homeownership may not be possible either. Cooperative housing started as an option only for the wealthy, but today it's a gateway to homeownership and financial stability for those who need it most.
Sunday's Washington Post Magazine asks the question, "What kind of city does DC want to be?" Unfortunately, it doesn't get at a core issue that is determining what kind of city the District is: the question of who is able to live and flourish there.
Through a series of articles, the magazine considers the issues surrounding how DC is built, connected, and moved. The articles talk about the history of divestment and decay in the District. Starting in the 1970's, DC faced falling population, loss of retail, and rising crime.
As the magazine highlights, DC is clearly at a turning point: retail is returning to downtown, over 1,000 people are moving into DC every month, and people who are homeless are no longer highly visible downtown. What it misses is how the changes that have happened over the last decade have made DC a more difficult place to be poor.
For tens of thousands who lived through the bad times in DC, the good times are not looking much better. DC is one of the most difficult places to afford rent in the nation, so for many long-time residents, DC's boom means having to leave.
Since 2010, DC has lost half of its low-cost housing and the cost of homeownership has risen steeply. At the same time, services for homeless and low income people have been pushed out of easy-to-access areas like Franklin Shelter, and moved to cheaper, far-flung areas. The shelter and its legacy in serving people who are homeless, some of whom still congregate at Franklin Park, was not even mentioned in the article about the park's current and future use.
As the cost of housing rises, it is crucial that the District focus as much on making housing available to all as it does on transportation, green spaces, and retail. Talking about the District without raising the issue of where people will live is to forget that DC's pupusas, half-smokes, and jumbo slices are made by people who also want to live where they work and are vital to the District's success.
The kind of city DC will be rests on a core unexplored question: will we be the kind of city that keeps low income residents in the city, or will become a city solely for those who can afford to pay for it?
Over the last two years the issue of affordable housing has been raised in many forums, but with little action. Mayor Gray recently committed $100 million for affordable housing; now, the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force has issued its report on the District's housing direction.
The first two of the report's three goals focus on affordable housing. They call on the District to build and preserve 10,000 units of affordable housing and preserve the 8,000 units of housing made affordable by federal government subsidy.
In addition, the report offers many regulatory reforms and process improvements to support the construction and preservation of housing, and includes an emphasis on affordable housing near streetcars and transit hubs.
The core goal of the Task Force is to produce and preserve of 10,000 units by 2020. A target like this needs to have the tools to meet the goal. The report recommends using and significantly increasing existing affordable housing programs, including stabilizing the Housing Production Trust Fund.
The Trust Fund is an important program that builds and preserves affordable housing which residents fought for over a decade to create. Over the last few years, it has suffered from low levels of funding. Stabilization and increased funding will be key for the Trust Fund to be used to meet this production and preservation goal.
In the Task Force research, they learned that the greatest need for affordable housing is for people who make less than 30% of Area Median Income (AMI). Programs that make rents affordable to extremely low income people will be needed in addition to Trust Fund investment.
The Local Rent Supplement Program, when used with the Trust Fund, can produce housing for extremely low income residents. DC should increase it along with the Trust Fund to make sure we are building housing that meets the area of greatest need.
The Task Force identified the need for increasing the Local Rent Supplement Program, but like the Trust Fund recommendation, did not include a number of how many people should be served or a target funding level that should be made available.
At the State of the District Address, Mayor Gray announced $100 million for affordable housing. At the release of the Task Force report he called the $100 million a good start, and it is. The $100 million will allow the District to produce and preserve hundreds of units. But DC still has to make a long-term commitment for additional money to meet the goal of 10,000 units by 2020.
Over 300 people rallied for affordable housing this weekend with the Housing for All Campaign. The packed house drew Mayor Gray and Councilmembers Muriel Bowser and Jack Evans, all of whom were unified in their commitment to stem the tide of displacement in the District.
Evans said, "We need to make sure the people who were here in the difficult times get to stay for the good times." But the three differed on how to respond to this need.
Mayor Gray promised a big housing announcement at his State of the District address next week, so he didn't make any commitments at this time. The Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force, which the Mayor commissioned nearly a year ago, has recently finished its work. Their report is expected soon, so he's likely waiting for its publication before making a statement.
He did take the opportunity to praise key housing programs that have struggled in the recession, including the Housing Production Trust Fund and Local Rent Supplement Program.
Bowser, however, challenged the Mayor on his housing record. "You can't say you're for affordable housing and take $40 million out of the Housing Production Trust Fund," she said referring to the DC budget in 2012 and 2013 when the administration proposed $18 and $20 million in cuts to the program, respectively.
The Housing Production Trust Fund has created 7,500 affordable housing units in its 10-year history and is respected as a model across the country. It remains to be seen if the Mayor's strategy will include a continued commitment to this highly-successful program.
The next few months will be critical for housing funding. The task force is scheduled to release its report in the next few weeks, and Mayor Gray will announce his housing plan. The Mayor will then submit his budget to the DC Council, which many hope will offer increased investments to make housing affordable to District residents.
"It is time to act," said Bob Pohlman, Executive Director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development. "More than a thousand newcomers are flooding into the District every month, putting more and more pressure on the cost of housing. If we don't face this reality and act now, affordable housing will be out of reach for tens of thousands of DC residents."
What does seem clear is that after years of accelerating housing need and limited political interest in the topic, affordable housing is becoming a key political issue again.
As development along Rhode Island Avenue and New York Avenue take shape over the next few years, much of DC's Ward 5 will see major changes. But can these changes draw new residents without displacing existing ones? A key element will be to preserve and expand the availability of affordable housing.
Last week, the Housing For All Campaign hosted a town hall meeting on housing in Ward 5. The meeting focused on how to keep existing residents and draw new ones as the housing landscape changes dramatically.
Fortunately, many organizations have had success developing affordable housing in Ward 5. One of the smallest is Open Arms Housing, which provides permanent housing and wrap-around services to 11 chronically homeless and mentally ill women.
Marilyn Kresky-Wolff is the Director of Open Arms, and she spoke at the Housing Town Hall about the success her program has had in the lives of these women: none of their residents have returned to homelessness. Two of the residents spoke about getting back on their feet and rebuilding their lives.
Open Arms Housing, like many other projects in Ward 5, have succeeded by paying attention to the needs of the community they serve. This was particularly important when they rehabilitated the 258 units at Edgewood Terrace VI, an extensive complex just across Rhode Island Avenue on 4th Street NE.
In the early 1990s, Edgewood Terrace served as one of the largest drug markets in Washington. Today it is a mixed income apartment community with on site services for residents including adult education, computer training, and day care programs for children. The key ingredient in the outstanding change was the commitment of the developers, Community Preservation and Development Corporation, to tenant engagement in every step of the revitalization process.
In 1995, when the Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC) bought the first section of Edgewood Terrace from HUD, CPDC immediately sat down with tenant association leaders. The relationship between CPDC and the tenants resulted in renovated apartments, as well as common areas for youth programs, job training, computer classes, and community events.
With more people drawn to public spaces and a partnership between CPDC, the tenants, and the Metropolitan Police Department they were able to break up the drug trade. Residents who had once been afraid to venture outside after dark now had reclaimed their community.
Affordable housing developers continue to find solutions to meet the diverse housing needs of the community. Ward 5 residents can look forward to the opening of Metropolitan Overlook, a mixed income condominium on 2nd Street NE, just blocks off of Rhode Island Ave. Rehabbing a property that has sat vacant for 20 years, Metropolitan Overlook will be a 37-unit condominium with 11 permanently affordable units.
Ward 5 will continue to benefit from the investments in affordable housing that build vibrant spaces for current and future District residents.
It doesn't seem like there would be a connection between the amount of affordable housing DC builds, and the cost of a speeding ticket. But those two things might become directly connected this winter.
Last week, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute revealed that the Gray administration plans to pay for lower fines with $25 million in "unexpected revenue," the money which becomes available if revenue projections in the DC budget are too conservative.
There has been much outcry from drivers about the cost of these tickets, yielding proposals to lower fines from the Council, particularly Councilmember Tommy Wells. This response, however, does more than just lower punishments for unsafe driving. It also penalizes District programs, including affordable housing, which District leaders have already deemed top priorities for unexpected revenue.
In March, Mayor Gray's proposed budget included $84 million in revenue from speeding tickets, cuts to many human services and affordable housing programs, and a "priority restoration list." Top on the list are homeless shelters, youth mental health services, and the Housing Production Trust Fund.
The latest budget is the second year the Housing Production Trust Fund has had the majority of its funding used for other programs, with a commitment that it would be a priority for restoration. Of the $38 million removed in the last two years, however, the District has only restored $2 million.
Spending money first on lowering speeding tickets runs counter to the Mayor's and Council's own commitments to fund key programs with the first available resources. The Mayor and Council agreed to the list during budget negotiations. This allowed residents directly see the trade-offs between programs, and represented as a set of promises to residents about how it would spend extra revenue.
The Mayor and Council want to act quickly to respond to the public concern over the cost of traffic violations, but they have dragged their feet finding funding to restore the Housing Production Trust Fund and funding the other critical areas. They should not speed to a resolution, without looking at the other impacts this choice would bring to many people in the District of Columbia.
As the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force moves towards a conclusion, task force members and the public are beginning to focus on measurable solutions to affordable housing need. Task force members met Wednesday morning and laid out a timeline for having recommendations ready for Mayor Gray by mid-January.
Harry Sewell, co-chair of the task force, called on members to create a strategy that was attainable, but also aspirational to meet DC's affordable housing needs. Next steps for creating that strategy are a meeting to discuss the Vision 2020, and a full task force meeting in December.
At the evening hearing held at THEARC, in Southeast DC, members of the public talked about a wide range of housing issues, which is appropriate given the broad mandate of the Housing Task Force.
Many of those who spoke at the task force hearing had direct experience as victims of DC's ongoing housing crisis. Over a dozen residents who were homeless, or had experienced homelessness, came out to this hearing in Ward 8. They told stories of working, raising children, and going to school while experiencing homelessness or unstable housing.
Many of them also came with concrete recommendations. Miriam Garcia became homeless when she was the victim of domestic abuse. Now, she lives at a building operated by Transitional Housing Corporation. She called on more resources for the program that helped her get stable housing. "Affordable housing and the Local Rent Supplement Program has allowed me to stabilize my life and has given me the opportunity to offer my child a healthy place to grow up without domestic violence," she said. "I suggest that DC develop 1,000 more units a year."
Manuel Ochoa from the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) urged the task force to create a specific and comprehensive plan that addresses the total housing needs for District households across income levels. LEDC focuses on both housing and economic development through their small business technical assistance program, and so they work closely with many residents who struggle to raise their incomes and maintain stable housing.
Ochoa called for returning the Home Purchase Assistance Program, DC's first-time home-buyers program, to its 2008 high. It served 500 people that year with $35 million.
Misty Thomas of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless focused on programs that would impact very low-income residents. One key element was to create of a preservation strategy that would set targets for the types of properties the District would prioritize preserving and maintaining.
The District has thousands of subsidized units, but there is no plan in place to make sure that they maintain affordability in the long term. Such a strategy would both identify the priority for housing types, but also indicate how such preservation would be ensured.
As the task force draws to a conclusion, more specific recommendations are coming to the surface. Not only are the task force members beginning to discuss some of the goals they will ultimately recommend to the Mayor, they are also considering ways to raise the funds to pay for it. Ideas range from simply making a commitment in the District's budget to creating new tools like a local tax credit program.
You can see many of the proposals being discussed on the task force website as well as the schedule for upcoming meetings. The Task Force is still accepting written testimony.
Individual tenants and representatives of large organizations alike spoke about their experiences with District housing policy at a hearing on Monday. Those testifying overwhelmingly reflected the need for more affordable housing. Many spoke about the Housing Production Trust Fund, which is successful but starved for money, and the Housing First program to combat homelessness.
The hearing started with a packed room, with well over 100 people in attendance. The most touching testimonies drew heartfelt responses from the audience, such as when Gilma Merino, a Jubilee tenant with a visual impairment, had her testimony read by her school-aged son.
A tenant recognized long-time housing organizer and advocate Linda Leaks for her help in the creation of their housing cooperative, drawing loud applause. Although energy dwindled in the long hearing, many stayed for hours for a chance to speak or to listen and support others.
Resident Tom Gregory articulated concerns that landlords are able to profit unfairly in the housing market. Cheryl Cort, from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, argued for better use of public lands for affordable housing. Denice Speed, a Ward 7 resident at Marbury Plaza, spoke out for low income tenants. And Monica Buitrago read the testimony of Nathan Moon, an HIV positive tenant at 1111 Massachusetts Ave. who was unable to attend, and whose tenant association had worked to purchase the property when it was sold. Other participants spoke out about their success as first time homeowners, their concerns that public housing might be lost, and their desire for housing at all income levels.
Housing Production Trust Fund has successes, needs funding
Many talked about the Housing Production Trust Fund, like Marilyn Kresky-Wolff, Executive Director of Open Arms Housing. She called for the trust fund to keep enabling the housing programs we have to create successful programs like Open Arms, which serves chronically homeless women.
A tenant leader speaking through an interpreter also referenced the Trust Fund. His tenant association had hoped to maintain their housing as affordable through the tenant purchase process, but insufficient funds in the Trust Fund made it financially impossible, even though they had nonprofits who were interested in working with them. Blaise Rastello from Transitional Housing Corporation encouraged city leaders to use major projects like Walter Reed to help fill the trust fund.
It's unsurprising the trust fund got a lot of attention. Low funding levels in recent years has starved the trust fund. One of the task force's 5 working groups, "Rethinking Local Funding," has the task of looking specifically at funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund.
Housing First has made a difference in its short existence
Another highlighted program was Housing First, officially known as Permanent Supportive Housing. One of DC's smallest and newest programs, this program targets the chronically homeless with housing and wrap-around services. According to Jean Badalamenti of Miriam's Kitchen, "the District made great strides toward ending chronic homelessness when it launched the permanent supportive housing program in 2008."
John McDermott, who also testified at the hearing, was one of many people who benefited from the Housing First program. He spoke about how, before being diagnosed with major illnesses, he had worked and made a good living. Now he was thankful to the city for the support that he had gotten. But that wasn't enough. Like many others, he spoke out for more funding to address the unmet housing needs in the District. "We need an equal and balanced approach," he said. "[Where] everyone who needs housing can get it."
Task force considering many housing issues for January report
The 35 members of the Task Force represent an array of housing specialists from government, nonprofits, and for-profit organizations, all appointed by the mayor. Harry Sewell, director of the DC Housing Finance Agency and task force co-chair, hopes to have recommendations from to Mayor Gray by January so that the mayor's office can consider their report as it prepares the Fiscal Year 2014 budget.
Sewell began the hearing a presentation of data the task force has collected and a video, entitled "Miracle at East Lake," about a public housing project in Atlanta became mixed-income housing, leading to lower crime and improved education outcomes.
The group is considering a wide range of housing issues, and has posted online a lot of useful data.
The task force has a second hearing scheduled for November 14. Although they have not yet set the location, it will be somewhere east of the Anacostia River.
As the federal government returns control of St. Elizabeths East and Walter Reed to the DC government, the District has an opportunity to re-envision those neighborhoods. The Parklands in Ward 8, a neighborhood that has seen dramatic improvement over the last 2 decades, offers a successful model of equitable development.
The Parklands succeeded with a combination of a for-profit developer, passionate residents, a community development corporation, nonprofits, newly-opened federal land, and federal investment incentives. Hey, no one ever said this stuff was easy.
In the early 1990s, the Parklands in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast, DC was a 1,400 apartment complex with a rate of a murder a month per block. "But in 1991, in the midst of a drug and crime wave that had hit Southeast especially hard, the high rate of casualties was hardly unprecedented" writes Tony Proscio, author of Becoming What We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington, DC.
The book then goes on to chronicle the magnificent turn-around of first the Parklands, then the neighborhood as a whole. Despite the blight and crime, a number of residents were determined to work together to make it a better place. Even before redevelopment occurred, community leader Brenda Jones founded the Parklands Community Center to provide youth with a safe space to learn and play.
Then in 1991 William C Smith & Co. acquired the Parklands apartment complex and renovated it to include "smaller scale clusters of 'villages' within the wider area. The renamed 'Villages of Parklands, which formally opened in 1994, made room for the humanizing lawns and walkways that contribute not only to social interaction and recreation but, just as important, to safety."
It became clear amid the rejuvenation of the neighborhood that children needed a place to grow and learn. William C Smith & Co teamed up with the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) to create a community center for Ward 8. Through generous contributions from local philanthropic organizations and the District of Columbia government, and the hard work of BBAR, the Town Hall Education, Arts, and Recreation Campus (THEARC) was born.
THEARC sits on a site formerly used by the Department of the Interior, which was returned to the District after sitting vacant for years. Today, it houses the Washington Middle School for Girls, Boys and Girls Club, a Children's National Medical Center clinic, the Washington Ballet, Corcoran College of Art & Design, and the Levine School of Music.
By 2007, a grocery store opened in the neighborhood, the first in two decades. The Giant at the Shops at Park Village was made possible through the city's use of land that had previously been Camp Simms Military Base, investment leveraged by the New Markets Tax Credit, the advocacy of the East of the River Community Development Corporation, and William C Smith & Co. Today, a neighborhood once ridden with crime and blight now has a grocery store, a sit down restaurant, a world class community center, and truly mixed income housing; from subsidized housing, to rental, to single family homes.
This large-scale redevelopment was made possible because of the commitment of the private, nonprofit, and government sectors. It was the ability to leverage investment in a multitude of ways that made redevelopment of the Parklands inclusive for all levels of income. The redevelopment of St. Elizabeths and Walter Reed should look to emulate this model.
For more stories of community redevelopment in Washington, including Columbia Heights, Edgewood Terrace, and H St, check out Becoming What We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington, DC by Tony Proscio.
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