Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Lisa Sturtevant

Lisa Sturtevant is Deputy Director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. Dr. Sturtevant's primary areas of research include housing, demographics, and economic development. Prior to working at the GMU Center for Regional Analysis, she spent four years as County Demographer in the Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development. 

How do we solve the housing affordability crisis?

This is the last in a 5-part series about how the Washington metropolitan area can provide housing options for its growing workforce. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

The Washington region is a victim of its own success when it comes to housing affordability. Our region's strong and steady economic growth continues to generate high demand for housing from new workers. Higher wage workers compete for units, pushing up prices and rents, and leading to affordability problems along the entire income spectrum.


Photo by MichaelEClarke on Flickr.

Coupled with this high level of demand is a slate of obstacles to housing production, including a difficult regulatory environment at the local, state, and federal levels for the construction of new housing units, fear of growth and change among current residents, and lack of regional coordination.

What will it take to solve the housing affordability problem in the Washington region? There is no single simple solution, of course, but there are ways to address many of the factors hampering housing affordability.

Demand. Prices and rents are particularly high in parts of the region that have attributes and neighborhood amenities that are in demand. Increasing the supply of these types of neighborhoods would help alleviate price pressures. When the supply of something goes up (and demand stays the same), prices fall.

While we can't move existing neighborhoods closer to job centers, we can facilitate development around transit, encourage amenity-diverse development, and incentivize high-quality construction. Places like the Rosslyn-Ballston corridorwhere demand and rents are very highcould serve as a model for the types of neighborhoods most in demand (although each locality will want to place its own flavor on these desirable places to live).

Whereas in the past we built single-family houses on suburban lots, future demand will be for more urban and smaller units, close to jobs, shopping, recreation, and other amenities. If local governments and developers are aware of this new demand, and set up the appropriate framework to achieve that type of development, the overall supply will increase and price pressures will not be as extreme. Their ability to do so will in large part depend on solving the next four issues.

Planning, zoning, and application processes. Counties and cities in the Washington area need to get ahead of the demand by preparing master plans and sector or neighborhood plans that allow mixed uses, higher densities, and transit infrastructure in certain areas where jobs and housing will concentrate. Once the right plans are in place, it is much easier for developers to tailor their development plans in the desired direction and also easier (in terms of time and money) to get plans approved.

Local governments also need to review and revise their zoning ordinances to provide more flexibility, allow mixed uses where they were previously prohibited, and encourage the development of more affordable housing. Montgomery and DC are currently reviewing their zoning ordinances, and it is likely that these two jurisdictions will be able to make the right types of adjustments to support more appropriate levels of housing development which will encourage housing affordability.

Developers recognize that their projects need to pay for some public infrastructure and community amenities. Done right, these contributions enhance their projects' chances for market success. The problem has been the complexity of development approval processes, and their lack of transparency and predictability. Developers would prefer to know up front what they need to contribute (whether it is a fixed dollar amount per unit or per square foot) rather than to think they have reached agreement only to find a new reviewing agency has additional requests.

When plans, zoning, and development applications align, it reduces costs and timeframes for development. This provides some margin to reduce housing prices.

Neighborhood opposition. Fear of change is natural and understandable. The demand for more urban lifestyles is increasing. Yet we are trying to undo more than 30 years of sprawl and suburban livingwhich many people have enjoyed and want to perpetuate.

One solution is to defuse the fear of the unknown. Our suburban housing stock will continue to be available to people who prefer that lifestyle. But there are places in the metropolitan area that are well suited to a more urban form of development, and those places are the ones where more and higher density housing close to transit and jobs can be built. Each jurisdiction should clearly identify those places in master plans, legalize them through zoning changes, and educate residents about them.

To educate people, leaders and developers need to share information about successful projects, defuse fears of traffic impacts by making data on traffic counts widely available, and document environmental and lifestyle benefits of this new (though old) form of development. Financial and economic data exist too, but tend to be less persuasive to current residents. Education, information, and understanding won't happen overnight, but it is important to have an ongoing conversation.

State and federal regulations. Reducing the impact of state and federal transportation and environmental regulations on the cost of housing production is a bit more difficult, and seems out of reach of the local jurisdictions.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to elect representatives to state houses and the US Congress who are conscious of the impact of regulations on the cost of providing new housing units. This will require the local population gaining an understanding of the relationship between regulation and housing affordability. It is time for advocates of housing affordability to transcend the local government level and be heard at higher levels of government.

Regional coordination. The region's political fragmentation makes coordinated action difficult, but regional coordination and cooperation are necessary to ensure the continued high quality of life in the metro area. Furthermore, regional coordination needs to include all groups that have a stake in the economic vitality and housing availability in the regionlocal governments, affordable housing advocates, and businesses.

Groups like the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that convene local leaders to discuss regional issues are critically important to keeping these policy concerns in the public eye. However, the problem cannot be solved by discussion alone: regional coordination on housing issues requires true commitment in the form of money and leadership.

The Washington DC metro area would benefit from the creation of a regional housing trust fund1, a source of dedicated funding not tied to a particular jurisdiction and contributed to from both the public and private sectors. The fund's resources could be used to subsidize construction of affordable housing in the locations around the region where there is the greatest need.

Although the District of Columbia and the states of Maryland and Virginia also have housing trust funds (with different funding mechanismssome dedicated, some notand supported activities), the Washington DC region needs a regional trust fund because the people living and working here are all interrelated and support the economic health and well-being of the region. A regional housing trust fund would be differentand perhaps more challenging to establishfrom those mentioned above because we live in a region with three states. Challenging, but not impossible.

Our region's trust fund should also be supported by both the public sector (e.g. local governments) and the private sector.2 The business community has a tremendous stake in the availability of housing in the region.

We must meet the challenge

There are no easy answers here, but there is a set of approaches that could individually and together ease the housing affordability crisis and to ensure that we produce enough housing to support our region's economic vitality and sustain our quality of life.

Just as we need DC, Maryland, and Virginia to work together, and the region's component counties and independent cities, we also need the public and private sectors to collaborate on regional housing needs. Regional leadership, setting housing affordability as a priority over other priorities, and education of existing residents are all prerequisites to solving the problem. If we don't put these solutions to work soon, our region runs the risk of diminished economic prospects in the future.

1 The Affordable Housing Trust Fund for Columbus and Franklin Counties in Ohio, A Regional Coalition for Housing in King County, Washington and 15 cities, and the Northeast Iowa Housing Trust Fund are just three examples of regional housing trust funds across the country.

2 The Housing Trust Fund of Santa Clara offers the bestand perhaps the onlyexample of a dedicated fund supported broadly by the public and private sectors.

Why can't we build enough housing?

This is the fourth in a 5-part series about how the Washington metropolitan area can provide housing options for its growing workforce. Read part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Almost everyone would agree that we have an affordability problem here in the Washington region. We have argued that localities are neither planning for, nor facilitating, a sufficient supply of housing at all price or rent levels. What are the obstacles keeping us from getting enough affordable housing built?


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Demand for housing in the region continues to grow. More than 80,000 households moved into the region last year. Home prices continue to escalate; they are up 8% regionwide in October. We need to build nearly 40,000 new units each year until 2030 simply to keep up with job growth, yet we're only on pace for about 15,000 new units in 2012.

Why? There are dozensif not hundredsof factors that complicate housing development in the region.

We suggest 5 here, and look forward to reading your discussion of these and others:

Burdensome local processes: The local process for getting residential projects approved and built is complex, costly, time-consuming, and uncertain. Fees and proffers can add between $30,000 and $50,000 to the cost of a housing unit.

The developer also is required to provide many "extras" that may not specifically have been among the items demanded by the buyer. The most recent buyer ends up paying for amenities that the entire neighborhood enjoysparks, bike racks, benches, and walking trails, among other benefits.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily the developer who pays; the extra costs usually are incorporated in the final sales price or rent amounts. If the cost is more than what the market will bear, the project simply won't get built.

Neighborhood opposition: As the nature of housing demand changes to favor more urbanized areas served by transit, development of new units often is confronted by massive opposition from existing residents. Understandably, they are concerned about a change to their way of life and are not eager to invite potentially more traffic to their neighborhood. They haven't always received enough information to understand that new development, when designed properly, may actually lead to less traffic and more community-serving amenities.

When demand is already being felt in an area, but the locality's comprehensive plan and zoning haven't been updated, an individual development proposal encounters the strongest headwinds. It may take 18 to 24 months for a new neighborhood or sector plan to be prepared, and to overcome opposition.

When zoning has not been recently reviewed or updated, it effectively prevents newer housing designs by requiring obsolete lot sizes, unit sizes, and configuration of parking spaces; and mandates too much parking, doesn't allow enough height, doesn't allow retail under residential units, and a multitude of other "don'ts." Often densities are too low in areas where local leaders and staff agree that mixed use development or mid- to high-rise housing development is desirable.

All this means a good project can be prevented or delayed until the appropriate zoning framework is in place. By then, time has passed, costs have increased, and the market window may have closed. The needed housing units are not built.

Demand: Strong job growth and high wage earners push housing prices up across the region. Proximity to jobs, access to transit and other transportation, high-quality housing construction, and diverse neighborhood amenities are all associated with relatively higher housing costs.

We know that income growth has not kept up with the increase in housing costs; however, we live in an area where many households have very high incomes. Higher income households that can afford to pay more put upward pressure on rents (and home prices) in high-demand neighborhoods.

As a result, lower income householdsfor example, the half a million households in the region making less than $50,000 per yearface two options: 1) spending more than 30% of their incomes on housing to be close to jobs and amenities or 2) moving further out and enduring longer and more expensive commutes.

Household income and affordable rent: DC metro area, 2009-2011
Household incomeEstimated # householdsMaximum monthly rent*
Less than $50,000546,000$1,250
$50,000-$99,999605,000$2,500
$100,000 or more896,000n/a
Median household income of $87,653$2,191
Source: 2009-2011 American Community Survey, GMU Center for Regional Analysis
* Assumes a maximum of 30% of gross income spent on rent.

Federal and state regulations: In addition to local regulations, a variety of state and federal regulations relate to new home construction. States have transportation and environmental regulations that apply to new projects. for example, a requirement to conduct traffic impact analyses when traffic is expected to be over a certain threshold, and the power to deny curb cuts or access to state roads.

At the federal level, water quality regulations are controlling runoff to local watersheds, pre-empting local decision-making on the right location for new housing units. The developer has to work not only with local planning staff, but often also with a range of state and federal agencies and reviewers during each development application.

As there is no one who can coordinate agencies at different levels of government or unify their comments on a development application, there is the potential for prolonged back and forth on certain requirements where different governmental levels have regulations that conflict with those of other levels.

Regional non-coordination: A lack of regional coordination has exacerbated the housing supply problem in the Washington region and has contributed to an inefficient geographic allocation of housing. Each local jurisdiction employs its own process for approving new housing developments. Not only are the processes complex, they vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In all cases, local elected officials focus assiduously on the desires of their constituents and the impacts of new development on their current residents.

Jurisdictions across the region constantly compete with each otherto attract jobs, to build better amenities, to have lower taxesand it is in their self-interest to focus very narrowly on their own priorities, rather than the regional good, when approving new housing.

The problem of a lack of coordination is heightened in the DC metro area, where we have three state regionsDC, Maryland and Virginia, or four, if we count the one county in West Virginia that is part of the metropolitan area.

There is no regional governing body with the authority to coordinate efforts to plan for and get constructed a sufficient supply of housing, of the right types and in the right places. Virginia and Maryland have some combined coordinating bodies, for example the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, but these don't cover all the jurisdictions in the metropolitan area.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and other organizations convene groups of local leaders to discuss regional issues, but without legal or regulatory authority. The regional discussion tends to culminate in the signature of "compacts" which are broad philosophical agreements, but true coordinating action in housing or transportation is hard to come by.

All this adds up to big problems

These, as well as other issues not highlighted here, are obstacles to providing a sufficient amount of housing and the appropriate types of housing this region will need to support population and job growth.

Local officials are well aware of these issues, but in the daily travail of meeting their budgets, maintaining their bond ratings, and satisfying their constituents, they are hard-pressed to focus on long-term regional goals, instead meeting challenges as they arise, one at a time. This is exhausting for all concernedelected officials, local staff, developers and home builders, and the citizens who try to keep an eye on each new proposal.

Is it possible to step back, and take concrete steps that would help us achieve our regional housing goals? In our next post, we will present some initial solutions.

Local regulations make new housing more costly

This is the third in a 5-part series about how the Washington metropolitan area can provide housing options for its growing workforce. Read part 1 and part 2.

Obtaining local government approval of a development plan is often a complex, costly, and time consuming process. It is no wonder that new housing units in the Washington area are increasingly unaffordable for households below the Area Median Income (AMI).


Photo by Keith Williamson on Flickr.

The full approvals process can easily add $30,000-$50,000 to the cost of a new single-family unit, and $10,000-$20,000 to a multi-family unit. In certain locations and under certain circumstances, the cost can be considerably higher than that.

Almost all new housing development approvals come after a lengthy review process culminating in a public hearing. This initial process starts with the property owner paying application fees. Governments and/or residents then ask for formal proffers, negotiated contributions, and special conditions, each of which have their own cost, before giving final approval.

The land development approvals process that then unfolds adds more application, review, and inspection fees, as well as fees that are highly particular to individual jurisdictions. Applying for building construction permits also involves additional application and review fees and costs. Taken together, the layers of development review add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a finished housing unit.

The table below identifies commonly-used categories of fees and costs encountered during stages of development approvals. They are based on a survey of 15 Washington-area jurisdictions, and in depth case studies in Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax County, VA.

Fees and Costs commonly applied during housing development application and approval
Washington area jurisdictions, and case studies in Montgomery and Fairfax Counties
Fee or cost itemWhat it isCost per market-rate unit
Development review application feesFees for staff review of applications such as Preliminary Plan, Project Plan, Site Plan, Subdivision, Map Amend­ment, Special Exception, Development Special Use Permit, RezoningSingle-family or townhouse: $1,000-10,000; multifamily: $500-$1,000
Impact tax (Maryland)School and Transportation fees applied per unit regardless of impact$10,325 to $25,800 for a townhouse
Proffers (Virginia)Fees calculated to assess against the project its share of the cost of needed public facilities such as roads, schools, police and fire services. Must be voluntarily proffered in Virginia.$11,500 (MF) to $59,500 (SF)
Impact tax (Montgomery County Growth Policy)Payments directly related to marginal cost of school and transportation capacitySingle-family: $0 to $1,500; Multi-family: $0 to $2,900. Note: figures could be considerably higher if roads or schools are at or near capacity.
Moderately-priced dwelling units/affordable and workforce housingUnits provided at reduced sales prices or rental rates for households in defined income ranges. In Montgomery Co. 12.5% of each new residential project must be MPDUsForegone income from providing "affordable" new housing units in Maryland ranges from $20,900 to $37,300 per market rate unit in a project
Professional feesThere is an expected base of legal, archi­tec­tural and engineering services. In many cases this base is exceeded with special studies and community meetings that take the time of these professionals$250 to $17,500 per market rate unit
Special conditionsCost of meeting streetscape standards, tree cover, noise restrictions, recreation, bicycle paths and bike racks, etc.$700 to $3,000
Land development applicationsFees to apply for site plan and related permits post public hearings$400-$6,200
Building permit applicationsApplication, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing feesSingle-family or townhouse: $400-$2,350; multifamily: $1,600
Review and inspectionFees to cover inspections during land development and building constructionVaries
Water and sewerAvailability and connection chargesAvailability: $2,000 to $5,100; Connection: up to $18,000
Figures in the right-hand column are based on a July 1, 2011 baseline for fees and proffers, and specific case studies of projects in the development review pipeline.

Maryland and Virginia approach land use regulation quite differently, and each jurisdiction's charter gives it different authorities. Individual cities and counties set their own fee schedules, create their own methodologies to evaluate the adequacy of public facilities, determine their public priorities, calculate the specific impacts of proposed development projects on their budgets, and make requests for developer contributions.

Thus, the fees developers pay in the course of obtaining development approvals vary considerably, both in the types of fees and contributions, and in the amounts requested. Some jurisdictions, particularly those that continue to have large undeveloped areas or are relatively un-urbanized, use a formal proffer or impact fee system to provide basic infrastructure and core services.

In recent years, several jurisdictions have moved to a system of negotiated conditions. The development project offers to provide or pay for a large number of items not tied to specific impacts, but rather defined as "community benefits." This system has the unfortunate effect of being unquantifiable up-front, as the specific items negotiated evolve in the course of the review of the project concept, application details, and citizen reaction to the proposal.

Residents even sometimes make requests at the final moments of the approval process, during the public hearing before the jurisdiction's governing body. Developers working under this system often plead for an alternative that gives them more certainty and predictability. Some even prefer the large proffer numbers in rural or exurban counties over the ad hoc layers of requests unrelated to the project they encounter in the more urban jurisdictions.

Sample negotiated conditions with a cost impact
Dedication of right of way
Road frontage improvements
Access restrictions
Maximum number of units
Maximum square footage
Streetscape improvements
Utility undergrounding
Transportation management plan
Bicycle racks
Bus shelters
Traffic lights
Traffic calming measures
Pedestrian crossings
Stormwater management
Landscaping
Noise attenuation
On-site recreational facilities
Design specifications (materials, elevation details)
Energy efficiency
LEED or Earthcraft certification
Specialized lighting fixture designs
Restrictions on type of signage
Data wiring in each unit
Green roof/green building standards
Public art
Universal design for handicapped accessibility

Complexity adds to the cost of obtaining approvals

In addition to the direct expenses associated with the various permitting processes, obtaining development approvals is complex and risky. Completing the process often involves multiple overlapping and sequential approval steps, several community meetings to obtain public input, dealing with multiple agencies at different levels of government, and rounds of refinement or revision.

Approvals are generally very specific, and frequently rely on a proffered development plan that spells out the minute details of the project, including specific elevations and building materials. A minor change can trigger a need to go back through the process to amend previous approvals.

Timeframes for approval may be as long as 3-4 years

The layered and complex public development process means it often takes a very long time to gain full approval and start construction on a residential project. It is not unusual for a proposed development project to take 3 to 4 years to go from concept, through rezoning and associated approvals, to land development review, and finally to building permit review and approval.

This extended timeframe has its own costs. The attorneys, architects, and engineers must work with local staffs, prepare countless revisions, and explain the project in the course of community meetings (which can be large meetings covering an entire neighborhood, or be highly focused meetings involving as few as one or two particularly interested citizens). All charge their time to the project, burdening it with unpredictable extra costs.

An additional consequence is that if the timeframe is extended too far, the project risks missing its window of opportunity for market demand. For example, the last condominium building approved just before a downturn in demand for a condo product is likely to never get off the ground.

Housing costs more than it should, and we are having trouble producing units of the right type at the right locations

Costs are highest, complexity is at its peak, and timeframes are the longest in exactly the areas where many argue we need new housing units the mostin activity centers near transit. Land use plans and zoning have not evolved, but instead are frequently still redolent of greenfield development.

As a result, developers of urban mixed use projects or multi-family buildings of more than a few stories have to seek a rezoning (and in some jurisdictions, a master plan or comprehensive plan amendment). The rezoning then triggers a cascade of fees, proffers, public input cycles, and time delays. Housing affordable to people below the median income then becomes a casualty of the process.

Our earlier articles discussed how much housing, and the types of housing, the region needs. It will become increasingly difficult to produce the necessary numbers of multi-family units, rentals, less expensive units, and smaller units at activity center locations. The local government regulatory process is one factor that contributes to the mismatch between what the region needs and what can actually be built.

The detailed studies of Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax County, VA are available on the Center for Regional Analysis website.

Next in this series: What stands in the way of meeting the region's housing needs?

Washington's economic future depends on more housing

This is the second in a 5-part series about how the Washington metropolitan area can provide housing options for its growing workforce. Read part 1.

Is the Washington region building enough housing, or the right types of housing, for the future? At current rates, probably not, and that risks stifling the region's economic vitality.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Over the next 20 years, the Washington metropolitan area will add over a million net new jobs. At the same time, the region will need 1.8 million workers to replace retirees and others leaving the workforce.

These workers will need over 700,000 new housing units by 2030, but even if the pace of construction over the last 20 years continues, the region would only add about ¾ that much. Plus, new workers will (and already do) demand more multi-family housing and housing at lower price points than what exists today or what most builders are constructing.

In 2010, the Washington metropolitan area depended on non-resident workers more than any other metropolitan area in the country. About 230,000 commuters from places like Baltimore, the Eastern Shore, Richmond and West Virginia work in Washington every day. Hundreds of thousands of other workers commute between jurisdictions each morning and evening.

A major source of the region's transportation problems is the inadequate supply of housing within the region. Without enough housing for our future workers, the consequences will be enormous. Home prices and rents will rise, our roadways will become more congested, our transit systems strained to the limit, and employers will depend more and more on non-resident workers.

Housing the workforce is key to the Washington region sustaining its current economic success and achieving its economic growth potential in the future.

The region needs more than 700,000 new housing units by 2030

Forecasts from the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis found that to accommodate future employment growth, the Washington region would need to add 731,457 new housing units between 2010 and 2030, or about 36,500 housing units each year. The table below shows how many units each jurisdiction needs if it wants to house all of its future workers inside its borders.

Housing demand by jurisdiction, 2010-2030

Yet, over the past 20 years, the region has only built about 28,000 housing units each year. During the economic downtown of the last few years, there have been especially low levels of building activity by historic standards.

Building permits, Washington region

Future workers will demand different housing from what exists today

The types of units needed in the future will also differ from the region's current stock. The shifting demographics of entry-level workers will create demand for more multi-family and rental units and more moderately-priced housing.

While current housing in the region is about 67% single-family and 33% multi-family, the housing demand forecasts foresee demand that is the reverse of current patterns, 40% single-family and 60% multi-family.

Comparing current and forecasted units
Single-family vs. multi-family

New workers will need relatively lower cost housing. About 55% of the region's new workers will demand owner-occupied housing (about 400,000 owner-occupied housing units). 69% of homeowners will demand housing priced below $400,000 (in 2010 dollars), including a quarter that can only afford homes priced up to $200,000. Current owner-occupied housing is disproportionately higher cost (over $400,000).

Comparing prices of current and forecasted units
Owner-occupied units, Washington region

On the rental side, the forecasts predict a significant need for rental housing below $1,250 per month for more moderate income households. The luxury segment will only be about 1% of rental housing compared to 9% today.

Comparing prices of current and forecasted units
Renter-occupied units, Washington region

Most local governments are not planning enough housing for their future workers, and may hinder new housing with regulations on new development. Meanwhile, builders need to recognize the need for more multi-family housing and smaller, more affordable owner and renter homes in the region.

Next in this series: To what extent do local government regulatory processes affect the region's ability to provide housing units that meet the forecast needs?

DC area incomes fall behind skyrocketing housing costs

This is the first in a 5-part series about how the Washington metropolitan area can provide housing options for its growing workforce.

It's no secret that the Washington area housing market is one of the most expensive in the country. With median home prices well above the national average and rents continuing to rise, finding affordable housing can be a challenge for area residents. It's particularly hard when looking for housing close to jobs.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Housing costs have increased faster than incomes

Over the past 40 years, median home values and rents in the Washington region have increased much faster than household incomes. While the median household income increased by only 46% since 1970, rents rose by 69% and home values increased by 144%.

When a household spends 30% or more of its income on housing costs, housing researchers typically identify it as "housing cost burdened." In 2010, about half of all renters in the DC region fell in this category, and 83% of renters with household incomes below $50,000 were burdened. Nearly one-third of the region's homeowners spend more than 30% of their incomes on their mortgages.

On top of that, many so-called "drive to qualify" households, or those households that were only able to find affordable housing far away from where they were looking, have very high transportation costs. According to the National Association of Realtors Affordability Index, the Washington region ranks as the 5th least affordable major metro area overall, with only San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston less affordable than our region.

Several factors have contributed to declines in affordability in the Washington area. Some are due to changing preferences of those that seek housing, or demand-side factors:

Population growth. The Washington region added 2.4 million people over the four decades between 1970 and 2010. Over the same period, household sizes were shrinking and more people were living alone which accelerated housing demand.

High-income households. These households created demand for larger and more expensive housing and builders rushed to meet demand. While overall household income growth has been relatively modest over the four decades between 1970 and 2010, a sizable share of the region's workers earned very high wages.

The growth of the high-wage professional and business services sector began in earnest in the 1980s when federal procurement spending increased and the government contracting workforce expanded. Many of these jobs were high-wage jobs in engineering, computer programming, program management, and other fields that suddenly became the fastest-growing sectors in the region's economy.

The workers in these fields benefited from high and rising salaries and demanded larger homes, more owner-occupied homes, and more expensive housing. Builders were happy to meet this growing demand, and as a result, the region saw fewer rental units and fewer smaller houses built over time.

Homeownership incentives. During the recent housing boom, easy mortgage financing and public policies that encouraged homeownership put upward pressure on home prices and fueled demand for higher-priced homes.

Speculation. Speculative demand by investors artificially boosted prices at the same time. Although values and prices dropped temporarily, Washington's economy and job growth proved stronger than those in much of the country, and home prices rebounded, particularly in areas close to the core.

Demographics. Changes in demographics and lifestyles have increased demand and prices in DC, areas inside the Beltway, and areas along Metrorail lines.

Overall, this demand for homeownership has diminished the supply of rental housing. In 1970, the region's housing stock was split about 50/50 between rental and owner housing. Over the next four decades the development of for-sale housing far outpaced the supply of rental housing.

The rental housing that was built was often targeted at the higher income households, and involved redevelopment of affordable rental housing. Lower income households, who are more likely to rent than own, faced a declining stock of housing with rents they could afford.

Developers and landlords have also responded to the changing conditions in the market. These supply-side factors include:

Land. The amount of land available for residential development is fixed and has grown scarce. Within the geographic boundaries of the Washington metropolitan area, there is only so much land on which to build. Even though the construction of I-495, I-66, and Metrorail have made it easier for housing to be built in the farther out suburbs, land itself remains a constraint on residential development.

New higher-end condos. As builders sought to meet the demands of higher income households given the land constraints, cheaper homes in the suburbs gave way to luxury homes and modest rental buildings were shunned in favor of amenity-rich condos.

Condo conversions. Older and more affordable rental apartments have been converted to condominiums to meet the demand for homeownership.

Zoning. Land is also constrained by local regulations that determine the types and sizes of housing that can be constructed under different zoning and land use categories. Lot size and coverage regulations require that large homes with large yards be built in some areas. Height and density restrictions can prohibit the construction of higher-density, multi-family residential development.

Other regulations. Local government regulations affect the time required to construct new housing, delaying the availability of new units to meet growing demand.

Even as the housing bubble burst and regions across the country experienced dramatic drops in home prices, the Washington region is staring down the affordability issue once again.

Housing affordability is particularly a problem in inner-ring suburbs and the downtown core where land is expensive and scarce. The most desirable locations are those near transit stations or hubs, yet those infill locations are where development is most difficult and time consuming, and where resulting housing will be most expensive.

While there has been an uptick in residential construction, it has been primarily high-rent multi-family development in the District of Columbia and close-in suburbs. Single-family and townhouse construction seemed to slow to a halt and is only now beginning to pick up.

Over the last few years, thousands of workers have flocked to the Washington region to take advantage of its healthy economy. As a result of this recent demand, rental vacancies have been low and rents have been high. In some jurisdictions, home prices are back to the peak seen at the height of the housing boom.

Next in the series: How much housing will the Washington region need over the next 20 years?

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