The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Public land deals give hot neighborhoods affordable housing

Someone sitting in the lively plaza in the heart of Columbia Heights or enjoying a bite to eat at 5th & K's Busboys and Poets might not know that the shiny new apartment buildings nearby house both well-off residents and and those earning modest to very low incomes. The new mixed-income buildings, built on formerly city-owned land, contain 20-35% affordable housing that reaches down to deeply affordable levels.

Columbia Heights photo by M.V. Jantzen

While demand to live in DC rises, its stock of low-priced homes is shrinking. Projects on city-owned land have created many mixed-income housing opportunities throughout the city. A new paper (PDF) by the Coalition for Smarter Growth examines how DC has used public land to provide affordable housing and other community benefits.

From Walter Reed in upper Northwest to St. Elizabeths in Southeast to smaller projects in between, city-owned land will play a meaningful role in shaping the future character of DC's neighborhoods and providing housing choices for moderate and low income residents.

Want to know more about what the city is doing, or could do, to use public lands for more affordable housing? How might a library be a good candidate to become mixed-use and mixed income? Join us on Wednesday evening, June 6 for a conversation with the leading thinkers and decision-makers on what gets built on city-owned land, including Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor Hoskins and DC Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper.

DC's history of affordable housing

Throughout the 2000s, DC has provided thousands of housing units, including a large share of affordable and deeply affordable units, by aggressively managing its surplus lands. 9 parcels on 13 acres of land in Columbia Heights produced nearly 600 new affordable housing units, or 35% of all new units.

The City Vista project at 5th and K NW generated a robust mix of 685 units of housing and retail. 138 units, or 20% of the total, were made available at moderate to deeply affordable levels, including some for those earning no more than 30% of the area median income (AMI).

During earlier decades of disinvestment and population decline, the District acquired substantial amounts of vacant and underutilized land. Many of these properties are now valuable assets that have been or can be redeveloped for housing, commercial uses, or new public facilities. The District also owns large parcels of former federal property as well as scores of aging schools, libraries, and other public facilities with the potential to meet a range of community needs.

Since 2000, starting with Mayor Anthony Williams' administration, the District government has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments putting surplus lands back into productive use through public-private partnership deals. Affordable housing has been a priority for these redevelopment projects, with DC seeking to designate 20-30 percent of the overall units as affordable.

Going beyond some affordable housing deals, DC sought to create a mix of housing opportunities at very low income levels. It's most difficult to pay for deeply affordable housing, but there is the greatest need for this housing because it's expensive to build and most low-wage jobs don't pay enough to cover even that cost.

A promising success story: The Hine school

The Hine School project stands out as an example of how a project on public land can balance affordable housing and other public benefits with market-rate development. Located between the Eastern Market Metro station and the historic market house, the Hine School project has an extra challenge of rebuilding in an historic district.

Residents and prominent local community groups engaged early in the decision-making process to express their vision for the site and influenced the selection of the developer, design, and uses. The project will include 46 low-income housing units, with 5 units at 30% area median income (AMI), 29 at 60% AMI, and 12 at 80% AMI.

In addition, the project would rebuild C Street SE as a curbless street and plaza and provide room for weekend vendor tents that can accommodate much (but not all) of the flea market currently using the existing school parking lot. Unlike many public land deals, the developer is also adding office space, which can diversify the activity in the area throughout the day and generate revenues that contribute to what the city collects as both taxes and rent.

In all, the Hine project adds up to a winner of a public land deal. Its design fits the historic context of the neighborhood while offering a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, along with office, retail, and public space in a highly desirable neighborhood and adjacent to a Metro station.

A missed opportunity: The Tenley Library and Janney School

One of the big ones that got away was a mixed-use proposal for the Tenley Library and Janney School. Few chances exist to provide affordable housing in the affluent upper Northwest neighborhood of Tenleytown. This project would have provided 53 units (30% of the total) at 30% AMI, offering low-income residents the chance to live in the community, rather than only commute to it.

The deal would also have accelerated needed upgrades to the popular Janney Elementary School at the same time, using up-front payments from the private developer, and it would brought $5 million in cost savings to the library.

The plan followed a lengthy and tortured path until 2009, when leaders decided to defer the project's housing elements with a promise to allow for putting it partly on top of the library in the future. However, it's hard to see how that would be feasible, let alone affordable.

Instead of using money from the project to fund Janney, the city reallocated money to pay for the school, exacerbating an already inequitable tilt in capital school expenditures towards Ward 3. The result was no affordable housing, no added resources leveraged by private investment, and a more inequitable distribution of school modernization dollars.

Community supporters for the mixed-use plan were disappointed. "The [school and library] agencies had no interest in combining land and resources, said Allison Barnard Feeney, a Janney School parent and advocate for the mixed use proposal. "By the time the mayor got behind it, this idea had quite a lot of entrenched opposition."

What's next?

Public land deals have delivered a lot of affordable housing in the District through the 2000s. But the future direction for public land redevelopment is unclear. The recent request for proposals for the site near the Shaw Metro station (Parcel 42) has not specified specific amounts of affordable housing, which is a change from practices in the past decade.

The administration of Mayor Vincent Gray has not established its policy for future public land dispositions but has continued to execute deals with substantial amounts of affordable housing.

As for future deals, according to Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins, the city may no longer insist that projects on public land require a specific amount of affordable housing or target income levels as they did under the Williams and Fenty administrations. Instead, the administration may ask developers to maximize affordable units below 80% AMI in their proposals, as with the Parcel 42 request. Under such an approach, achieving affordability reaching all the way down to 30% AMI is less likely. Deputy Mayor Hoskins has suggested that the Mayor's Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force, convened in February 2012, will help provide broader guidance on this question.

High costs of construction, a tighter District budget, and a shrinking federal role make the path to more affordable housing uncertain. While the District has completed many successful projects, many more opportunities remain to realize public benefits from public land.

Cheryl Cort is Policy Director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. She works with community activists, non-profit groups and government agencies to promote transit-oriented development, housing choices, economic development and pedestrian safety, especially in less affluent communities. 


Add a comment »

left unsaid is whether there was a cost associated with moving public property and keeping a high component for affordable housing.

I'd also guess the real estate tax value of the affordable housing is less than the comprables.

by charlie on Jun 4, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

The Tenleytown situation is quite frustrating. After what I would say is irrefutable evidence that segragating large areas for low-income housing is a failure, to miss opportunities like the Tenleytown project is disappointing. Further knowing that DC then had to spend the cash to upgrade the school, when it could have had it for free.

You can't just keep cramming all of the affordable housing into Columbia Heights and Petworth etc. All neighborhoods in this city need to be a part of this.

by Kyle W on Jun 4, 2012 12:31 pm • linkreport

that Columbia Heights was already oversaturated with low income housing. There are what, a couple thousand units of low income housing in a 5 block by 5 block area of Columbia Heights, the continued source of the neighborhoods outrageous crime and trash issues.

Perfect example of how even after you spend ~1 billion dollars on brand new retail, grocery and high end condos, that it will do nothing in such a high concentration of low income housing.

by not to mention on Jun 4, 2012 12:32 pm • linkreport

Kyle W: Absolutely. It's a shame that the NIMBY mentality was able to win the day in Ward 3, and it's certainly hard at work in Ward 6 as well.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jun 4, 2012 1:05 pm • linkreport

I live near Hine and would appreciate if you kindly explain how the project *adds* public space to the neighborhood as I seem to have read in your article.

by Simon on Jun 4, 2012 1:43 pm • linkreport

I know first hand and have met many residents at City Vista in the affordable housing units. It is not uncommon to see a 24 year old Duke University or Georgetown grad who works on the hill in a 2BR condo at City Vista. Sure, they don't make much money right out of college but only because they haven't climbed the salary ladder in their careers yet. I do not feel that is the type of person we are being told affordable housing programs serve nor is it the type it should aim to serve. It is not sustainable to treat affordable housing as entry level post-college housing. Let the college kids live in group houses/shared rentals like 95% of us did.


by Jason on Jun 4, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

how pray tell do you, for affordability purposes, distinguish between a 24YO on a steep salary ladder and one with a long term low salary?

Do you evaluate their occupation? Exclude those with college degrees (great incentive there, folks) Evaluate the prestige of the college they attended? Do you exclude all single people under a certain age? All people under a certain age?

Given that A. any feasible above solution is likely to hit those with genuine longer terms income problems B. That even interns add some variety to established neighborhoods, will burden the tranport system less if they can live closer to work, and may be more likely to stay in the area after their income goes up - I'm not sure its worth making such a big deal about the occasional hipster in an affordable housing program.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 4, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

@Jason, In addition to the problem you lay out, there's also the issue that these 20 somethings will have no incentive to 'move up'. They've already been given what they'd normally be aspiring to. (And it's been paid for by the other 20 somethings who weren't so lucky to 'win the lottery and are paying to subsidize these affordable units by paying more for their market rate units than they otherwise would have.) This is analogous to the problems with rent control where just about anyone I know who lives in rent controlled units actually earn far more than I do ... But they got in there before they'd climbed the pay ladder ... and now they have no incentive to leave.

by Lance on Jun 4, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

@Walker, "how pray tell do you, for affordability purposes, distinguish between a 24YO on a steep salary ladder and one with a long term low salary?

Other jurdisctions (for example Va.) do it by restricting welfare to 'single parets with dependent children'. i.e., to your classic "unwed mother". That's one way. I'm sure there are others. But why do we do it in the first place? What makes the lucky few who are chosen to win this lottery any more deserving the the others in similar circumstances who get to foot the bill for this largesse by paying more for their places?

by Lance on Jun 4, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

DC taxpayers should not subsidize others to live in the city, especially expensive areas like Tenleytown, Logan Circle, and Columbia Heights.

If people cannot afford their housing, they are free to move to more affordable options in DC, Virginia, or Maryland.

by Dan on Jun 4, 2012 2:23 pm • linkreport


this is affordable housing, not welfare.

IIUC fairfax county restricts some affordable housing to county employees, while some is open to all meeting the income qual. Similarly in Arlington and Alexandria. If there is a reuqirement to be a single parent to qualify for affordable housing in any of those jurisdictions, I am not aware of it. A cite would be helpful.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 4, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

Luckily, in DC, we are not allowed to discriminate when it comes to housing: Fair Housing Act.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jun 4, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

Doesn't "workforce housing" fall under the "affordable housing" umbrella. It seems as if the 24/yr old analogy would qualify for workforce housing..which is the same type of housing (subsidized) I had when I moved here.

Affordable housing isn't just for those w/Section 8 vouchers, it's for people who work, would like to live and contribute to the city..but can't afford the exorbitant rental rates.

by HogWash on Jun 4, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

I don't really have a good answer for the "Lottery" question and I'd love to see someone smarter than me take it on. But there isn't one fix to affordable housing. It takes a multitude of tactics to fulfill the strategy and things like this do help.

by drumz on Jun 4, 2012 2:59 pm • linkreport

The Council should amend the rent control laws to require that any multi-family housing built on city property or with any assistance from the District government be rent-controlled apartments.

This so-called "affordable" housing is not affordable to everyone, and not everyone can qualify for a housing loan.

I, too, Dan, am skeptical of housing subsidies, but I believe that anyone who wants to live in the District should be able to afford housing there.

by The Civic Center on Jun 4, 2012 3:19 pm • linkreport

@The Civic Center:

I, too, Dan, am skeptical of housing subsidies, but I believe that anyone who wants to live in the District should be able to afford housing there.

What's your plan to ensure that enough units will be produced to satisfy all the demand for housing at those rent-controlled prices?

by Gray on Jun 4, 2012 3:46 pm • linkreport

Show me some numbers and the audit report that backs it. The reality is that affordable housing resources have been used to subsidize luxury housing, and upscale ghetto fambulous housing(using many roomates to pay the rent in a so called luxury building.) Alot of what we see is a real estate scam covered up by gentrification mythology. Instead of real development that is sustainable and improves quality of life across the board.

by W Jordan on Jun 4, 2012 4:13 pm • linkreport

random minor quibble: it's called the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza

by andrew on Jun 4, 2012 6:40 pm • linkreport

Doesn't "affordable housing" or 60% AMI just usually mean Section 8?

All housing's affordable to someone and it seems like an evasive term.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 4, 2012 8:35 pm • linkreport

Affordable housing is not so hard to figure out if there was a desire to figure it out. The problem with Cheryl's article is it is disconnected from what actually is happening/ed on the ground. The area mediam income is about $90K the District is about $50K. Using the higher income the average home 3 bedroom home should be be about $300K with the rest of the distribution of homes being distributed along a bell curve. So average 3 bedroom homes being $500K - $1M in CH is not affordable nor market, more like public policy theft.

On the ground developers used pay-to-play political connections, abused the 95/5 rule and etc. skew the curve to maximize their profit by siphoning off city/federal funds usual design to balance out the curve to line their pockets. The result is basic housing discrimination and injustice. So,what looks good on paper in reality is little better than historic discrimination and a repeat of failed policies. And so called new urbanist turning a blind eye.

We are comming full circle from policy rooted in "Jim Crow" to one rooted in "Genny Grow".

by W Jordan on Jun 5, 2012 7:37 am • linkreport

I wonder how much of my comments will be edited by the author once again. I didn't realize that my reality was so inconvenient to her theories. I live in one of the partnerships. I have a solid job working for the federal government. This integration that you seem to suggest isn't smooth. In fact, the market rate owners intensely dislike the ADU owners and the disdain is very apparent in every setting. You want to know how they know you're an ADU owner. Well, it's written in the Condo documents, posted in various handouts, and we even get a special nod at board meetings. I don't fit the public housing stereotype, but nonetheless am treated like I'm stealing money from everyone. I purchased my unit, pay a mortgage every month, and ridiculous condo fees. I need to sell my unit because of a work transfer, but can't find someone to qualify at my income category. This has been the worst financial decision of my life and to hear these idiotic remarks about how great this stuff work is infuriating. Come to our board meeting Cheryl and we can chat in person. See the reality that is so incovenient to you.

by ADU Owner on Jun 5, 2012 7:45 am • linkreport

Stupid me, I actually live someplace I can afford. If all of a sudden one day I went to the DC Dept of Housing and said I want to live in an affluent, expensive section of Northwest, so give me an affordable place to live, what would they say? Obviously everybody wants to live in a nice neighborhood with low crime, everything close by, housing stock that holds value, etc.

These types of areas are limited, hence the high rents and being unaffordable for most people. As an economist, I do this stuff for a living, and that's just the way it goes. If you can't live in a desirable area, so be it. If developers on city land are being required to hold 30% or whatever of units at below market rent, then I assume they're getting the land real cheap, tax breaks, or outright money, etc. all of which my tax dollars are going towards. Yet I couldn't qualify for a below market unit, and the regular rent in these places is beyond a humble person like me.

So I support people to live in better areas than me, which I am sure does't sit well with a lot of people. I agree with other comments on here, especially the City Vista comment. I actually looked at some of these places, and the below market rent for qualifying income that I have seen is up to $1000 less. There's no requirement to make sure that, say if you're a federal govt employee who's not making much now, but in a year or two because of step or grade increases, you'll be well over the income limit, that the apartments have to check to make sure you're still under the limit?

I don't know what the answer to this is. Maybe more "workforce housing", so you can include people in the middle, not just the low end. I'd be interested to hear other opinions.

by Nickyp on Jun 5, 2012 7:55 am • linkreport

Let me add some facts to the discussion here. In 2012, the income limit cutoffs to fall under the 30% Area Median Income (AMI) threshold in the Washington DC metro area were $22,600 for a one person household and $32,250 for a 4 person household. If these households were to pay 30% of their income for housing, the standard benchmark for considering housing affordable, that would be about $600 for a one person studio and $800 for a two bedroom apartment that might serve the needs of a four person family. I don't have comprehensive knowledge of the rental market in the DC metro area, but I doubt that there are many units available in this price range, especially with good access to transit, and especially given the demand for units in this price range. The CSG report referenced in this post gives a fuller picture of the intense need for housing at this price point. Except for the relatively small number of inclusionary and subsidized units produced through new construction, many of which are targeted towards a higher income household who can pay more rent (ie the workforce housing that is targeted towards families making 50-60% AMI or more), the subsidized housing available to these households making less than 30% AMI is public housing and Section 8 vouchers. There is a huge waiting list for both.

I would argue that there is definitely a need for housing for the lowest income households in the city and the region. These are often the folks who clean our office buildings, prepare our burritos at Chipotle, and take care of our children while we work. There is an argument to be made about whether they "deserve" to live in a nicer neighborhood than they can afford. But personally, I'd rather see that the children in these households have access to better educational opportunities and grow up in mixed income environments than in an environment of concentrated poverty.

by njf on Jun 5, 2012 10:19 am • linkreport

Columbia Heights has for decades has been a mixed income neighborhood with housing to support from near 0 income to those with households making $400k plus. To help balance out the lower and move the market, the split on such projects was to be 80 - 20 in favor of market. With market being around $300K or so for a 3 bedroom. Instead, the city awarded projects to developers seeking to create a market beyond market, $300K plus luxury 1 bedroom micro loft condos. That market collapsed, so the city stepped in with subsidies to bailout the luxury condo market. My taking resoources design to stablize the low and moderate income portions of the market. As well, implemented policies they knew would result in large demographic displacement. Squeezing the middle of the market so that a neighborhood like Columbia Heights that was affordable for familes of 4 with household incomes between $40K - $120K was no longer affordable for this group. To understand the policy and manipulation of the market you have to look at sqft costs.

As well the city and developers looked to displace low and moderate income families with low income single seniors to cover thing ups. And basically stole equity from moderate income families and handed it to developers.

In theory Cheryl is not wrong, but we don't live in theoritical neighborhoods.

by W Jordan on Jun 5, 2012 12:55 pm • linkreport

A few of years ago, then the DC Auditor attempted a limited audit of some of the projects mentioned in the article, the Fenty Administration via then AG Nickles blocked efforts complete the audit. It took a court case to get some movement. The goal of the audit was both to see if developers who received city land were compliant and whether should programs actually work. A particular developer, a major Fenty fundraiser whose network had given over $100K to political campaigns had received 10s of millions in benefits which should have gone to affordable housing needs. With the help of Fenty's Admin and Council connections the audit was narrowed to protected the developer and city from exposure of the side deals which took affordable housing dollars to bailout the luxury condo effort. BTW none play property tax. This happened repeatedly in Ward 1. Pay-to-play works.

When it comes to addressing sustainability in affordable housing this approach was pretty much a failure. In fact these developers worked to block the Columbia Heights Streetscape project, primarily because they did not want people of color visible in the neighborhood while showing off their luxury condos.

For the most part the smart growth, new urbanist community ignored these ethical, political and community development abuses. I admire the work of Cheryl and many others, but it's important that they tell the entire story.

by W Jordan on Jun 7, 2012 7:47 am • linkreport

Auditor wants contempt ruling against mayor

by W Jordan on Jun 7, 2012 8:51 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us