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DC public land must yield affordable housing, says report

The District controls a significant amount of land, much of it in desirable locations, ripe for development. The DC government needs to put this land to its maximum use, and to ensure that there are affordable housing opportunities incorporated into these developments, says a new report from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Image from the report.

After the 1968 riots, commercial corridors were decimated, DC's population declined and private investment dried up. The District acquired vacant lots, aging schools, federal property, and other facilities. As post-recession construction heats up again, DC will be looking to develop this land.

The report details where and how the District can make better use of its ownership leverage to increase affordable housing opportunities on public land. Where previous mayors made strong commitments to affordable units in development projects on city land, Mayor Gray's administration has been more lax.

"Our public lands are so valuable, and we're concerned the city is not going to deliver the affordability that it's achieved in the past," says Cheryl Cort, Policy Director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "We urge the Mayor and the Housing Task Force to recommit to leveraging city-owned land to create a substantial amount of affordable housing, including at deeply affordable levels."

According to Cort, the study's "main finding is that while the previous administrations were able to produce significant amounts of affordable housing down to deeply affordable levels in city-land redevelopment projects, we aren't seeing the same level of commitment from the new administration."

Major developments like CityVista at 5th and K St, NW and around the Columbia Heights Metro station have integrated significant amounts of very affordable housing into larger, mixed use developments, says Cort.

"DC has had some successful accomplishments when it comes to city-owned lands transformed in to vibrant mixed use, mixed income developments. However, without keeping specific and ambitious affordable housing requirements in future deals, we are likely to see less and less affordability in these valuable city land projects," said Jenny Reed, Policy Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, in a statement.

Ideal sites for producing affordable housing are the McMillan Sand Filtration site (25 acres), Walter Reed's Georgia Avenue Campus (67 acres), Saint Elizabeths East Campus (183 acres), and even Poplar Point (110 acres) which is seemingly stuck in place. To maximize the housing potential of public lands adjacent to Metrorail stations and Metrobus routes, the city must override some desires to build a "one or two-story library or other public facility with a surface parking lot," the report says. Instead, a "robust mix of compatible uses" and full use of the building envelope should be a guiding design principle.

The report highlights the development of the Hine School site at Eastern Market, which will provide substantial amounts of affordable housing units, including some at 30 percent of Area Median Income (AMI). However, recent solicitations by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development's land disposition office indicate that housing set asides for people with 30 percent of AMI in larger projects, are no longer in place as they have been in the past.

While earnings for lower-wage workers have remained flat over the past 10 years, housing costs have shot up. According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, between 2000 and 2010 more than 36,000 rental units, priced at $750 or less a month, have been lost. Compounding rising costs for low-wage workers is the natural expiration of federal Section 8 subsidized housing credits. Started under a program created in 1974, Section 8 contracts for private landlords usually run for 20 to 40 years. Many landlords are now turning their properties into market-rate units.

"If the city no longer asks for deeply affordable units as part of an overall project, we don't expect developers will provide them," Cort says. "As our city's housing market gets more expensive, we need to do more, not less to address the challenges that our lower income residents face. Public land is a unique tool that the city has and can continue to leverage to provide substantial amounts of affordable housing, even at very low income levels."

DC has a shortage of affordable housing, but it has no shortage of public land. The District needs to use this land to guarantee more affordable housing so that we can remain an economically diverse city.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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the city must override some desires to build a "one or two-story library or other public facility with a surface parking lot," the report says.
A reference to the Tenleytown Library fracas from a few years ago.

by Eric Fidler on Oct 12, 2012 12:52 pm • linkreport

Lost in all of these discussions is any mention of the working middle-class, especially families, who are forced out of DC, being neither eligible for so-called "affordable housing" and unable to afford to continue paying exuberant amounts for market-rate housing once children are in the picture. Those households where two spouses are pulling in $100k+ each are fine. The rest, not so much.

by Alex on Oct 12, 2012 12:58 pm • linkreport

@Alex, wouldn't that fall into the affordable housing policy of rent control?

by David on Oct 12, 2012 1:16 pm • linkreport


as the report mentions, much of the inclusionary zoning provides housing at 80% area median income, a level higher (?) than DC's median income, b/c of the wealthier suburbs. That's middle income.

by Thaddeus Bell on Oct 12, 2012 2:34 pm • linkreport

I am generally opposed to rent control and other subsidies. The market segments into two groups: those with money, and those who are poor and have the right connections. The middle class, and the poor who lack the connections and experience to navigate the system, end up far worst off. Those with connections stay because they have the rent controlled property, even when they would ordinarily move to a better life elsewhere. Then there is corruption in access to rent control.

by SJE on Oct 12, 2012 2:42 pm • linkreport

Why don't they just make it into green space. DC is crowded enough already. I think more parks and trees would be better than more condos and buildings.

by aitor hanabella on Oct 12, 2012 3:15 pm • linkreport

@SJE, I was able to find a rent controlled apartment in DC (in an area better than I was looking for) just from conducting my search online, and I make less than 50% of DC area median income. Unless you are saying that's not the norm, not sure how that would be corruption in access, or what that means operationally. I certainly didn't use connections to get it. Wouldn't the remedy to that sort of behavior be more transparency/enforcement action, not an end to the subsidy?

by David on Oct 12, 2012 3:42 pm • linkreport

Would the land be better used as affordable housing or would it be better for DC to sell the land to the highest bidder and use the money to improve educational opportunities and job training for residents. Is it better to give someone a fish or teach them to fish? Is it better to give people physical capital (housing) or human capital (skills)?

by Falls Church on Oct 12, 2012 5:30 pm • linkreport

Is Section 8 30% AMI ? I thought it was 40%.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 12, 2012 7:56 pm • linkreport

David, I am most concerned about what happens long term. Rent control seemed like a good idea in NYC after WWII. Decades later, not so much.

by SJE on Oct 12, 2012 9:34 pm • linkreport

Rent control reduces the incentive and the means of property owners to build more rental units and maintain current ones. Also, when new units are constructed it's in the developers interest to start out rents as high as possible as they will be unable to adjust them to the market for decades to come.

We also have many laws in this city which allow unscrupulous tenants to squat in properties for months without paying rent and those costs end up being passed on to everyone else.

I would definitely be interested in seeing more articles dealing with these issues and a reexamination of our current system which doesn't seem to work very well for anyone.

by Doug on Oct 17, 2012 2:45 pm • linkreport

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