Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Affordable Housing

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In its attempts to provide affordable housing, DC has struggled to set clear goals

In 2006 and 2012, DC set clear numbers for how many affordable housing units either needed to be built or needed to be preserved by a specific date. In both cases, there wasn't enough data to actually track progress, and the goals fell by the wayside. Today, there still isn't a plan for providing affordable housing for everyone who needs it.

Advocates and District officials often find themselves jumping from crisis to crisis. At Museum Square, for instance, residents are scrambling to prevent landlord Bush Companies from evicting half of Chinatown's remaining ethnically Chinese population, after tenants (and many District officials) were notified of Bush's plans via demolition notices.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute wrote in a 2015 paper, "While there have been some very important successes, the lack of a coordinated, proactive policy for [affordable housing] preservation has led to many missed opportunities, resulting in the loss of whole communities to sale [and] large rent increases."

Meanwhile, too many DC residents don't understand how big the problem of affordable housing is. They hear about crises like Museum Square, but are left to cobble the bigger picture together through disparate facts like "there are over 70,000 families on DC's affordable housing waitlist," or "there are effectively zero market rate units left in DC that are affordable for low-income workers."

Here is an overview of the District's past targets, and some ideas for new ones.

There have been attempts to set clear goals and stick to them

Two-dozen representatives from District agencies, local housing nonprofits, and research organizations helped author a 2006 report that then-mayor Anthony Williams commissioned. At the time, developers were starting to pour money into new projects west of the Anacostia River; DC's housing problem in Wards 1-4 was less that development dollars were scarce, and increasingly that the new projects were raising rents, making it hard for low-income families to stay.

District leaders and the authors of the 2006 report were beginning to realize this, and they set these goals:

  • Produce 55,000 new units by 2020.
  • 19,000 of those units should be affordable (7,600 below 30% of AMI; 5,700 between 30-60% of AMI, and another 5,700 between 60-80% of AMI).
  • In addition, preserve 30,000 currently affordable units.
  • Adopt a local rent supplement program and reach 14,600 households.

Of course, goals don't matter if nobody takes them seriously.

In 2007, Mayor Fenty appointed Leslie Steen as "housing czar" to implement the 2006 plan. She was supposed to cut through red tape and coordinate the many District authorities that touch on affordable housing, including DCHD, DCHFA, DCRA, DMPED, and DCHA. But she ended up being marginalized within the administration, and ultimately resigned in frustration.

In 2007 and 2011, Alice Rivlin wrote two follow-up reports; she praised the District's progress on some fronts, and basically threw up her hands on others; in 2011, nobody had the data to track progress towards the 2006 targets.

Another report was released in 2012 under the auspices of the Grey administration, and laid out these goals:

  • Preserve 8,000 existing affordable units.
  • Produce and preserve 10,000 net new affordable units by 2020 (I couldn't find a detailed AMI breakdown for these 10,000 units).
  • Support development of 3,000 market rate units by 2020.

Grey made a public commitment to reach the "10 by 20" goal, but since 2012 talk of these goals has faded. The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development has worked hard to get the District to commit to an investment goal: $100 million a year in the Housing Production Trust Fund. But Mayor Bowser has yet to adopt specific goals for the number of affordable units she wants to preserve and produce.


Mayor Bowser announcing affordable housing initiatives in January of last year. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Setting numerical goals might be worth another look

If we establish another set of city-wide goals, they must be clear, and we must be able to track progress towards them. Such goals could accomplish at least two things:

  • Helping focus our collective efforts. Once we've agreed on a set of targets, we can get creative with solutions. Maybe it's up-zoning some parts of Ward 3; maybe it's strengthened Inclusionary Zoning, maybe it's more preservation and accessory dwelling units. (If we set respectable goals, it'll probably require some combination of all of the above).
  • Having a clear, public goals can help District residents hold their government to account. We could ask, "Why are we missing our targets?" We cannot ask that question now.

Here's an example of a measurable goal, just as food for thought: "The District should have no net loss of affordable units, relative to our current stock and distribution of affordability."

So if we have 40,000 units affordable to people who make below 40% of Area Median Income, we should still have that many in 2030. That's a clear goal, which the public could use to hold their representatives accountable.

An equally clear, less conservative goal might be, "The District should ensure that 30% of its total rental units are affordable to people making below 40% of AMI."

Today we're closer to having the data to track progress towards city-wide goals. The Urban Institute, in conjunction with the DC Preservation Network, has compiled currently available records (you can find a report from December here). The city's trying to improve its own data collection.

Clear goals and stringent data collection have helped the District come close to ending veteran homelessness. As Kristy Greenwalt, head of DC's Interagency Council on Homelessness, told the City Paper, "In the past, there was no systematic approach. We're in a very different place now, so we can actually track what's happening and why."

Goal setting alone can't build or preserve housing, and planning isn't execution. But without precise goals, it's hard to know if we're falling down or making progress—ensuring that new people can move to DC, existing residents can stay, and low-income people can live close to good jobs, schools, and public amenities. A comprehensive, strategic solution to our housing crisis begins with knowing what it would mean to win.

Links


National Links: From Florida to California

Miami is moving forward with big transit plans, Connecticut towns have a unique model for building affordable housing, and many have trouble seeing LA as urban because of how car-centric its past is. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Humberto Moreno on Flickr.

Sunshine State expansion: Six rapid transit projects are now part of Miami's Metropolitan Planning Organization's long range plan. Many of these lines have been in previous plans, but they're now being made top priorities, which bodes well for their future completion. (Miami New Times)

New Affordability, CT: Cities in Connecticut are required to have 10% of their homes be affordable. If that isn't the case, developers can effectively ignore the zoning code as long as they build 30% affordable. This has led wealthier communities pushing for affordable housing. (New York Times)

Dirge for dingbats: The "dingbat," an infamous Los Angeles architecture form that's basically just a box-like apartment stuck on top of an open carport, is slowly disappearing for more aesthetically pleasing, dense, and safe structures. Are they worth restoring and preserving? (LA Weekly)

Edge City redux: Outside of Miami, the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades make it so there isn't space to keep sprawling out, so buildings are going upward. Translation: Urban city centers are going up in the suburbs. (The Economist)

LA through #nofilter: Many still see Los Angeles as an ugly ode to cars and endless concrete, even as the city shifts toward becoming more traditionally urban, dense, and walkable. Why? It's hard for people to see beyond LA's built origins as a car-centric city. (Colin Marshall)

Uber exit: Uber is threatening to leave Houston if the city does not repeal regulations that require drivers get fingerprints taken and go through a licensing process. The company has already left three cities in Texas and is threatening to leave Austin as well. (Texas Tribune)

Tashkent trams: The capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, is shutting down its tram system. Opened in 1912, it is one of the oldest in central Asia. A lot of locals say the city is losing both a convenient and green form of transport, and a piece of its charm. (BBC)

Quote of the Week

"The idea is that by using a cryptographically secured and totally decentralized authority that can work at the speed of a computer, we should be able to keep power distribution, water treatment, self-driving transportation, and much more from ballooning beyond all practical limits as cities continue to grow." Graham Templeton on using Bitcoin Blockchain to run smart cities. (Extreme Tech)

Links


National Links: Hillary talks housing

Hillary Clinton is articulating her vision to help Americans with housing, what happens when people making decisions about transit don't know what it's like to depend on it, and a look at where row houses fit into the national landscape. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Veni on Flickr.

Hillary's housing hopes: Hillary Clinton wants living near quality jobs, schools, and transportation to be easier, and she's making affordable housing part of her agenda. Her proposal would boost funding for both programs that help people buy homes as well as public housing. (Virginia-Pilot)

Get the board on the bus: Given how much they influence how people get around, perhaps transit board members should ride the busor at least know details about the system they work on. Some recent applicants for the DART Board of Directors in Dallas are clueless when it comes to transit-oriented development and taxpaying riders. (Dallas Observer)

Reliant on row houses The row house is the workhorse of dense older cities around the country, but it's becoming less popular. It's possible that row houses could be the "missing middle" that can help address the country's housing needs. (Urban Omnibus)

Questioning King Car: Cars are a large part of American culture, like it or not. But they also cost a lot of money, time, and lives. Since September 11th, 2001, over 400,000 people have died in automobile collisions. Is that a worthwhile price to pay for convenience? (The Atlantic)

Bridges of Amsterdam city: Amsterdam has far more canals and bridges than the average city, but only one bridge runs across the large river that separates the more industrial side of the city from where most people live. There is a tunnel and a number of ferries, neither of which is idea for walking or biking. But as more development happens and free ferries are overwhelmed, a bridge may be the next step. (City Metric)

Struggling city streams: In the midwest, streams in urban places are rare. Detroit, for example, has lost 86% of its surface streams. That worries ecologists because streams regulate water flow and keep wildlife healthy. (Great Lakes Echo)

Are we building boredom?: Buildings designed like boxes are bad for us. Research shows that human excitement wanes on streets with boring facades, causing stress that affects our health and psychological wellbeing. (New York Magazine)

Quote of the Week

"I think it's important to remember that these are serious crimes with emotional consequences. It's interesting nonetheless to watch how burglars use architecture, but that isn't enough reason to treat them like folk heroes." - Architecture writer Geoff Manaugh discussing his new book, A Burglar's Guide to the City in Paste Magazine.

Development


At a hearing on DC General, opposition runs the gamut from rational to prejudicial

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has a plan to close DC General and put smaller homeless shelters in all eight wards of the city. There's a lot of opposition, ranging from concerns about shelters going up in dangerous places to positions that seem more about keeping poor minorities out of certain parts of the city.


Photo by Kai Hendry on Flickr.

Everyone agrees that the decrepit DC General Family Shelter needs to go; it's notorious for being a place where families and children share space with mold, mice, raccoons, and bats, along with geysering water mains and collapsing, leaky ceilings.

Bowser's plan is to distribute the 250 beds at DC General across sites across the city, each holding a maximum of 50 people. Over 150 citizens, non-profit leaders, and activists packed the Wilson Building for the DC Council's Thursday, March 17th hearing on the shelter plan. There were over 90 public testimonies over 13 hours, a level of engagement that underscores how much emotion and outrage there is on the matter.

At this point, there are two clear camps: Those who have enough concerns about Bowser's plan that they don't think it should move forward, and those who acknowledge it to be imperfect but who think it should.

The plan doesn't have to be perfect, say supporters

Among the supporters was a group organized by the Washington Interfaith Network, including pastors, citizens from across many wards, and former residents of DC General themselves.

"If everyone nitpicks this proposal," said a former DC General resident, "I am concerned that this plan will fall apart, and DC General Family Shelter will still be standing with families living in horrible conditions."

Councilmember Jack Evans shared the same sentiment in his opening remarks, saying "What I don't want to leave here with, what I don't want to happen today, is that we end up doing nothing. And that is a real possibility."

Opponents present factual and "veiled" arguments

Some people, however, aren't sold on the plan. A number of attendees followed a formula that's familiar for development projects of all kinds, raising concerns about mismanaged taxpayer money, a lack of transparency in the process, and worries about the buildings' designs.

One key argument against it comes from Ward 5, where the current proposal location is in an industrial area, surrounded by a bus depot, strip clubs, and no easy-to-access public transit. Residents, advocacy groups, and Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie all seriously questioned placing 50 some families in such a place.

Other arguments also have some legitimacy. Some of the units are surprisingly expensive, and many of the developers getting contracts are largely known Bowser backers.

But at the hearing, some of these concerns seemed closer to having roots in excluding "other" people from living in certain neighborhoods. Many people started statements with something like, "I am not against homeless people moving into my neighborhood, but...," which Councilmember Elissa Silverman referred to as "veiled challenges."

Other opponents left less up for interpretation: "The same problems that are at DC General are going to be moved across the street [from us]," said one witness.


Inside DC General. Photo from Homeless Children's Playtime Project.

In April, the DC Council will vote on how to move forward.

The issue of how to replace DC General has brought about themes and arguments that commonly surface any time a new development with new housing becomes a possibility for a DC neighborhood. Sifting through moral cover and deflections, as well as veiled attempts to keep "those" people out, is all too familiar territory. Those of us working to reshape a city that historically has warehoused people in overcrowded shelters and on blighted, ignored blocks should take note, and prepare for future hearings.

History


DC tried fixing its housing shortage by building tiny houses... in the 1880s

Last fall, DC Councilmember Vincent Orange proposed building 1,000 "tiny houses" for low-income residents and millennials, but the idea drew wide criticism as being "gimmicky" and potentially discriminatory. What many don't know is that Orange's initiative wasn't the first time District leaders sought to solve big housing problems with small houses.


Tiny houses in DC. Photo by Inhabitat on Flickr.

In Washington's earliest years, alleys housed horses and privies. As African Americans began streaming into the city during the Civil War, most alleys were converted to residential uses and many small wood shacks went up. These quickly became overcrowded and concerns about disease and crime followed.

Between 1872 and 1878 nearly 1,000 houses in Washington's alleys were condemned, with housing reformers and public health activists pushing to clear out these blighted, crowded, and "insanitary" spaces. But in 1878, Congress re-organized the District government by creating the commissioner system. Unlike the earlier government, the reconstituted Board of Health lacked the authority to condemn insanitary buildings.

That led to a return of tiny houses in alleys. In 1890, the Washington Evening Star described the concentration of poor people in DC's alleys as a result of increasing property values. Small houses in alleys created housing for Washington's poor and profits for the city's real estate speculators, the paper reported.

Critics assailed the move as pandering to influential real estate speculators. "Construction of houses in the alleys promised profits," James Ring told Congress in 1944. When he was speaking, Ring was the administrative officer for the National Capital Housing Authority, and the Senate was holding hearings on extending a deadline to vacate Washington's remaining alley dwellings.

What Ring said next about the period between 1880 and 1892 is important: "There were philosophically inclined persons who sincerely believed that well-built little houses in the alleys were far better socially than insanitary alley shacks."

Ring went on to describe a construction boom in Washington's alleys, what he called "a very active period of buying and selling the rear ends of street lots."

In a 2014 the DC State Historic Preservation Office published a survey of alley buildings, along with a history of their development. Architectural historian Kim Prothro Williams wrote that the 1880s construction boom simply replaced small insanitary wood buildings that lacked indoor plumbing with small insanitary brick buildings that lacked indoor plumbing.


1880s house in Naylor Court, just east of 10th Street NW. Photo by the author.

Washington's first tiny house movement ended in 1892 when Congress passed a law prohibiting construction of new houses in alleys less than 30 feet wide and lacking sewage connections. The Washington Post astutely observed that the new health laws would have an immediate impact on the city and its growing suburbs. "Cheap abodes for the poorer class of people within the city limits will no longer be obtainable," the paper reported in April 1892. "Facilities will, therefore, have to be found for transportation to the suburbs, where the man drawing a moderate salary can own a lot, build a comfortable home, and then be able to reach it."

Fast forward 100 years to a Washington that is increasingly unaffordable, with a growing population, and which is struggling with finding ways to reduce reliance on the automobile. The roots of these contemporary urban ills may be seen in the solutions for nineteenth century problems.


Row of houses built in the 1880s, Snow's Court in Foggy Bottom. Photo by the author.

Orange's tiny houses proposal could mean Washington may be coming full circle to embrace the benefits of housing and economic diversity. Though the Washington City Paper compared the potential outcome of Orange's proposal to the creation of new fangled Hoovervilles—"Orangevilles," a columnist called thema more apt comparison would be to housing that was widespread in Washington nearly a century before the Great Depression.

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