Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Affordable Housing


DC's inclusionary zoning could start serving poorer households

No one policy or program will fix the District's affordable housing crunch. But later this month, one program that creates new affordable housing is poised to get a facelift to better serve low-income households.

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

On January 28, the DC Zoning Commission will look at tweaking inclusionary zoning, one of the main policy tools the District uses to generate new affordable housing units.

When new condos or apartments are built in DC, inclusionary zoning requires 8-10% of them to rented or sold more affordably, and only to people making under a certain income (today, 50-80% of area median income). In return, developers can build a few extra market rate units in order to offset the difference in overall cost.

Inclusionary zoning creates these new affordable units without subsidies from the Housing Production Trust Fund or other scarce public resources. That's in contrast to most other programs, like direct investment in new housing, affordable housing preservation, or voucher programs.

DC adopted its inclusionary zoning policy in 2006 and finalized regulations in 2009. The first units arrived on the market in 2011. Now more than 1,200 permanently affordable inclusionary zoning units are on the market or in the pipeline.

Inclusionary zoning targets low, not very-low income households. That's good.

Inclusionary zoning tends to best serve below-market, but not extremely below-market households. In other words, it helps people for whom housing is too expensive, but not way too expensive.

That's because the price gap between what very-low-income households (30% AMI) can afford and market rates is simply too great for zoning tools alone to bridge. But low-income households (50-80% AMI) also need help from affordable housing programs, and inclusionary zoning helps these households without spending down scarce affordable housing subsidies.

Ideally, DC would create as much affordable housing as possible through inclusionary zoning and other off-budget policies like trading public land for affordable housing, because they do not have a direct financial cost to the city.

That would free up as much affordable housing subsidy as possible for very low and extremely low income families, who by far face the greatest housing challenges.

Except today, prices are a little too high to help these target households

Today, DC's inclusionary zoning only requires that developments in high rise zones provide affordable units to serve households earning 80% area median income (AMI).

That's a little too expensive. While the 80% AMI price is below-market in some DC neighborhoods, it is close to or above market rate in others. Moreover, 80% AMI (calculated for the region, and almost $70,000 annually for a two person household) is above DC's Median Household Income ($64,267).

Today, 8 out of 10 DC inclusionary zoning units are produced at 80% AMI. Compared to successful programs in other cities, thats's too high. An Urban Institute report noted that other with similar programs set affordability levels for rental housing between 55 and 70% AMI.

The report indicated that DC should consider following San Francisco's ownership income targeting of 70% AMI. 70% AMI is also the standard for similar inclusionary zoning in Montgomery County.

After a long wait, the DC Zoning Commission may lower the affordability requirement

In early 2015, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, Jews United for Justice, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, People's Consulting, Somerset Development, City First Homes, and PolicyLink formally petitioned the Zoning Commission for changes to the inclusionary zoning regulations.

Since the Zoning Commission relies on staff and analytical support of the Office of Planning, it has waited for OP to fulfill its request for recommendations on potential revisions. Now, almost a year later, the Zoning Commission will consider these proposed changes (Zoning Case # 04-33G) and counter-proposals from OP.

The main changes the Zoning Commission will consider are:

  • Increasing amount of affordable units in inclusionary zoning projects from 8-10% (now) to 12%
  • Similarly increasing the density bonus from 20% to 22%
  • Changing the AMI requirements to 60% AMI for rental units and 80% for ownership unit
  • Making it easier for the Mayor or DC Housing Authority to buy inclusionary zoning units to lease to low- and very-low income households.
You can read the exact proposed changes and text amendments in this Zoning Commission Notice of Public Hearing.

Proponents of the proposed changes to inclusionary zoning are organizing supporters to attend the Zoning Commission hearing and speak in favor of the changes. The hearing is January 28 at 6:30pm, at 441 4th St NW, Suite 220-south.


A new Florida Ave development is getting more affordable units than originally planned

Plans for the much-discussed development at 965 Florida Avenue NW now include 129 affordable residential units, almost 18% more than earlier plans. The additional housing may alleviate some concerns over whether the DC government made the best deal for the site.

Rendering of 965 Florida Avenue. Image by MRP Realty and Ellis Development Group.

The planned 10-story mixed-use building includes 428 apartments, with 30% set aside for the District's inclusionary housing program, leaving 299 to be rented at market rates. The affordable component includes 32 units for households that make up to 30% of area median income (AMI) and 97 for households making up to 50% of AMI.

DC will auction off the affordable units to households through its inclusionary zoning lottery. Households must register for the lottery by providing documents proving that their size and combined income meet the AMI requirements.

AMI for a household of four in the Washington DC metropolitan area was $107,300 in 2013, according to the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. Using this number, a household making up to $32,190 would qualify for 30% of AMI units and one making up to $53,650 would qualify for 50% of AMI units.

The previous proposal for 965 Florida included 107 affordable units out of 352 planned in the new building.

More units but still just 30%

While there will be more affordable units, the developers, MRP Realty and Ellis Development Group, are also building more apartments overall. That means the percentage of below-market units at 965 Florida isn't going up.

The 30% number follows a bill by Ward 5 councilmember Kenyan McDuffie requiring that 20% to 30% of residential units built as a result of public land deals are included in the District's affordable housing program.

Questions have been raised over whether the District made a poor deal when it agreed to sell the 965 Florida site for just $400,000 and a 30% affordable unit commitment from the developers when the plot was reportedly worth $27.6 million if sold outright.

Some argue that DC could have created more affordable dwelling units by selling the plot and using the proceeds to build below-market units elsewhere in the city.

Others point to the fact that the project guarantees that affordable housing will be built in one of the city's most popular, transit-oriented neighborhoods rather than just on its fringes.

The debate has died down somewhat since the DC Council approved the deal in September.


Not building enough housing is morally equivalent to tearing down people's homes

According to the California housing champion who's suing communities that don't allow enough new development, not building needed density is morally equivalent to tearing down people's houses.

Photo by .Martin. on Flickr.

Sonja Trauss, founder of the SF Bay Area Renters' Federation sums up the housing problem affecting nearly every growing American city today:

"Most people would be very uncomfortable tearing down 315 houses. But they don't have a similar objection to never building them in the first place, even though I feel they're morally equivalent. Those people show up anyway. They get born anyway. They get a job in the area anyway. What do they do? They live in an overcrowded situation, they pay too much rent, they have a commute that's too long. Or maybe they outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced."
Trauss hits the key points: The population is growing, and people have to live somewhere. If we refuse to allow them a place to live, that's just like tearing down someone's home.

Someone else is displaced

Trauss' last sentence is particularly important. It explains how the victims of inadequate housing often are not even part of the discussion. She says "Or maybe [home buyers] outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced."

Here's how that works: One common argument among anti-development activists is that new development only benefits the wealthy people who can afford new homes. That's wrong. It's never the wealthy who are squeezed out by a lack of housing. Affluent people have options; they simply spend their money on the next best thing. Whenever there's not enough of anything to meet demand, it's the bottom of the market that ultimately loses out.

Stopping or reducing the density of any individual development doesn't stop displacement or gentrification. It merely moves it, forcing some other person to live with its consequences.

Every time anti-development activists in Dupont or Georgetown or Capitol Hill reduce the density of a construction project, they take away a less-affluent person's home East of the River, or in Maryland, or somewhere else. The wealthy person who would have lived in Capitol Hill instead moves to Kingman Park, the middle class person who would have lived in that Kingman Park home instead moves to Carver Langston, and the long-time renter in Carver Langston gets screwed.

As long as the population is growing, the only ultimate region-wide solution is to enact laws that allow enough development to accommodate demand.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


In some places, living near Metro has become more affordable

Washington-area neighborhoods in walking distance of Metro are wealthier and whiter than their surroundings, according to a new Census Bureau study. But for many places outside the District, living near Metro has become more affordable.

How earnings of workers who live near Metro and elsewhere have shifted. Click the image for definitions. Tables from the Census Bureau.

Working at the Census Bureau, Brian McKenzie can see data that privacy rules keep from other researchers. His new research paper is chock-full of interesting data.

McKenzie was able to compare surveys taken in 2006-08 and 2011-13, and compare DC residents to those who live in the five-county area of Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's. Using the individual addresses of people who have jobs and answered Census surveys, he separated those who live on street blocks within a half-mile of Metro stations from those who live elsewhere.

This isn't a perfect way of identifying who can walk to the train, but it's far superior to what other researchers have been able to do.

Among McKenzie's key findings is that more people are living near Metro, and more of them are riding the transit system. In five years the number of workers in walking distance of a station rose 23%. The working population living farther from Metro increased just 5% region-wide, and dropped slightly in the District. Over 15% of the region's 1.8 million workers, including a majority of the 321,000 who live in DC, now have a short walk from home to Metro.

The data also show the increasing use of non-auto transportation, cycling even more than transit. This trend is strongest among DC residents who live near Metro. Although this population is growing rapidly, the number of drivers among them hardly changed, so that the percentage who drive to work alone plummeted from 30% to 25%.

Transit use in this group increased from 57,000 to 72,000, and the number of bicycle commuters soared from 3300 to 7900. Trends among other demographics are similar in direction, but slower.

Trends in travel mode to work.

The most widely noted finding of this study is the increasing affluence and whiteness near Metro. This, however, is essentially a DC phenomenon. In the surrounding counties, the income spread between walk-to-Metro housing and elsewhere is, if anything, shrinking.

All ethnic groups grew in absolute numbers near non-DC Metro stations; the share of both whites and blacks declined as Asians and Hispanics moved in faster. And where the percentage of these counties' residents with income over $100,000 was 2.1% higher near Metro than elsewhere in 2006-08, the difference fell to 1.7% five years later. Most other income groups show a consistent pattern of shifts.

Because these changes fall within the margin of error, it's not clear whether the difference between incomes near Metro and farther from it is really closing, but the gap is not growing wider as it is in the District.

New apartments and inclusionary zoning have helped with affordability

Why hasn't Metro-accessible housing in the outer counties become less affordable? Most of the credit undoubtedly goes to the smart growth zoning that has opened up stations in Montgomery and Arlington Counties to new apartment construction. Builders there are required to include a percentage of more affordable units in new construction. And while newly built market-rate apartments in Bethesda or Clarendon aren't cheap, they are (with the occasional exception) less expensive than the single-family houses nearby.

The District, meanwhile, lagged behind in enacting inclusionary zoning and then stalled on implementing it. And it has allowed little new construction near Metro in the upscale neighborhoods west of Rock Creek.

Demographic and cultural change may be the motive force behind shifting living patterns, but public policy makes a big difference in how things play out.


High costs are a big reason people move away from cities. But sometimes, they just want to live somewhere else.

A lot of writing about housing in DC says minorities, immigrants, and low-income people are being pushed out of the city due to high housing costs. That's true for many. But even if the District were more affordable, some may not choose to live there. And that'd be okay.

A street festival in Long Branch. As suburban communities become immigrant hubs, more people move there by choice. All images by the author.

People decide where to live based on a variety of reasons, like housing costs, where they work, the type and style of housing they want, or schools. Another factor is cultural or ethnic ties: people may choose to locate near family or friends, faith communities, or shops and hangouts that serve their community.

This trend isn't new in the DC area. Long before the District's economic boom, the area's minority and immigrant communities had established roots throughout the region: Blacks in Prince George's County; Central Americans in Langley Park; Ethiopians in Silver Spring, Vietnamese in Seven Corners, and so on.

Like many DC-area immigrant communities, Ethiopians have moved out of the District.

As these communities developed a critical mass, immigrants to the region bypassed the District altogether. Some minority and immigrant groups have even moved farther away from the District: for instance, the Korean community in Annandale is shifting to Centreville, 15 miles west.

That may have something to do with lower housing costs. But it also may have to do with the desire to live in a suburban place. I've seen this firsthand as a first-generation American from a Guyanese immigrant family. Many members of my mother's generation, who emigrated to and grew up in Columbia Heights and Petworth during DC's worst days, left even as the city improved.

Our family isn't wealthy; my relatives are cab drivers, mechanics, and shop owners. But they didn't leave because DC was too expensive. It was that my relatives wanted to live in communities like Hyattsville and Fairfax, where they could get a house with a yard and a car while remaining close to the neighborhoods they already had social ties to.

However, that doesn't mean that non-white communities have no interest in urbanism. As a professor at the University of Maryland ten years ago, Dr. Shenglin Chang found that Latino and Asian immigrants to the United States wanted to live in suburban communities like what they saw in American popular culture, but with walkable, compact places where they could be close to family and friends. That's a big opportunity for communities like Rockville, which has a large Chinese population and is building a town center around its Metro station.

It's great that people in the District and other close-in communities are thinking about rising housing costs. Making it more affordable to live closer-in, near transit, jobs, and shopping, means stronger neighborhoods, less traffic congestion, and less environmental damage. It also means that more kinds of people can live in the District. But it's not a guarantee that the District will become more diverse.

After all, the District contains about 10% of a region with nearly 6 million people. People have lots of choices on where to live, and many of them are taking advantage.


Silver Spring's old police station could become new artist housing

Three years ago, Silver Spring neighbors proposed turning an old police station into artists studios. Now, it looks like they might get their wish, along with new housing for artists.

The police station today. Photo from Google Street View.

Minneapolis-based developer Artspace wants to turn the old 3rd District Police Station on Sligo Avenue in downtown Silver Spring into artist work space, in addition to adding 68 apartments in a new, four-story building and 11 townhomes. Artspace builds artist housing and studio space around the country, including developments in Brookland and Mount Rainier.

In the proposal, a new apartment building would wrap around the old police station, forming an "F" shape. The lawn in front of the police station on Sligo Avenue would become a public, partially paved plaza, while a rear courtyard would give the residents private open space. To the east, eleven townhouses would sit along Grove Street, with an alley and parking lot in back.

The proposed plan. Image from Artspace.

For artists to move in, they need a place to live

Montgomery County vacated the 1960's-era police station last year after a new one opened in White Oak last year. In 2012, a proposal to tear down the police station and build townhouses met opposition from neighbors in the adjacent East Silver Spring neighborhood, which with nearby Takoma Park has had a long history of attracting people in the arts.

Neighbors and architects Steve Knight and Karen Burditt wrote an op-ed in the Silver Spring Voice saying that the building should become an arts center modeled on the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, and that the green space around the building become a community garden.

At the time, I suggested that the arts center idea would only really work if there were also artist housing, since people who make art for a living often have a limited income and may not be able to afford close-in, urban neighborhoods like Silver Spring.

The county eventually did reach out to Artspace, and officials announced the projectearlier this year. While neighbors were initially skeptical of any housing on the site, the East Silver Spring Civic Association unanimously voted to support this project.

Artspace building in Mount Rainier. Photo from Google Street View.

It's great that neighbors are okay with building some townhouses here, considering how other Silver Spring neighborhoods fought building them. They're a great option for households who need more space than an apartment but less than a house—especially in Silver Spring, where most housing is either high-rise apartments or single-family homes.

We don't know what the units will look like on the outside, but hopefully they'll incorporate high-quality materials and be designed to look good on all four sides, since the backs of the townhouses will face the plaza.

Overall, the project looks like a great compromise. Neighbors get an arts center that allows them to showcase their work and some open space. Artists get studio space and housing they can actually afford. And the community as a whole gets a new gathering place in the form of a public plaza.

Artspace's plans will go to the Montgomery County Planning Board for review December 17.


More DC residents are worried about housing costs than ever

Housing is a major worry for District residents. A majority say that rising prices might force them to move out of the city, according to a recent Washington Post poll.

Photo by the author.

Buried a recent headline about the racial difference between whether residents felt welcome in what some have come to think of as the "new DC"—the Post's headline was "Poll: White residents in D.C. think redevelopment helps them. Black residents don't."—was this statement about mobility:

Overall, the poll found that 56 percent of District residents say that housing costs would force them to the suburbs if they had to move, an increase from 48 percent in a 2011 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
Rising prices are making it harder for current residents to stay near the economic opportunity that's in the District, and for new residents to move toward it. That's a scary thought for any place that wants to retain the idealism and ambition that drive its progress.

This isn't a new problem, but it's getting much worse over time because demand keeps growing faster than supply. If we could build more housing units—and build them more densely—there would be room in the market for someone to offer places to live even for people with modest budgets.

People moving to the suburbs is also, of course, troubling from a smart growth perspective. If we can build enough to accommodate more residents (and we can), why are we at a point where a majority of DC residents feel like the best move is out toward the sprawl?

Another interesting poll finding: DC voters apparently care more about housing than transportation. 21% of DC voters say housing or gentrification should be mayor's #1 priority, vs. 4% in 2011. Only 8% answered transportation.


Not all the housing in a region costs the same, despite what headlines imply

We often see headlines about the most expensive cities in America, where writers look at the average or median price for renting. But by zeroing in on a single number, those reports doesn't always paint a complete picture of affordability.

Graphic by the author. Click for an interactive version.

I developed an interactive graph where users can explore how many people are living in neighborhoods (in the graph above, I looked at ZIP codes) of differing prices.

Measuring a city's rent with the median—the middle number in a series of numbers—is useful for quick comparisons. But in only using one number, we lose valuable information about affordability because we ignore the variation in prices.

While the median rent for the entire DC census-designated urban area is about $1500, some areas are cheaper (the 20010 ZIP code, containing northern Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant sits around $1250) and others are more expensive (20016, the Palisades, is at $1800).

In the interactive graph, the X axis measures rent and the Y axis measures the percent of the city's population living in a ZIP code where the median rent is less than X. For example, in the chart above, we see that 60.5% of Houstonians live in a ZIP code where the median monthly rent is no more than $999. The further a city's series is to the right, the more expensive it is.​ You can read more about the technical details here.

According to this data, DC is one of the most expensive urban areas in the US. (This is consistent with the area-wide median rent figure, which is higher than that of most cities.) There's a clear shortage of affordable areas: only about 6% of DC-area residents live in a ZIP code where median rent is less than $1000. That's slightly worse than other expensive places, like the Bay Area (7%) and NYC (9%), and considerably worse than more affordable cities, like Chicago (57%).

What do you notice in these graphs?

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