JACK NOLAND, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
It has been a long winter. The falling snow makes for a lovely view from the windows of GW’s warm, well-appointed residence halls. For D.C.’s homeless, however, winter means hardship even beyond the everyday struggle of destitution. By last count, the city has 6,859 people living without homes, an incomparably tragic facet of life in D.C. today. In truth, these numbers miss the entirety of D.C.’s housing problem, which goes much deeper.
This is a city that has seemingly been stuck in dichotomy – being the seat of the federal government and a major metropolis, white and nonwhite, rich and poor. It has been difficult for the community and government to bridge the gap between these two sides of D.C. There is a serious poverty problem here, and its effects are both rooted, and most manifest in the lack of affordable housing across the district.
There are over 70,000 names on the waiting list for D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) assistance, and as of April 2013, that number has been capped. This aid can come in the form of public housing or through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, with which low-income individuals receive rent assistance to live in private buildings. Thus far, these programs have largely failed D.C. residents because there are still so many without homes for themselves and their families.
Market solutions are political infeasible at best, and economically impossible at worst. At long last, D.C.’s minimum wage is set to rise to $11.50 per hour by 2016, up from $8.25. This is a victory for lower-, and middle-class workers around the district, but unfortunately, it will do little to help curb housing costs that have continued to rise. For a family of four to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the market-rate, they need to earn a whooping $27.15 per hour. For single-parent households, or those where only one can work, this may be an impossible proposition. The district cannot rely on minimum wage increases alone to mitigate this problem. Systemic changes must be made to the amount and quality of housing in the District.
Stagnant incomes have made soaring residential prices more expensive across the district in real terms, something made all the worse by the diminished market for affordable housing. According to this report, the percentage of low-cost units has been halved in a decade, from almost 50 percent in 2000 to “just 24 percent of total rental units in 2010,” a “decline of 51 percent” of low-cost apartments in general. Minimum wage increases may help to alleviate income stagnation, but housing remains untouched by such changes.
The poor are becoming poorer, while being simultaneously priced out of an ever-costlier market. In 2010, “the typical low-income rental household spent 69 percent of income on housing,” or more than double the 30 percent that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets as the “standard measure of affordability.”
There have been several attempts at reform thus far. In 2008, the District implemented the Inclusionary Zoning Affordable Housing Program, which stipulates that new residential developments of at least 10 units, or renovations with a 50 percent increase in size, must now include 8 to 10 percent of units priced at low- or moderate- income rates. In accordance with these standards, to build its Square 75 development, GW has agreed to renovate three derelict townhouses on F Street. This will produce a total of 7,209 square feet of affordable housing for those earning 80% of average mean income (AMI), priced at a maximum of 35% of household income at that level. Citywide, the program has struggled, with the first unit not rented until July 2013. More IZ developments are expected, but Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) proposes that the affordable unit threshold be set at 20-30%, a figure echoed in a 2012 report from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
The Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), through which D.C. provides grants for affordable housing development, serves as the District’s main means of expanding residential options for lower-income people. In his “State of the District” speech, Mayor Gray pointed to a $187 million investment into the HPTF and the goal of building 10,000 affordable units by 2020 as examples of current reform efforts.
These investments could be further augmented as the Mayor, McDuffie, and Council Chair Mendelson have declared that 50 percent of future budget surpluses would be allocated to the HPTF. While financial details and mandated reserves may push this allotment back, at the very least, it shows the city’s commitment to affordable housing growth.
ONE DC, an community-based activist organization seeking to promote the needs of low-income and minority residents, argues that these changes are not enough. The current allotment would only fund 2 percent of the needed affordable units for people earning less than 30 percent of the District’s AMI. Empower DC, another important local group, has also worked extensively on mobilizing and informing residents of their housing rights to create collective change from within the community itself.
Overall, D.C. must make affordable housing a key part of any long-term plan for growth, through dependable, increased funding. While the investments in the HPTF are important, the program’s financial allotment is primarily based on deed recordation and transfer taxes, and can fluctuate based on economic circumstances. Funding must be made more secure to ensure that development will not simply bottom-out during downturns, when affordable housing is needed most.
The District must also focus on the maintenance and renovation of existing structures to prevent displacement and nurture existing communities. Vacant properties owned by the city should be considered primarily for affordable housing developments, before they can be auctioned to developers. Inclusionary Zoning and mixed-income developments should also be encouraged, especially as a means of developing neighborhoods with better socioeconomic integration, to help bridge the disparities in wealth and poverty that have come to characterize D.C.
Finally, home ownership should be made a priority through increased funding for the Home Purchase Assistance Program, especially as “the number of low-value homes has fallen by 72 percent” from 2000 to 2010. Helping D.C. residents to buy houses will aid in creating lasting, multigenerational communities and spur institutional development in neighborhoods across the city. This is key, according to the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, which also points to the Local Rent Supplement Program and the Permanent Supportive Housing Program as vital means of assisting those with very low incomes and the chronically homeless. Several groups with varying incomes across the city need a stronger commitment to affordable housing, which illustrates exactly how widespread this issue has become.
The lack of affordable housing in D.C. is not a problem that will go away overnight. The District needs to focus on developing and preserving housing for low- and moderate-income residents to make lasting and worthwhile inroads toward bottom-up economic growth and an overall reduction in poverty. Snapping this city out of its perpetual winter will require bringing all of its residents out of the cold. Safe and secure housing is key to the success of communities, and D.C. must strive to provide for all of its citizens.
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