When Washington, DC, officials unveiled a major report on housing equity last fall, they did so at an unassuming, one-story bike shop located in the city’s posh Tenleytown neighborhood. This quiet district of single-family homes lies seven miles northwest of the Capitol, and the location was meant to send a message: the shop was all that was left of a plan proposed several years ago that would have added much-needed housing to the neighborhood. After fierce opposition from nearby residents, the developer scratched the mixed-use development.
Tenleytown and the other wealthy neighborhoods that make up Rock Creek West are home to the fewest affordable homes and apartments in the city—by far. Of the nearly 52,000 affordable housing units citywide, just 470 are in Rock Creek West, the city’s report found. Conversely, roughly half of the affordable housing stock (more than 25,000 units) is located in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, across the Anacostia River.
The point of the report, says Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood, is to lay out the current landscape for housing so that future construction doesn’t simply continue to concentrate affordable housing in lower-income neighborhoods.
“There is a reason we are where we are” when it comes to the location of affordable housing, he says. “Some of that has been through reactions to opposition, some of it has been through policy. The reasons why we’re here today haven’t gone away. But what we’re trying to do is change the discussion.”
The report sets a goal of adding 12,000 affordable homes and apartments citywide by 2025, with the largest share—nearly 2,000 units—going in Rock Creek West. Capitol Hill, another high-cost neighborhood, is targeted for 1,400 affordable units. The city plans to meet its goal by enabling new construction, preserving affordable housing set to soon expire, and converting market-rate homes and apartments into permanently affordable housing.
Mayor Muriel Bowser has set an overall housing goal of 36,000 new units within the city by 2025. Those numbers are based on an analysis by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which found the metro area (which includes suburban areas of Maryland and Virginia) needs 320,000 housing units by 2030 to keep up with population demands. As if that weren’t ambitious enough, the council called for 75 percent of the units to be affordable to middle- and low-income families.
Like many hot-market cities, Washington is struggling with a housing affordability crisis. The region is expected to gain about 413,000 new jobs between 2020 and 2030—but only 245,000 new housing units over the same period. A recent study found that 220,000 families across the region could be forced to leave their homes in the coming years as housing costs rise. At play are zoning density restrictions, gentrification, and transit connectivity needs that combine to either concentrate poverty in smaller areas or simply price low- and middle-income families out altogether.
As cities like Washington, DC, seek to create affordable housing, they are increasingly mindful that where they build matters as much as the number of new homes. For decades, government affordable housing programs focused on creating as many affordable homes as possible. That often meant selecting lower-income neighborhoods, which tended to have fewer regulatory barriers to development and less organized opposition from residents.
“One of the biggest mistakes the field made was when they went to build affordable housing, they did it in cheap areas,” says Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Senior Policy Analyst Jessie Grogan. “It ended up further concentrating poverty.”
In an effort to reverse that process, the Obama administration created a new rule in 2015 requiring cities that receive federal housing funds to take active steps to reverse longstanding patterns of segregation. The rule, called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), built on 1960s civil rights legislation that bars overt discrimination in the housing industry (which is still a problem today). The new rule is now in limbo, and a dozen states and cities—including Washington, DC—are fighting to reinstate it. But DC’s plan to combat segregation shows that governments can still embrace the rule’s principles even in the absence of federal backing.
The District’s method of setting specific housing goals by neighborhood is one such approach. Philadelphia is studying an eviction crisis that has plagued lower-income neighborhoods; during 2017, one in 14 renters faced eviction. Kansas City wants to distribute Section 8 vouchers more evenly, with the goal of breaking up concentrations of poverty in the region.
But studies and reports are ultimately the first step in what will be a difficult process. It’s one thing to say that housing in a city is unfair, as 60 percent of residents in Washington, DC’s most affluent ward did in a citywide survey last year. But it’s another thing to support a project in the neighborhood. In 2016, for example, Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly approved a tax increase to provide $1.2 billion for 10,000 units of new housing for the homeless. But development stalled for years because of a requirement that developers receive a letter of support from the local city council member. Now the project is running behind and is more expensive than expected.
DC’s goals are soft targets. Trueblood says they are designed to get the city on a “trajectory” of more equitable affordable housing distribution by 2050, as outlined in the Council of Governments report.
“It’s a lot to overcome, but the city seems to have come to a point of ‘enough is enough,’” says Alex Baca, housing program organizer for the economic development nonprofit Greater Greater Washington. But adding affordability to a part of the city where home prices regularly top $1 million is an expensive proposition. It all comes down to whether the administration is able to find political backing for the cost.
“I’m heartened to see the Bowser administration taking this seriously,” Baca adds. “But actually doing it is going to mean reducing funding for other things, and that’s where the mayor is going to have to use her power.”
Looking ahead, Trueblood says the funding and cost estimates for the program are still being worked out, but the city expects to include it in next year’s budget. The administration also plans to use planning and zoning incentives to encourage the development of affordably priced units in the city’s most expensive neighborhoods. One of those tools, an expansion of the city’s inclusionary zoning policy, will increase the density allowed in a development if the developer builds more affordable units.
Currently, the district requires 8 to 10 percent of the residential floor area be set aside for affordable rental or for-sale units, but the new policy is expected to include additional incentives for developers willing to go up to 20 percent, says Trueblood.
To him, the case for housing equity can be summed up in one stark statistic via the city’s most recent health equity report: the difference in life expectancy between the city’s richest and poorest residents is 15 years.
“It might mean hard conversations with residents who want their neighborhoods protected,” he says. “But we’ve seen how our housing policy and resident outcomes have worked so far—and we need to think in a structurally different way.”
Liz Farmer is a fiscal policy expert and journalist whose areas of expertise include budgets, fiscal distress, and tax policy. She is currently a research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute’s Future of Labor Research Center.
Photograph: Rendering of a proposed mixed-use development in Rock Creek West, a wealthy area of Washington, DC. Credit: Valor Development.