Gray Signals Shift to “Demand Side” On Affordable Housing
There wasn't much news in Mayor Vince Gray's press conference today announcing the new Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force—finally—which is required to by law update the one from 2006. Thirty four people from the worlds of advocacy, business, and government will deliver a report by this fall, which is a pretty quick clip (until you remember that it was supposed to have been issued at the end of last year).
Sniping about timeliness aside, it was clearly a shift in focus from the traditional conception of what an affordable housing strategy means. Gray came out of the gate strong on jobs—10,000 of them, in fact. That's a direct contrast with former mayor Adrian Fenty's drive for 10,000 units of affordable housing. Which makes sense, given the Economic Times; it's a lot easier these days to beg employers to hire local than to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to building apartments for low-income folks.
The jobs focus, though, is bleeding into the housing strategy. As outlined in a concept paper by D.C. Housing Finance Agency CEO and task force co-chair Harry Sewell, Gray kept talking about the "demand side" of the housing equation, or helping people keep up with the higher cost of living here. "If we don't focus on the demand side, we'll never have enough supply, because we'll have customers who can't move past their economic circumstances," he said. Many of the task force members, he emphasized, were chosen for their ability to provide supportive services that would help people move up and out. The other co-chair, Forest City Washington president Deborah Ratner Salzberg, even said that the demand side focus was what convinced her to accept the appointment.
That means jobs and education, sure. But it also means shifting people who already receive benefits out of the system to make room for others, as I explain in my column this week—emphasizing that public housing is a temporary privilege, not an indefinite right. Without legal time limits, that's hard to do. "It's easier to finish Capper Carrollsburg than it is to do this," says D.C. Housing Authority director Adrianne Todman, naming the HOPE VI public housing project that ran out of money before all the units that got demolished were built back. "Because it's getting folks past a comfort zone of what people have right now."
Understandably, housing advocates get jumpy when politicians start to stigmatize dependency on public housing (kind of like how the staunchest pro-choice activists squirm when lawmakers say abortion should be "rare"). In this case, as long as the "demand side" doesn't substitute for aggressive creation of new supply, it's probably a good thing to bear in mind.
Photo by Lydia DePillis