Housing Complex

Affordable Housing Advocates Should Talk About Land Use, Too

Renter pain, graphed. (DCFPI)

The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute is out with another report showing—as if you didn't already know—that the rent's too damn high in Washington. They did a similar analysis back in 2010, and the latest data is even more striking: Despite all the development that's been going on over the last decade, there are half as many apartments that cost less than $750 per month than there were in 2000, and three times as many that cost more than $1,500. It's the same story on the homeownership side. The number of homes valued at less than $250,000 has dropped by 72 percent, while the number valued at more than $500,000 has doubled.

In one sense, that's evidence of a healthy economy, since property values are rising. But it's also a fundamentally unbalanced one, in which the private market is catering to a class of people who can afford the best.

Of course, DCFPI isn't just issuing this report for informational purposes. It's budget season, and they're masters of creating the right statistics for advocacy groups to repeat over and over again in the halls of the Wilson Building. As such, their solutions focus on more public investment in programs like the Housing Production Trust Fund and Local Rent Supplement.

That's fair. I've talked about various aspects of why underfunding these programs is a problem: Homeless people have a harder time getting themselves housed, for example, and renters have a hard time preserving affordability in their buildings for the long term.

But more public subsidies aren't the only answer. The DCFPI report makes mention of the fact that housing in Washington is constrained by our height limits. It doesn't take that logic one step further to point out that there are lots of areas where D.C. limits its own capacity to build through low-density zoning. Just one example: The lot across from the Anacostia Metro station owned by Bethlehem Baptist Church, which I've mentioned before. It's zoned for low density mixed-use development, and most of the land around it is zoned for low-density residential—not the most restrictive zoning category, but hardly maximizing the area's potential. If a developer were able to build seven stories on that land, the numbers might start to pencil. Sure, the Zoning Commission has allowed exemptions for more density, but that's an incredibly time consuming and costly process that lots of people would just rather not put up with.

It's true, affordable housing people were the driving force behind inclusionary zoning, and smart growth advocates are getting to agitate more forcefully for the city to require developers who want public land to incorporate affordable housing into their proposals. But many developers avoid the public land process altogether, preferring not to deal with all the delays and frustrations. And affordable housing shouldn't be all about setting prices artificially low—it's also about letting builders build the amount of housing this city needs.

I asked the author of the report, Jenny Reed, whether she'd thought about the land use aspect of affordable housing. She said that she's interested in it—mentioning New York City's consideration of changing its zoning to allow for micro-apartments, which would be useful in D.C. as well—but hasn't done much research. It's time to do the research. You can't pretend to have a holistic housing strategy without addressing one of the biggest reasons why we don't have more of it.

UPDATE, 8:45 a.m. - An additional thought. I would venture to say that one of the reasons why it's difficult for affordable housing advocates to talk about things like upzoning is because it puts them on the same side as the building industry and landlords lobby, who tend to oppose them on issues like rent control and inclusionary zoning. It's a lower level of the macro fracture between economic development and economic justice people. The point is, this should be a place where the two sides make common cause with one another.

  • Colin

    Great post.

  • Richard

    Upzoning lots for the purpose of affordable housing also triggers the "community's" NIMBY response. I have experienced NIMBY fights within even the most progressive of communities. And, it's not just the fight against "poor people problems" in their neighborhood, communities also fight against increased traffic and other negative externalities of increased density unrelated to socioeconomics. The public process required under most zoning exceptions provides opportunity for impacted neighbors and potential neighbors in affordable units to be heard. It may be long and messy, but it can be valuable if conducted fairly, responsibly, and transparently.

  • RT

    One of the major distortions in the price of rental housing is that the presence of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of vouchers actually set a "floor price" for any rental housing of about $1050 (or more if there are more people in a household). It's basically the price up to which vouchers can be used for, so landlords set the prices accordingly. Those who don't qualify for vouchers yet can't afford those $1050-1250 rents are left out in the cold. There's also no "credit risk" with voucher tenants since the government pays the rent, while there is significant credit risk with working class tenants who have to pay their entire rent out of pocket.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Yes. The overall housing supply needs to expand. I suspect Lydia is right about advocates not wanting to make some strange bedfellows, but they don't really have a choice.

  • Dan Vizzini

    Upzoning is a public "giving" that should be balanced with a public "taking". Added height should be conditioned on the private provision of affordable units (both residential and commercial in mixed use projects), and a good neighbor agreement with abutting property owners and community organizations. This should be particularly so for transit-oriented projects located near transportation nodes (Metro stations, bus transit centers and highway interchanges.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    That's fine, but it would be tremendously helpful if those public elements required to achieve additional density were codified as a matter of right (e.g. do X for the community, and the development adds Z in density), rather than subjecting each individual parcel to the costly and time consuming process that we have today.

    A great deal of development will simply follow the path of least resistance. We should structure our regulations so that the outcomes we want are easier to achieve.

  • M

    There would also be more affordable housing if the city was more landlord friendly in reasonable ways. Right now it is so difficult to evict a bad tenant (one who is not paying or who is destroying the property) that I charge extremely high rents and am willing to let my property set empty rather than take a risk on anything other than a high-income tenant with stellar recomendations and credit rating. If I could relatively easily kick someone out in say a two month period for non-payment of rent or egrigious lease violations, I'd be much more willing to charge less (less risk for me) and take risks on tenants.

  • Graham

    I hear your points, yet why do you stop at density/land use? If you can have building density, why not allow tenant density? Creating a smart plan that doesn't create slum conditions and that allows more than 2 people per bedroom (perhaps with a cap) could allow more poor people to make choices to share costs afford better housing in better neighborhoods.

  • Phil

    The only way to get more "affordable housing" is to build more, not let ANCs, historic preservation boards, and other organisations block development. Rent control, stabilisation, and required minimums actually increase market rents and push people out.

  • Hillman

    The DC Fiscal Policy Institute's answer is ALWAYS more taxes.

    Morning coffee get cold? More Taxes.

    Sun not shining? More taxes.

    Worth noting also that they fail to even consider suburban housing in their analysis. I really fail to see why not.

    Perhaps because it would give them a result they didn't like.

    Also, in their recommendations, they fail to mention the biggest issue stopping developers of all sizes (from the small English basement owner to the mega developer).

    That issue is crime.

    There is a TON of developable land in NE, SE, and even NW. And of course PG County.

    But the crime prevents people from utilizing these areas.

    Their approach is FAR from holistic. In fact, it's sortof the opposite of that. It is cherry-picked data designed to support their continued existence as an advocacy group, and it doesn't address either suburban opportunities or crime in the city.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    The other policy proscription is portfolio investment and holding of property by nonprofits committed to maintaining affordability. As the article in yesterday's Post makes clear, relying on the market to provide affordable housing is a loser's game.

  • wylie coyote


    Taxes aren't even part of this particular discussion, nor is housing outside of DC (you'd need to notice the first two letters in the DCFPI acronym to see why). You wouldn't expect the DC Chamber of Commerce to have information about small businesses in West Virginia, specialization is not inherently bad (and, in fact, generally is beneficial).

    As for crime, what does that have to do with an affordable housing discussion? Crime, if anything, keeps rent artificially low in high crime areas. I've never heard anyone argue that reducing crime could also reduce rents across an urban area, that is patently absurd.

  • luke

    Height does not equal density. Tall complexes often have lower FARs than townhouse complexes.

    Height definitely doesn't equal affordability. Tall buildings can't use wood in their structural construction, making them much more expensive. Tall buildings in DC always have to include a parking garage, making them vastly more expensive than, say, a 4 story apt disguised as townhouses.

    The definition of 'affordability' changes over time. Why not just argue that since the 1800's DC has lost 100% of their housing stock available at less than $20 per month? In the past ten years HUD has documented a 30% increase in the Area Median Income in the DC area. That is median, not average. That implies that you should be comparing the availability of $750 rents in 2000 with $1000 rents in 2012. (inside the linked report you'll notice that the median rent tracked from $735 to $1100, roughly along with median income).

    Sometimes things are expensive because they are expensive. Perhaps the author might do some research before glibly pronouncing that someone else has not done enough.

  • Hillman


    DCFPI is presenting affordable housing as a social and justice issue.

    As such it's stupid for them to ignore the fact that you can literally go 1/4 mile into MD and find plenty of affordable housing.

    But then that sortof kills their entire holy crusade, doesn't it?

    And crime is absolutely part of the equation.

    Yes, crime keeps some rents artificially low.

    But if you were able to tackle crime wholesale in all parts of DC the sheer amount of marketable rental property (and new home ownership possibilities) would almost certainly bring prices down and create opportunity.

  • Pingback: Rezoning for Affordability? | The SurRealEstate

  • http://westnorth.com Payton

    Some years ago, I worked in affordable housing in Chicago at the time that the city was rewriting its zoning ordinance. There were several encouraging dialogues with developers about reducing parking requirements, making zoning more predictable, preserving subsidized housing, ensuring long-term affordability, and creating appropriate incentives for inclusionary housing (which took a while, but eventually happened).

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  • beegirl

    See how Arlington focuses on both financing and land use to support affordable housing:

  • http://www.PerformanceUrbanPlanning.org Hugh Pavletich

    Check out the Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey http://www.demographia.com .

    Housing should not exceed 3 times annual household incomes.

    If it does, this clearly illustrates that there are planning / political impediments to its supply that need to be dealt with.

    Affordable housing should be seen as a "nonsense issue" because the problems and solutions are well known. Its simply a matter of "following the numbers" to ascertain where the problems are and a clear definition of an affordable housing market is available at http://www.PerformanceUrbanPlanning.org .

    Hugh Pavletich
    Co author - Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey http://www.demographia.com
    New Zealand

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