Affordable Housing Advocates Should Talk About Land Use, Too
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.