Housing Complex

“Affordable Housing” Isn’t Just Taxpayer Cheese

Not very affordable housing.

D.C. political commentator Chuck Thies thinks all this talk about high housing costs is just so much bellyaching. As far as I can tell from his recent column, he's arguing that since most of the people getting jobs in the District are young and childless, they should just go live in the cheaper suburbs. He concludes:

I’m all for making sure senior citizens are not displaced. As well, working families and single parents with roots and jobs in the District should be given a fighting chance to prosper here.

But taxpayers should not be asked to spend a dime on affordable housing for young, single residents without children. There are plenty of market rate solutions to their housing concerns. They come in the form of suburbs, group homes, roommates and sacrifices.

There are a bundle of misconceptions here. 

One: That it's simply "many young people" who are complaining that the rent's too high, and that they refuse to live with roommates in group houses, and that it makes much more sense for them to just go live where housing is cheaper. I'm not sure how many young people Thies knows, but most the ones I know do live in group houses, and if they don't, it's a choice they make to live a certain lifestyle—when you're unencumbered by kids or a car, living in a place within walking distance of your social world is worth spending more than half your income on rent. Besides, living in the suburbs isn't as cheap when you factor in transportation, and long commutes are bad for your health and the environment.

Two: That groups like the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute advocate subsidizing those whiny young folks. Couldn't be further from the truth! The Coalition for Non-Profit Housing and Economic Development is largely focused on the poor and long-term residents whom the market isn't serving—through programs like transitional housing for homeless women, single-room-occupancy facilities for men going through drug treatment programs, or rental assistance for families on the Housing Authority waiting list (which, at 37,000 families long, is not something a transient yuppie is going to wait through).

Three: That "affordable housing" is all about taxpayer dollars being spent on somebody else's living expenses. Yes, we often understand the term as applying only to below-market-rate housing paid for by public subsidies. But our market rate housing stock could and should be more affordable for more people, too—no city should roll over and accept that its young, mobile residents must leave in order to survive. And the District isn't like every other city: It has perhaps the biggest mismatch between supply and demand, since building heights are capped by federal law and further restricted by zoning (much more so than in New York City). In D.C., developers are building luxury stuff because there's demand, but also because land is expensive, and they can only build so many units, so each unit must be higher-priced in order for them to recoup their investment.

It's not a bad thing that developers are building expensive housing. All those wealthy people generate more tax revenue that can be directed into helping the less fortunate cope with the rise in property values caused by the construction of luxury housing. But it only works if the city is able to accommodate more housing for everybody, whether allowing for taller buildings or smaller lots or the legalization of accessory dwelling units and English basements (we're at least doing the last two).

Of course, transportation, public safety, and neighborhood amenities like parks and grocery stores play a role in this too—there are affordable neighborhoods that people with some means don't consider viable because you have to leave them to get basic necessities. The point is, the District needn't give up those people, nor lose the ones who've lived here forever. The rent is very much too damn high, but it doesn't have to be. That's what a comprehensive housing strategy is all about.

  • http://www.nbcwashington.com/blogs/first-read-dmv/The-Rant-On-Rent-150875955.html chuck thies

    Lydia,

    I'm pretty sure I didn't say that all the young childless folks who work in DC should move to the suburbs. What I said was if housing costs are a burden, consider options that include the suburbs. And commuting doesn't have to be cost prohibitive.

    Also, I didn't express any concern that taxpayer funded affordable housing initiatives would be benefitting "whiny young folks." Why? Because I din't think I needed to explain the obvious.

  • DC Resident

    I think you both missed the most important issue: There IS affordable housing in DC. The real problem is that most young people want to live, as Lydia points out, in close vicinity to their social network. Unfortunately, a lot of working young people think that means Adams Morgan, U Street, Dupont, Georgetown, etc. One way to impact affordable housing is to help build up neighborhoods like Brookland, Atlas, Convention Center, Shaw, Navy Yard, and please, East of the river. Of course we all know about H street and Navy Yard, but the City needs a public and multi-pronged approach for the other areas. Most critically, the City should focus on creating an economy of scale for entertainment and leisure around the other metro stations and, at the same time, invest heavily in changing the perception of some neighborhoods. For example, Anacostia has tremendous potential for being a vibrant multi-cultural neighborhood that exemplifies the social and economic potential of DC. But the Metro station is somewhat isolated from the downtown area, is plagued by crime and the current political leaders have done nothing but stoke racial division for their own political benefit. Affordable housing in DC isn't just a simple market issue, as you both discuss. Racial and socio economic divisions have created false boundaries that exclude much of DC housing stock from working professionals. A plan for development of a safe and walkable community in Anacostia is just one example. And contrary to popular belief, there ARE ways to develop a community while protecting longtime residents from the oft noted ills of gentrification. If we work on that, we won't have to argue about the suburbs...choosing between the staple neighborhoods of Northwest and the suburbs is a false choice.

  • Non e Mus

    Mr. Thies,
    I am clearly missing something. In your comment you say that you did not express any concern that taxpayer funded affordable housing initiatives would be benifitting young singles (the "whiny young folks"). But in your opinion piece you said "taxpayers should not be asked to spend a dime on affordable housing for young, single residents without children." Advocating against taxpayer money funding affordable housing for young singles is clearly expressing a concern that taxpayer funding will be benefitting young singles. You have a right to your opinion but it is what it is.

  • ModerateonHousing

    @DC resident - I think ms DePillis addressed that in her last paragraph. A three pronged approach is called for - lessen the impact of zoning regs that limit supply - improve neighborhoods to allow more choices - and ensure that programs are in place to share the benefits with existing residents, especially lower income residents who do not own property. Mainly there needs to be coalition building among folks advocating for all the above.

  • ModerateonHousing

    "What I said was if housing costs are a burden, consider options that include the suburbs. And commuting doesn't have to be cost prohibitive."

    are you at all familiar with the suburbs? Housing within walking distance of a metro is at a premium in all but a handful of the closer in SUBURBAN metro stations - and several of the ones where it is not, are ones where it is particularly difficult to walk or bike to metro. For young people wanting to save money by going car free, there aren't many great undiscovered places in the inner suburbs.

  • Non e Mus

    It's true that complaints about the lack of "affordable" housing are never about an absolute dearth of options but rather about a dearth of options in the limited number of areas that the person will consider living in. Hence the "sacrifice" called for in Thies' piece. Building up other neighborhoods may be a solution. But typically, building up a neighborhood in DC is defined as adding market rate housing, which attracts business that cater to those who can afford to pay market rents. You don't hear about plans to develop a neighborhood by creating affordable housing.

  • zteutsch

    Great piece!

  • Adam L

    Chuck is a blowhard. He can get away with saying things like "Many of the young folks who I hear complain about housing prices do so at happy hour while drinking a $7 beer, tweeting from their iPhones and making travel plans to go to New York for the weekend" without it causing much of a stir because most people don't view such language as promoting false stereotypes.

    If he wrote a column about black people complaining about the high cost of housing in DC and replaced buzzphrases like "$7 beer" and "tweeting from iPhones" with equally insulting black stereotypes, Chuck would be looking for a new job and rightly so.

  • Judith Claire

    Young people can start out simple and when they get a pay increase -move up. Lots of houses are availible with rooms for rent.Misconceptions of "bad" neighborhoods hold people back. Visit lots of neighborhoods...Old Anacostia is a wonderful neighborhood with great Metro and bus service. There are several lower income buildings in SW DC just blocks from Waterfront Metro.One can't have everything all at once ( at least that was true in the old days!

  • SEis4ME

    If he wrote a column about black people complaining about the high cost of housing in DC and replaced buzzphrases like "$7 beer" and "tweeting from iPhones" with equally insulting black stereotypes, Chuck would be looking for a new job and rightly so.

    I'm confused. Did he say something about "white people" or "young people." Why do think that having an Iphone, going to NYC and drinking $7 beer is something white people do? That's odd and your manufactured outrage is ridiculous.

  • drpolisci

    I am a 60 yera old female who happens to work for the city. I am looking for affordable housing that I can afford to pay on my salary. Contrary to what a lot of folks think not all city employees make six figures. Many of us are struggling just like the citizens we assist in our jobs. My rent accounted for 61% of my take home pay. That does not leave a lot leftover to pay school loans, transportation, food, etc. If I am having such a problem I know the folks that make minimum wage or a little more doing jobs that cater to the needs and wants of the mobile young folks are struggling everyday. Elected officals really have not addressed the issue of affordability beyond saying, "I support affordable housing."

  • Adam L

    @SEis4ME

    He specifically targets young people in his article for complaining about the cost of living. And young, childless people at that. Given the recent other controversy concerning iPhones, Twitter, expensive bars and the like (see: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/bestofdc/peopleandplaces/2011/best-new-political-label), I read between the lines to infer that Thies also probably would include "white" in his description.

  • eli

    Does Chuck think everyone should subsidize people having too many kids too young? What about someone with no job experience who has 4 or 5 kids? Should they expect to have housing provided by the city (ie other people's tax dollars)? This is the most Republican thing I have ever said. But I surely wonder how he decides who is worthy of assistance and who isn't.

  • ModerateonHousing

    @judith claire

    Im not young, but Ive visited Old Anacostia, and I'd be leary of my daughter moving there. I'm pretty sure the crime stats support that.

    Its not a matter of having everything all at once - its a matter of removing artificial constraints to housing supply that keep housing more expensive than it has to be (that is for the young single folk - poor families may need more than that)

  • Hillman

    Fix the crime in DC (and PG County) and you would have literally miles of decent affordable housing.

    Yes, in some areas it would then get more expensive.

    But the sheer mass of housing stock in these high crime areas is astonishing, and would more than absorb all of our affordable housing needs.

    But no. We don't take crime seriously. We incarcerate people for idiotic tiny drug offenses, but spend very little on actual crime prevention (like surveillance in public housing complexes, etc.).

    We have only ourselves to blame.

  • SEis4ME

    I read between the lines to infer that Thies also probably would include "white" in his description.

    And that's the inherent problem with your "what if it were a black stereotype" analogy. Thies never said anything about white people. So obviously, you (not Thies) believe the stereotype and are only projecting that foolishness onto Thies.

    Fact, there is no apt "black" comparison.

  • ModerateonHousing

    "but the sheer mass of housing stock in these high crime areas is astonishing, and would more than absorb all of our affordable housing needs."

    That housing stock is currently vacant?

  • ModerateonHousing

    so it wasn't a stereotype about white people, but about young people. still dealing in stereotypes, and not treating people as individuals, or listening to what they have to say.

  • Hillman

    Moderate:

    A surprising amount is.

    And a lot more could be produced pretty easily. Both with major developments and with the idea of an English basement suddenly being a profitable thing to develop as a rental.

  • Mrs. D

    I've managed to be a first-hand witness to what has happened to "places young people live" over the last several years. When I moved to DC several years ago, in a decent-but-entry-level job, I set a budget of 35% of my income for total housing costs, and went apartment hunting. I looked at a couple dozen places, some nice, some not so much, all in nice neighborhoods close to Metro and social activities (and work). I found something that I thought met my needs relatively easily.

    The very next year I set about looking for a new place after having some troubles with the place I was living (hidden MAJOR problems). I ended up staying where I was, despite the problems, because rents had increased at least 10-20% in just that year, many times on the same places I had looked at the year before. MY landlord wanted a 15% rent increase from me (fortch, woman couldn't read a lease so I got out of paying it). She got an 18% rent increase when I moved out the next year. 2 years, crappy apartment she spent NO money on, now 18% more expensive! Entry level salaries did not increase 18% in those 2 years. A total of 6 years after I first moved in, equivalent apartments in the same area are listed on Craigslist for upwards of 60% more than I paid. I'm talking about your basic 1 bedroom english basement/in-law suite/small apartment building/converted row house here...no swimming pool, no fitness center, no concierge...definitely small, probably a little leaky/drafty/run-down, and may have pest problems if you're not careful. Today, those apartments would cost me over 45% of what I was making back then, and over 42% of what someone doing the same job I had makes today. What had been affordable to the oh-so-hated "young newcomers" has become unaffordable, at least without help.

    But I do agree with many of the commenters here: make nice but unknown neighborhoods and neighborhoods with lots of potential more attractive, in order to stabilize rents and provide more "affordable" housing opportunities for ALL of the city's residents. The only reason (many) people would be willing to spend that much of their income is because they don't think they have a choice. So let them know about their choices, and make those choices more realistic...

  • ModerateonHousing

    "And a lot more could be produced pretty easily. Both with major developments and with the idea of an English basement suddenly being a profitable thing to develop as a rental."

    If its hard to induce whiny 24 year olds to move to areas with reputations for high crime, I think the odds of gettig developers to build costly projects (which, unsubsidized new housing being as costly to construct as it is, will necessarily be pricey - go see what new major developments in places like Huntington metro in Fairfax go for) in areas with poor schools, repuations for high crime, and quality of life issues, is something of a tall order. Its easy to risk millions of someone else's money.

    And if English basements make sense, then why not liberalize rules on accessory dwelling units and so forth in areas that are already considered more desirable?

  • ModerateonHousing

    "But I do agree with many of the commenters here: make nice but unknown neighborhoods and neighborhoods with lots of potential more attractive,"

    oh cmon. Many of the areas where the "rent is too high" now ARE the unknown neighborhoods of 20 or 25 years ago (H Street? Really?!?!) And thats been accomplished with much gnashing of teeth, as the transformation wrought by the whiny and unsubsidized 24YOs has displaced the "deserving" poor families, elderly, etc. The transformation neighborhood by neighborhood will happen whatever we do, but it will NOT solve the problems Lydia raises, of overall supply constraint (which makes things costlier than they need to be for the whiny 24YOs) and the difficulty in keeping poor people (which matters to SOME as part of keeping the District what it is, but apparently not so much to others). I think Lydia is right - a COMBINATION of densification measures (as the smart growth community advocates) AND measures to help the poor (which the affordable housing community advocates) and of course, continuing to address issues like crime and schools that have strong but indirect effects.

  • Hillman

    Moderate:

    I absolutely agree about the accessory dwelling unit thing.

    Many cities are rediscovering alleyway dwellings as viable, eco-friendly alternative.

    It's absolutely stupid that we have all these neighborhoods with serviceable carriage houses but we aren't allowed to make them rental units.

    Simply absolutely stupid.

    Yes, the argument is that that means you lose parking.

    So what? Neighborhoods are generally at capacity parking anyway.

  • Hillman

    Moderate:

    I don't think high crime scares kids these days. They don't remember how DC used to be, and they seem to think it's cool to be living 'on the edge'.

    And they don't care about crappy schools.

    You raise a valid point about most new development being expensive.

    But there is absolutely a market for mid range to lower cost housing. If the land is cheap enough developers will develop less expensive rental housing. Granted, not all will be less expensive, but in theory even more pricey granite-countertop living options means there is saturation of the market and rental rates should go down overall.

    But I think a LOT of the potential would be from the proverbial English basement or three or four unit existing building. A lot of people have undeveloped English basements. They don't do anything with them now because the rent doesn't really justify it.

    But you raise that rent from $500 to $1000 and suddenly it makes sense.

  • Drez

    So, building more housing is good but building more roads is bad?
    Okay. I can get on board with that. But, please, don't pretend the law of induced demand applies unequally. Attractive safe housing will be expensive in dc. The deferred demand greatly outstrips any realistic ability to build to match it.

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/cavan Cavan

    Mr. Thies refuses to acknowledge that the challenges facing the present young adults are very different than the challenges that he faced in the 1970's and are completely different than anything that any young people have faced in anyone's living memory except for the few World War II vets we have left who are now in their 90s. They had to find a place to live in the Great Depression during a time when no one was building new housing because the aftermath of a financial crisis similar to the one we face in our current time.

    If you look back during the Great Depression, many young adults either stayed with their parents and/or delayed marriage (not as much as today but most certainly by the social norms of the day) and/or lived in boarding houses, the predecesor of today's group houses. The cost of housing was very high for the time and conditions were cramped. (I pray to God every day that we don't have to fight in a horrible war like they did before we get to middle age.)

    Rather than lambasting today's 20 and 30-somethings for not being as successful as his generation, Mr. Thies should be thankful to be both born in a time that afforded him a childhood, a young adulthood, and a middle age in times of prosperity with a late middle age/retirement of relative comfort as the broad societal crisis unfolds. What he's seeing has nothing to do with anything he's ever experienced.

    His inability to understand or have sympathy for the situation that 20 and 30-somethings find themselves in DUE TO NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN is both disappointing and unsurprising.

  • ModerateonHousing

    "But you raise that rent from $500 to $1000 and suddenly it makes sense"

    You are envisioning 1000 a month rents for english basements in high crime areas of PG county (where even being near a metro does not equate to easy pedestrian access to the metro due to station and road layouts)??? My goodness, what does that imply for the structure of rents in the rest of the region? I would suggest that would be bad for would be renters people in higher brackets, and for the older lower income folks (people who can afford less per sq foot than the whiny 24YOs), that would imply terrible, substandard living conditions.

    Only a landlord, and a particularly greedy one, could really see that as a good outcome for the region.

  • crin

    Underpants gnomes.

  • Mrs. D

    Actually, I excluded the "Capitol Hill Extended" i.e., H St., Potomac apartments when looking for comps on what I used to pay, because that neighborhood was not desirable at the time. Including that in my search nets many units that are at a reasonable amount more (given some wiggle room for inflation) than I paid back in the day for "Capitol Hill Proper."

  • Mrs. D

    If only I could delete when I hit the wrong button...

    Actually, I excluded the "Capitol Hill Extended" i.e., H St., Potomac Ave., Stadium/Armory apartments when looking for comps on what I used to pay, because those neighborhoods were not desirable at the time. Including that in my search nets many units that are at a reasonable amount more (given some wiggle room for inflation) than I paid back in the day for "Capitol Hill Proper." Sure, they're now considered "desirable," but there are many other nice neighborhoods that aren't considered desirable. Brookland was mentioned, and I think that's a good example of a nice, safe, reasonably priced neighborhood that people aren't as willing to look at.

    Yes, densification is super important. Densification, particularly around under-used Metros, brings convenience not only to the Metro, but new services. Yes, new construction will always be more expensive than older buildings and accessory units. But densifying in the vicinity of existing, older units brings things that people want in a neighborhood. You're right that it's a multi-prong solution. But the point still stands that there are decent, affordable units for the "young folks" in the vicinity of Metros that they may just not consider.

    And, yes, protections for older residents and poorer residents should be implemented and enforced (to the extent that some already exist). We don't have a lot of turnover in my neighborhood, largely because it's a neighborhood full of homeowners and apartment buildings just big enough to be subject to rent control.

  • Nate

    There is plenty of affordable housing. As some have pointed out, it just isn't in the "hot" neighborhoods. I am a landlord. Most of my properties are not in the desirable neighborhoods.

    When I list a room for rent, most people that choose not to rent from me due to it not being near the bars and clubs. Not safety. Hence, many of these people prefer housing closer to the club even if it is not affordable.

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