Housing Complex

We Need More Housing. Lots More Housing.


We constantly hear about D.C.'s population growth—more than 1,000 new residents per month, as Gray administration officials are fond of reminding us—and the resulting threat to housing affordability. But what tends to get overlooked is the sheer challenge of actually building enough housing to accommodate all those new people over the next few decades.

A paper out today from George Mason's Center for Regional Analysis breaks down the numbers on the housing crunch and finds that we need to start building way more new homes in the region and the city. In the District, in fact, if we're to keep up with population trends, we'll need to build residential units more than four times as fast as we've been building them.

Over the next 20 years, the study projects, there will be 857,334 net new jobs in the D.C. region, and 148,507 in the District proper. That'll necessitate creating 548,298 new units of housing in the region, split about evenly between the next 10 years and the following 10 years.

If everyone who starts working in the District also lives in the District, then the city will need 105,240 housing units—about two-thirds rental housing, and about two-thirds multifamily (apartments or condos). Of course, many people will continue to commute into D.C. from the suburbs. If current commuting patterns persist—more likely, but problematic given the strains it'd place on regional roads and transit—D.C. will need 41,804 new housing units.

Just how difficult will it be to build that much new housing? Well, let's compare it to our recent housing construction. Since 1990, D.C. has issued an average of 1,169 housing permits per year. Between now and 2032, that figure will need to increase to 5,262 to meet demand. In other words, our housing construction over the next 20 years will need to be 350 percent greater than it is now.

It's debatable whether we're even capable of building that much housing. In a separate recent analysis, the Office of Planning forecast that the city has less than 30 years of development capacity under current zoning. In other words, if population growth forecasts are accurate and we don't change the rules governing where and how we can build, within 30 years we won't have any more space to add new homes or offices. As a result, the Office of Planning advocated raising the city's height limits by amending the Height of Buildings Act, the 1910 federal law that sets caps of D.C.'s buildings.

Beyond the question of whether it's actually possible to build all that housing, there's also the issue of affordability. The CRA study finds that the bulk of D.C.'s new owner-occupied housing will need to cost under $400,00o (in 2011 dollars) in order for the new workers to be able to afford it; nearly 15 percent will need to cost under $200,000. As for rental housing, the vast majority will need to cost under $1,750 a month, and 43 percent will need to cost under $1,250 a month. That would mean either significant city subsidies for affordable housing or a tremendous increase in the housing supply to bring prices down.

Of course, there's another possibility: that fewer new workers will be able to live in the District. But if the percentage of commuters increases substantially, that's bad in two ways. First, it'd overwhelm the region's roads and buses and trains, and would probably require major investments in new infrastructure. And second, it'd mean the city would lose out on many millions of dollars of potential income-tax and property-tax revenue, from workers for whom the city would still be paying for that infrastructure. As a result, it's very much in D.C.'s interest to try to find a way to house as many of the city's new workers as possible in the coming decades—if not through a change to the Height Act, then through higher-density zoning or another solution that'll allow D.C. workers to be D.C. residents.

Photo from the D.C. Office of Planning

  • ChrisB

    Maybe there's a limit to how many people can work and live in a given geographic area. Would it really be the worst thing in the world if some of the jobs and residents went to Howard or Prince George County? Or if the development shifted to Loudon or Western Fairfax? Or even Richmond or Baltimore?

    The vast majority of jobs, even those currently in DC, do not physically need to be in DC (or Arlington or Montgomery counties). Trying to cram more people into the same space, even with infastructure improvements, does not make the space more livable.

  • bettyjoan

    "the city will need 105,240 housing units—about two-thirds rental housing, and about two-thirds multifamily (apartments or condos)"

    I'm pretty sure you mean two-thirds and one-third, but not sure in which direction. Clarify/correct?

  • RetireCop70

    Do we really need more housing? Many of these condo's are not full also many people are buying for the investment value, living in them for less than five years and moving on. Downtown DC is no place to raise a family many of these residents are just passing through. What is needed in a downtown parking structure for the elderly, lazy, and those who just want to drive. I went downtown today for the first time in a while and it was hell Grid-Lock on every street. Construction everywhere, Idiot drivers, bikers, cabs, and pedestrians who don't know what "Don't Walk" mean.

  • tim

    Yeah, but if the region continous to sprawl outword, we lose the benefits of being a unified urban area. Cities are generally hubs of innovation and prosperity because of their dense clustering of jobs,people,etc. It is why DC has a more innovating food scene than Richmond, and why London or NYC have more innovative food scenes then us. If there are 3x as many people in the same area, you don't get 3x as much of the same place, you get more variety.

    With greater density comes more job opportunties. If you're a lawyer that lives in Prince William county it's going to be a pain to commute to a job in Howard County. But, if your a lawyer in the urban core think of all the job opportunties you have.

    Plus, it's not like DC is approaching Hong Kong density levels. Assuming DC builds those 105k units and they fill with 210k, the city's pop would still be not much bigger than in 1950 and have a density roughly similar to modern Boston and less than SF and well below low rise Paris.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/ Aaron Wiener

    @bettyjoan: No, that's correct. We'll need about 2/3 rental and 1/3 ownership, and about 2/3 multifamily (apartment + condo) and 1/3 single-family (houses).

  • Eponymous

    "If everyone who starts working in the District also lives in the District"

    Very, very flawed assumption. A good number of people will live in VA for the schools even if it is a soulless office park. Unless we can improve our schools in DC, we'll continue to lose a lot of growth to VA.

    That said, there's PLENTY of room for residential growth in DC still - at least as far as land area is concerned. The massive strip malls with surface parking lots along the RIA Metro station, as well as ongoing development around NoMA, could supply tens of thousands of units. And then there's Walter Reed, McMillan, Fort Totten, and lots of potential developments sites in SW, Navy Yard, and up Georgia Ave.

    Unfortunately, none of this development will be worth a damn if we don't improve Metro capacity and bike infrastructure. For example, can 10,000 more commuters fit on the red line at RIA Metro? Methinks not. WMATA needs to stop thinking small about expanding the system, or growth in the region will continue to sprawl endlessly - and public transit can never adequately service such a far-flung metro area. Not in any cost-effective way, at least.

  • LoganRes

    I think the city should require all new buildings to be built to their maximum allowable height rather than going shorter because of NIMBY reactions.

  • LookerAtNumbers

    "A good number of people will live in VA for the schools even if it is a soulless office park. Unless we can improve our schools in DC, we'll continue to lose a lot of growth to VA."

    While the study phrased it as "all new workers will live in the district" which is obviously unrealistic, it might have been better to phrase it as "the number of new district residents will be the same as if all new workers lived in the district" which is quite possible. On the one hand some new workers will choose to commute from the suburbs - but on the other hand, as congestion on commuting routes gets worse, some current commuters may choose to move to the District.

    As for room - yes and no. You are correct to list many potential sites. I will note that in Navy Yard there are now 4 buildings under construction, and two set to break ground in 2014. Buildout there is not far off. Ditto for NoMa. And McMillan won't be that many new residences, under the current compromise plan, IIUC.

  • dno

    A quote from the study citing the average housing units "needed" per year: "This level of residential construction has not been seen since 2006." Nothing went wrong then, right? Look, we're already adding residential supply at a pretty good clip as evidenced by the fact that average rents dropped a little this year despite the population growth. As others have pointed out there is a ton of development already in the pipeline and much more existing land that can be redeveloped more densely. If we were to add over 5,000 units a year, that would probably signify that our housing market is hugely overheated - the fall out of which can have bad consequences for many. Again, see 2006.

  • bettyjoan

    @Aaron Weiner - Thank you for clarifying, but I definitely did NOT get the information in your comment from the wording of the post itself. In the post, it just says "about two-thirds rental housing, and about two-thirds multifamily."

  • purify

    Does this study take into account the thousands of vacant units in the city? We don't have a housing shortage, we have a shortage of housing where people want to live.

    The District's affordable housing 'crisis' would be a lot tenable if we had safer neighborhoods that people felt safe in. As it is, everyone wants to live in NW and small pockets of W6 and the rest of the city because they don't feel safe in other areas. In those areas the vacant housing stock is plentiful and cheap.

  • E. Masquinongy

    Look EotR, which is built to 1950s suburban density -- and prices are affordable there.

    Raising the height limit seems to be an idée fixe here. There are better ways to increase density. Is this a pathology peculiar to planners? Can you please move on? Like the commuter tax, it ain't gonna happen.

  • StanislausBabalistic

    Came for a noodlez comment; left disappointed.

  • https://twitter.com/TommyWells/status/394937877345603584 @ShawingtonTimes

    What the Gray Administration and some other candidates (and snews media) conveniently fail to mention is that as the District grows by ~1k residents, that's simply a net value; Honest Tommy Wells acknowledges that as new primarily younger well heeled residents move into the city, ~3k residents, primarily the poor, ethnic minorities, singles/LGBTs move out of the city — making a fair amount of housing available (for landlords to jack up the rents for the unsuspecting newbies!).

    via: ‏@TommyWells
    @ShawingtonTimes @TommyWells2014 @Dizzyluv25 @maustermuhle I assume those leaving are African American, middle to lower income.
    2:25 PM - 28 Oct 13

  • Eric

    These numbers are ridiculous. Looking at the history of population growth in DC, it's quite clear that there are peaks and troughs, most noticeabley aligned with the growth of the Federal Government. Right now we're in a peak ( following the expansion of the National Security apparatus after 9/11 and several wars - not dissimilar from the growth of DC following the Civil War and World War 2. As this boom declines - and we're already seeing that decline as National Security jobs get rolled back due to any number of things (sequestration, distance from 9/11 and the end of wars in Iraq & Afghanistan) - the population growth figure will taper off. NO WAY do we continue growth at 1000 souls a month indefinitely. Although it may stay higher than it normally would due to private sector growth and investment in the city, the Federal Government is still the primary driver of growth and jobs in the city, and as the Federal Government goes, so does DC.

  • LookerAtNumbers

    " As it is, everyone wants to live in NW and small pockets of W6 "

    20 years ago the parts of NW that are now trendiest (Logan Circle, Col Heights, Petworth, etc) and the "pockets of ward 6" (Navy Yard, NoMa, H Street, Hill East) were not much better, in crime or desirability than the EOTR areas you mention.

    There are three possible sources of new housing EOTR that could accommodate the growing work force. A. Existing vacancies B. Vacant land that could be built on C. Displacing existing residents (many of whom are not in the work force, or who do not earn enough to out bid a surge of new residents)

    How many actual vacant units are there? What shape are they in? How costly will it be to convert them into desirable units?

    I suspect most of what will happen EOTR will be brand new units (see Sheridan station, proposals for Congress Heights) or displacement.

    Certainly it would be good to improve public safety, and that will certainly help the overall housing affordability issue (though it may make it worse for the poorest). But I am not sure it can address the level of growth expected in this report.

  • LookerAtNumbers

    "These numbers are ridiculous"

    Just under 20% over 20 years. Less than 1% a year. I'm not sure that's really that aggressive a figure.

  • TomDC

    If you need density you start with changing the zoning density regs in DC. Just as in exclusive suburbs they are the prime means for keeping density low. In DC much of the central area is R4 which only allows 2 units per lot and even built-up R5 areas only allow 4 units per lot.

    That's always far beyond what housing code requires a minimum size unit be and in much of the central core means a lot with a potential 4000 sq' of building can only have a maximum of 2 units.

    Raise the # of allowable units per zone or even abolish the limit and depend on the code's minimum size. This is how every sane city has started raising density.

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  • Sally

    The problem is that the myopic little twits spend all their money going to Le Diplomate and hipster bars and have no money left for rent. We need more housing development (in the currently very desirable areas of the city), so that this guy can move out of his mother's house!

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