DC pushes to expand affordable housing

By Gerhard Ottehenning

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Last month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released a plan to expand affordable housing to wealthier portions of the city through the use of vouchers and subsidies. While current and future SAIS students would welcome removing the cost of rent from their list of go-to small talk conversations, political headwinds and difficulties with implementing the mayor’s initiative remain major stumbling blocks. 

In recent years, rapidly rising housing costs and attempts to combat their rise have become a fixture of the D.C. landscape. In 2013, then-Mayor Vincent Grey announced the creation of a housing task force to tackle the lack of affordable housing in the district. In response, the D.C. government pledged $100 million toward building or preserving 10,000 affordable housing units by 2020. Measuring the effectiveness of these measures is complicated, with housing prices being affected by a wide array of variability including the job market. Luis Quintero, an assistant professor and researcher on urban and real estate economics at Johns Hopkins University, said, “Some places are more desirable for many reasons including: having high paying jobs, quantity of jobs available and demand from the federal government. One would expect D.C. to be more expensive than a smaller town.” 

Despite the D.C. government’s prioritization of affordable housing , some policy proposals remain stubbornly excluded from consideration.This exclusion comes at a cost. A study by economists at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley found that implementing policies that lower regulatory constraints to the housing supply in just three cities — New York, San Francisco, and San Jose — would increase U.S. gross domestic product by 9.5%. “The problem of affordable housing in DC is quite serious,” Quintero said. “There’s a need to do something. I think vouchers and subsidies could have an important impact.” However, in considering Mayor Bowser’s recent proposals, Quintero noted that “Relaxing zoning and increasing the capabilities of developers to adjust supply is much more effective than those other policies.”

In 1922, D.C. became one of the first cities in the US to institute a comprehensive body of zoning laws. Over time these laws came to encompass everything from the size of the building to fire safety. This increasing body of rules directly impacts every element that makes up the foundation of a city, and can go a long way in shaping the housing stock. A report in the New York Times found that 40%of New York City’s building stock could not be constructed under today’s regulations, and not because the buildings are unsafe. While some zoning laws are arbitrary, such as blocking a new housing development for potentially casting a shadow for 42 minutes each day, as was seen in San Francisco this year; other regulations that may be  reasonable and well-intentioned may have unintended consequences.  

A commonly-seen restriction, originally established when families were large and overcrowding was common, sets the minimum amount of square feet for a dwelling. Alain Bertaud, an urban planner at New York University, noted that such regulations  “[oblige] the developer to build a relatively large apartment,” ultimately pricing out middle and low income residents. Bertaud does not advocate removing all such restrictions but proposes “floating rules only for what consumers can see by themselves: floor area, lot area, number of floors, shadow, or sun, and location. The way a steel or concrete structure is built, unknowable to the consumer, should obey strict rules.”

Advocates for loosening zoning laws often run into fierce opposition from homeowners. Such resistance to these changes is “partly why its politically very difficult,” Quintero said. “Basically if you have a house or a condo in D.C. you’re gaining a lot of value from the appreciation of these assets because you’re not allowing the market to produce more…that’s why people who have a home don’t like it.” An English think tank named Policy Exchange polled homeowners and found that if “developers of new homes place more emphasis on design and style [they] gain the support of existing communities.” Such findings suggest the possibility of innovative solutions to housing shortages in urban areas, emphasizing characteristic styles for affordable housing units. A failure to address housing shortages in such cities, can lead to negative consequences as they struggle to retain and attract diverse residents.