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Affordable Housing

D.C. region’s leaders face big challenges as they tackle affordable-housing shortage

Last year the Washington region came together to fix a 40-year-old problem by providing Metro with dedicated funding. Now elected officials and business and nonprofit leaders are preparing a push to overcome another challenge: the critical shortage of affordable housing.

It’s going to be a lot more difficult.

A new report issued Wednesday says the Washington region needs to add a whopping 374,000 housing units by 2030. Officials say that’s about 30 percent more than expected at present.

The Urban Institute study, commissioned by the Greater Washington Partnership and ­JPMorgan Chase, also says a dramatic shift is needed in the kind of housing produced. More than three-fourths of the new units need to be for low- and middle-income families. That’s where shortages are greatest; developers prefer to build upscale housing because it’s more profitable.

The 140-page report includes detailed recommendations to increase public subsidies, relax zoning and regulatory restrictions, strengthen tenant protections, and take other steps to achieve the goal. It asks each county and municipality in the region to commit to a 10-year target for producing affordable-housing units.

It’s no coincidence that the study was released a week before the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) is set to vote on a plan in which the region would commit to build an extra 75,000 housing units between 2020 and 2030 — a 31 percent increase over forecasts.

COG, the region’s government planning body, has been working on the affordable-housing issue for a year, coordinating with business and civic groups such as the partnership, an alliance of chief executives of the region’s largest employers.

The aim is to form a broad-based movement to advocate for building more low- and middle-cost housing and to prevent the region from experiencing acute shortages like those in fast-growing tech centers such as San Francisco and Seattle. A related goal is to stop or at least slow the displacement of low-income communities via gentrification.

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The model is the regionwide coalition of politicians, business groups, unions and nonprofit organizations that united to win $500 million a year in new dedicated funding for Metro.

“We have to get ahead of the housing affordability challenges so we don’t find ourselves 10 or 15 years from now in a crisis,” partnership chief executive Jason Miller said. “We’re in a window right now where action can move the needle and avoid some of those outcomes that we’ve seen in other parts of the country.”

The stakes are considerable. The lack of affordable housing is widely seen as one of the three main challenges holding back the region’s economy. Traffic gridlock and a shortage of qualified workers are the other two.

“Inaction on the challenges of housing affordability could ultimately undermine the region’s future economic growth and prosperity,” says the Urban Institute report, titled “Meeting the Washington Region’s Future Housing Needs.” Housing challenges “can undermine worker productivity, increase the difficulty businesses face in attracting and retaining employees, and discourage businesses from locating in the region,” it says.

But solving the housing problem is vastly more complicated than prying additional money from jurisdictions for Metro. First, it will be costly and difficult to redirect the powerful market forces that encourage developers to focus on high-end housing.

Since 2010, only 10 percent of the new housing units in the region have cost $1,299 a month or less, and thus were affordable for households with annual incomes of $54,300 or less, according to the Urban Institute.

The study says the region will have to raise that share to 38 percent between now and 2030 to produce the 141,000 new units needed in that price range.

“In general, the new units we are producing are tilted toward the higher-cost bands,” said Margery Austin Turner, senior vice president of the Urban Institute and lead author of the study. “Thoughtful review and reform of regulatory policies could free up the market to produce more units overall . . . which would bring costs down somewhat but also produce more housing that is modest, higher density and lower cost for occupants.” Then there is the political challenge. In practical terms, the region needs more multifamily housing for less-affluent residents, including in communities where single-family homes are the rule.

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That’s certain to get political pushback from residents worried about congestion, property values or preserving the character of their neighborhoods. Truth be told, some NIMBYs also don’t want poor people — especially those of different races or ethnicities — living in their communities.

“Local leaders can’t complain about the lack of affordable housing and, at the same time, not confront the NIMBYs in their localities,” Urban Institute Senior Director Gustavo Velasquez said.

He cited Montgomery County, Md., which has a one-year moratorium on residential housing construction in three high school districts. According to the report, Montgomery needs to build 23,100 additional low-cost housing units by 2030, more than any other jurisdiction in the region. “In the interest of job growth and to alleviate current and new county residents priced out of housing, the leadership here needs to demonstrate that it’s willing to confront the vast amount of influential and affluent NIMBYs,” Velasquez said. “That is the case in other jurisdictions as well.”

Finally, there’s the familiar challenge in our region of political fragmentation and jurisdictional rivalries. Each jurisdiction would like to attract high-end development to itself and park low-cost housing elsewhere.

To try to overcome that problem, both the Urban Institute report and COG are pushing for individual jurisdictions to commit to specific targets for additional low- and middle-cost units by 2030.

So far, only the District has set an explicit goal, with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) calling for the creation of 36,000 new units by 2025, of which one-third would be affordable.

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COG Executive Director Chuck Bean hopes that the expected vote next Wednesday on a regionwide target for new housing production will prompt county and city governments to follow through with their own commitments in coming months.

“The Sept. 11 meeting is a big deal for us because it bookends a year’s worth of work,” Bean said. “By setting these regional targets, it paves the way for individual local jurisdictions to set their own.”

He and others expressed optimism about the process because major employers with political clout were getting involved in the effort.

“Beyond the data, what’s new here is the entrance in a big way of the regional business community,” Bean said.

But Velasquez, of the Urban Institute, warned against complacency: “There seems to be an appetite in the business community to do more toward solving the housing affordability crisis in ways you didn’t see before, but a broad-based effort is yet to be seen.”

From: The Washington Post

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