What An Affordable Housing Victory Looks Like in DC

There is big affordable housing news from DC. HUD and Congress are not involved. In fact, the federal government has no role in this news, which is not always the […]

There is big affordable housing news from DC. HUD and Congress are not involved. In fact, the federal government has no role in this news, which is not always the case when it comes to local politics.

On May 27, the DC City Council approved a new budget proposed by new Mayor Muriel Bowser. In it, the city designated $100 million annually to DC’s Housing Production Trust Fund, a seven-fold increase from the Fund’s budget in 2010. The new budget also includes substantial increases to funding for permanent supportive housing and for DC’s Local Rent Supplement Program, among other affordable housing investments.
While I could not find complete data, DC’s Trust Fund now appears to be the largest per capita of any major U.S. city. The increased investment will create or preserve over 1,000 additional affordable housing units every year, 40 percent of which will serve those earning under 30 percent of the area median income.

The budget is a major victory—and culmination of a long fight—for local advocates. Through their Housing for All campaign, the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED) and its 140 citywide member organizations have spent the last five years pushing for a $100 million commitment to the Trust Fund as a response to DC’s major affordable housing challenges. (Full disclosure: I am an individual CHNED member).

Yet the $100 million investment also represents another signpost of the limited power of local government in the face of a crisis. DC has already boasted the nation’s most progressive ledger of tenants’ rights and affordable housing preservation policies. These policies include a modest rent control law, the aforementioned local rent supplement program, an inclusionary zoning law, and a department dedicated to tenants’ rights. DC also is home to the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), the only citywide policy in the nation that allows tenants the first option to purchase their building when their landlord puts it up for sale.

These laws have made life easier by varying degrees for tens of thousands of DC residents. They have allowed thousands of them to stay in the city at an affordable cost (TOPA alone has preserved about 1,500 affordable units), yet they have barely dented the evaporation of affordable housing in DC. The city has lost almost 50 percent of its low-cost housing since 2002, and according to American Community Survey data, rental housing units priced above $1,500 per month rose from 13 percent of all units in 2005 to over 40 percent in 2013.

The newly potent Trust Fund will help many families escape the waves of skyrocketing housing prices in DC—the cost burdens and the displacement. But, so long as the market is moving, the waves will keep crashing.

So how much should we be celebrating? Here are some oversimplifications of the various perspectives:

1. The glass is 10 percent full: This is the rightful perspective of the CHNED membership after a hard-fought campaign. Following the passage of the budget, CNHED wrote to its members that “it applauds our District of Columbia leaders for their tremendous work in ensuring that the FY16 budget includes major investments across the continuum of housing and in creating economic opportunity for District residents.” Housing for All campaign organizer Elizabeth Falcon told me, “I feel like we accomplished what we set out to accomplish.”

2. The glass is 90 percent empty: This tack is typified by Eugene Puryear, Director of Field Operations at Justice First and 2014 Green Party city council candidate. Puryear wrote that the new Trust Fund budget is “woefully inadequate,” noting that, “There are roughly 60,000 families who live at or below 30 percent of the Area Median Income and 71,000 on the public housing waiting list.” [Editors note: Since original posting, DCHA has contacted Rooflines to say that during the summer and fall of 2014, it conducted a campaign to right-size its waiting list, which now consists of 41,000 applicants who are actively looking for public housing—down from 72,000.] He added: “the District’s policy of leaving all affordable construction to the market means the problem actually increases each year because of the ratio of market-rate to affordable units.” Justice First has prioritized the fight for more potent rent control, the adoption of limited-equity housing cooperatives, and the constraint of the market rate housing that has dominated new construction in DC.

3. Even a glass that is 100 percent full is just a drop in a bigger bucket: I am attributing this ethos to Peter Dreier based on the recent case he made in Nonprofit Quarterly and then recently reiterated in Shelterforce. Many who read this post will be familiar with Dreier’s argument that “focusing narrowly on revitalizing poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and relying on ‘market’ forces to solve these problems, is shortsighted and misguided.” Dreier argues that the meaningful fight for community development practitioners is instead against systemic issues such as wage and wealth inequality, job loss, long-term unemployment, and regressive tax policies.

(For the sake of efficiency and an adherence to the “rule of three,” I’ll just lump the entirety of the regionalist contingent into this last category, along with their argument that the concentration of affordable housing in the inner city perpetuates place-based poverty and ghettoization. For them, the more worthwhile fight would be for a well-capitalized regional Housing Trust Fund for the development of affordable units across the DC metropolis.)

When I spoke with Falcon two days after the budget vote, I asked her about the less rosy perspectives on what difference a $100 million Trust Fund will truly make in reducing the inequality and displacement that seems virtually endemic to DC’s oven-hot housing market. Falcon acknowledged that the impact of CNHED’s campaign will be limited. “If you’re poor and you need a voucher, we won $5 million in vouchers. That will serve a couple hundred people. The likelihood that it will serve you is extremely low.”

But she also noted the importance of choosing winnable fights. This point was reiterated to me by several other DC affordable housing advocates. As ironic as it may seem, DC residents are the least empowered when it comes to influence over federal policies such as regressive taxation and full employment. They also have an odd freedom from the restrictions that states can impose, such as the rent control prohibitions that 35 states have enacted.

The outcome of this particular winnable fight may look like a drop in the bucket from 30,000 feet up, and at times even from three feet in. But the drop that CHNED won based on pragmatism still represents one thousand families every year who can put more of their income to other needs; or who can access capital so they can use TOPA to buy and stay in their buildings when their landlords try to sell them; or who can afford to live in a city that has strong tenants’ rights; or who can afford to live in a city that they simply have come to call home, whether by chance or choice. A handful of them can even become new advocates for future improvements to housing laws that make DC an easier place to stay or live or learn or work for other low-income people.

This last outcome is less fanciful than it may seem. Falcon recounted to me a story from when Mayor Bowser was on the campaign trail. Falcon was attending a meeting with the president of a local tenants’ association; Bowser walked into the meeting by accident, so the two of them seized the opportunity. They explained to Bowser how the Trust Fund had benefited the ward she represented as a councilwoman. Soon after this encounter, Bowser was making $100 million in funding for Housing Preservation Trust Fund a central campaign promise.

So would the energy from the last five years of the Housing for All campaign have been more valuable if it had been redirected toward a bigger fight at the expense of winning the fight that it fought? “We can’t turn the tide in the work that we’re doing,” Falcon said. “But we can preserve specific buildings. We can change people’s lives. We can fight to increase the possibility and the opportunity for people to be here. I wish I could do the first. But doing the latter is what gets me up in the morning.”

(Photo credit: Mariusz Szczepanik via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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