Affordable-housing zones’ rules are an affront to King’s dream

Courtland Milloy
Columnist January 15, 2012

What would Martin Luther King Jr. think about paternalistic liberals who’ll teach a crippled man how to walk but then refuse to let him stand on his own two feet?

Nearly 45 years after King started his “poor people’s campaign” for jobs and affordable housing, the District and other cities are using what are called “Inclusionary Zones” to help low- and moderate-income renters avoid being displaced by gentrification. King would probably appreciate that.

In exchange for tax breaks and other financial incentives from the city, developers agree to include a certain number of below-market-rate dwellings in otherwise upscale housing complexes.

But there’s a catch.

To maintain the unit as part of its affordable housing supply, the District government gets to micromanage the new owner’s home. No fewer than three separate agencies get to weigh in on when the homeowner can use equity in the home and, in some cases, for what purpose. District bureaucrats also get to decide if and when the owner can sell the house, and then to whom and for how much.

And to make sure the owner isn’t profiting from renting out the house without authorization, government inspectors can drop by from time to time for a head count.

This isn’t economic justice; it’s the nanny state run amok.

Now don’t construe this as an endorsement of the conservatives’ approach to housing policy, which would cut government assistance so deeply that major cities would become havens for the wealthy, while low income residents get pushed out of sight somewhere deep in the exurbs.

The nation’s capital, of all places, ought to lay out a welcome mat so broad as to symbolize the very spirit of our Preamble: “We the people.”

Still, King would hardly think that home ownership meant that you get to pay a mortgage only to have a liberal government treat you like a welfare recipient in public housing.

Tanya Morris is among dozens of residents whose dream of becoming a homeowner in an Inclusionary Zone sounds more like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

In 2007, Morris, who works as a quality assurance analyst for a private firm, qualified for the purchase of a two-bedroom condominium in rapidly gentrifying Columbia Heights. But in determining her ability to pay housing costs, the city never took monthly condo fees into account. When Morris bought her place, the condo fee was $284. Starting this month, she’ll have to pay $520. With a $1,197-a-month mortgage, an electric bill, property taxes and homeowners insurance, her housing will probably eat up more than half of the monthly household income.

Although Morris would like to stay in her home, the inability to pay ever-increasing condo fees likely would cause her to go into foreclosure or lose the home, and city rules require that she has to stay there 20 years before she can put it on to the market.

Another new homeowner in a similar situation wrote to city officials asking how he could keep from losing his home to foreclosure as a result of not being able to pay his condo fees. The reply read: “One option you may want to consider is refinancing the loan.” Fine. Except that the city’s rules prohibit him from refinancing.

As to how much he could get from selling the house, the covenant to his deed put it this way: “The purchase price of the property upon any re-sale shall not exceed the price which is deemed affordable for such percentage of the AMI [area median income] as determined by the RLA Revitalization Corporation, an instrumentality of the District of Columbia or its successor, in accordance with its then current policies and procedures for re-sales of affordable dwelling units.”

A bona fide predatory lender couldn’t have made it any plainer.

A spokesman for the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development said that city officials are looking for solutions to the problem of rising condo fees. The D.C. Council is also said to be considering legislation that would allow homeowners to resell to buyers in higher income categories and not wait 10 to 20 years to do so. Also, they could rent their homes at rates high enough to pay the mortgage and fees.

That makes sense. Just have owners repay the government subsidy and use that money to create more affordable homes. Then leave those new homeowners alone.

“My father lives down South, and when I told him about all of the restrictions and catch-22s that came with my new house, he said it sounded like I had become a sharecropper in the city,” Morris recalled.

No doubt King would be appalled.

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