Groups fight to overcome lack of affordable housing in D.C. region


Rebecca Griffith in the condo she purchased through the City First program. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)
July 3, 2013

Before eventually stumbling upon a program that helped her buy a condo, it was a hard slog for Rebecca Griffith as she sought to find housing — in livable condition — for $250,000 or less near the studio she was renting in Columbia Heights.

As an architect, Griffith is savvy about housing. But she became so frustrated about continually coming up empty that for several months she abandoned her search.

“All I could afford was really far out, and in really bad shape,” says Griffith, 32.

“We’re not talking about aesthetics — the color of paint in the kitchen,” she says. “We’re talking about having a functioning kitchen.”

Affordable housing is a chronic problem in the Washington area, where nearly a third of homes sold last year cost $500,000 or more, according to data from Rockville-based multiple listing service MRIS.

Renting is also a problem. In order to afford a District home renting for $1,412 a month, while meeting the affordability standard of 30 percent of income, a person needs to earn $56,480 a year, according to National Low Income Housing Coalition. A minimum-wage worker would have to work 132 hours a week to meet that standard.

“The need for affordable housing is so great,” says Nina Janopaul, president of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing and president of the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers. “We’re so overwhelmed.”

In the District this year, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) set aside $100 million for affordable housing, and a city task force has established a goal of creating or preserving 10,000 affordable units by 2020. Developers are including affordable units in new projects from Tysons Corner to Silver Spring. And last month , housing officials and experts gathered at the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers meeting to discuss what more can be done to address the demand for affordable housing.

Recent studies by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis forecast that job growth in lower-wage sectors, such as construction and health services, would create even more demand for affordable and moderately priced housing over the next five years.

Of course, what’s affordable for a two-income family with high-paying jobs isn’t for a single parent working as a elementary school teacher.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “affordable” based on median income — in the Washington metro area, that’s $107,500. Its Housing Affordability Index assumes a salary of 60 percent of the median, says Janopaul. Using the standard of spending 30 percent of income on housing, a mortgage or rent payment should thus be about $1,600 per month.

That is out of reach for many people. For those coming out of homelessness and domestic violence, for those whose incomes are limited by disabilities or other factors, housing voucher programs, once known as Section 8, are designed to provide additional help. But such programs are oversubscribed.

Affordable options that are farther away from jobs in the District cause transportation costs to increase and may create hardships for working families whose children are in school hours from their parents’ workplaces, experts say.

“It seems everyone wants affordable housing,” says Jonathan Hill, president of data firm RealEstate Business Intelligence, a subsidiary of MRIS. “But not enough are taking demonstrative steps.”

For example, Arlington County had 17,000 market-affordable apartments in 2000. In 2012, there were 5,000, Janopaul says. The situation has been repeated in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, she and other experts say.

Garden-style apartments, which once made up the bulk of affordable stock, are disappearing in the area, she says. They’re being renovated or replaced by higher-end projects with granite countertops and fitness centers, leaving a void that continues to grow. In Alexandria, for example, 2,500 moderately priced garden apartments in the Beauregard neighborhood are to be replaced with 5,000 more expensive units. Even though 800 units will be kept as affordable units by the developer, 1,700 families may be displaced.

Some progress is being made, though.

Nonprofit groups and faith-based organizations are working to create or preserve more low- and moderately priced housing across the region.

“I think it’s a golden era for nonprofit housing,” says Janopaul. “That’s a real success in the metro D.C. area — the rise of competent, smart, affordable-housing developers.”

For-profit developers are partners on the projects now, too, she says.

Homeowner programs, which allow families to move into homes with little or no down payment, are being tailored by nonprofit groups so they can help more families.

City First Enterprises, a nonprofit organization on U Street in Northwest Washington, began using the “shared equity” structure — in which the appreciation value is shared with the next buyer — about three years ago, says John Hamilton, its president.

“You help one family, and that’s a good thing,” he says. “But there are a lot of families.”

A colleague of Griffith’s mentioned City First’s affordable homeowner program, but the architect initially laughed off the idea. “I have a master’s degree and 10 years of work experience,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d qualify.”

But housing prices being what they are in the D.C. area, Griffith did qualify for a grant toward her down payment on a $204,000 condo. She bought and moved into her one-bedroom co-op in March.

When Griffith sells the apartment, she’ll receive a portion of the appreciation on her investment, plus a return on any improvements she makes. The larger portion of the appreciation value is used to keep the unit affordable.

“What I loved about the program is that it regenerates itself,” she says. “This amazing opportunity I received can be passed on to the next buyer in my position.”

Griffith says that with its remodeled kitchen, including a dishwasher, her new home exceeds her expectations. “My dream was a bedroom door,” she says.

She’s also relieved not to have to continue her house hunt, especially after seeing many houses that clearly had been flipped with only cosmetic changes, leaving structural damage untouched.

Newly constructed affordable housing doesn’t have those kinds of problems, but new units are much more scarce. So, as new housing is being planned, local governments are requiring developers to set aside more affordable units.

In Tysons Corner, for example, developers are required to set aside 20 percent of the residences (up from the usual 12 percent requirement) for affordable housing and pay into a housing trust fund. In exchange, Fairfax County allows the developers to build more densely.

More communities are also using inclusionary zoning, requiring a mix of affordable units within new developments as revitalization plans are made, Janopaul says.

The Columbia Pike Plan in Arlington calls for preserving all 7,400 affordable housing units and encouraging developers to make 20 percent or 35 percent of new units affordable, in exchange for incentives such as increased density.

In Howard County, affordable housing is intentionally mixed with market-rate housing developments, says County Executive Ken Ulman (D).

“You want to make sure construction workers, custodians, the people who work in retail . . . have an opportunity to live here,” Ulman says.

“You hear that people may be dissuaded from living in developments where there are units for lower incomes,” he says. “But we’ve found that the market-rate units are leasing really quickly. And that’s exciting to me. You can offer beautiful and financially sustainable options.”

The nonprofit groups’ efforts and inclusionary zoning practices have resulted in what may be the most positive trend in newly constructed affordable housing: What is available is better than ever.

The beige siding, white trim and manicured gardens give the three-story apartment buildings at Dring’s Reach in Silver Spring a clean, fresh feel. Inside, the units have washers and dryers, fireplaces and balconies overlooking playgrounds and lush trees. The development is on a bus line and within walking distance of a supermarket and library. Monthly rents range from $909 to $1,675 for a two-bedroom unit with a den.

Built in 1992, the 105-unit complex was the first newly constructed affordable-housing project completed by the Montgomery Housing Partnership, which is now building and selling units in a development called Olney Springs, and plans to break ground next year on a 134-unit complex in Silver Spring with a mix of family and senior housing. Two other apartment complexes are being renovated by the partnership.

“In the last 20 years, we’ve been focusing on acquiring older buildings and fixing them up,” says Robert A. Goldman, the partnership’s president. “As we improve our buildings, others improve their buildings. It has a multiplying effect.”

Dring’s Reach was among 17 properties on an affordable-housing “Parade of Homes” tour organized recently by the Communications Action Network.

The idea was to show potential residents where quality affordable housing is located and to show employers that it’s important to make options available, says Heather Raspberry, the network’s executive director.

Tracey D’Andrade, a property manager with two sons who moved to Dring’s Reach in March, had been looking for an affordable option with good schools for years. At one apartment complex, D’Andrade has been on the waiting list for three years.

She says she was surprised to find a two-bedroom apartment with such nice amenities.“When you look outside,” says D’Andrade, “you’d never guess there was affordable housing here.”

Laura Barnhardt Cech is a freelance writer.

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