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Six possible solutions to the affordable housing crisis

Rents are rising. The number of low-income units is dwindling. And efforts to address the issue in the region have met with little success while the number of homeless residents, particularly in the District, rises.

What can be done?

study released this month from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, working in conjunction with law firm Hogan Lovells, provides some solutions for an issue that has stupefied civic leaders across the region — and the country.

“We thought things were getting better, but actually they are getting worse,” said Mary Anne Sullivan, a partner at Hogan Lovells, who worked on the study.

In the District, half of renters in the District face “severe housing burdens,” defined by the federal government as spending more than a third of income on housing. In Alexandria, the number of affordable units diminished to 6,416 in 2011, compared with 18,128 in 2000. Arlington has seen a 47 percent jump in rent prices. Prince George’s has opted not to pursue much more affordable housing in a county in which poverty rates are rising. And planning estimates suggest Montgomery will need more at least 33,000 units  by 2022 for families making less than six figures.

The research team of lawyers interviewed housing experts, combed legal cases and examined current initiatives to come up with possible solutions to the problem. Among them:

1. Invest more in housing production trust funds.

This money is used to help developers finance new buildings that include units for low-income and working-class residents. The District, Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington build the fund through taxes on real estate deals; but in Alexandria, the fund is built through voluntary contributions from developers and loan repayments. In Prince George’s, there is no trust fund at all. Of the group’s suggestions, this one is the most direct: The way to build affordable housing in the region is to direct more money for the building of affordable housing.

2. Survey public land for building opportunities.

The District, Arlington and Fairfax are already onto this tip; they have begun scouring any land available to look for places to build housing that would be affordable for those making less than 60 percent of the area median income.

But this search doesn’t stop at vacant lots. The report suggests more re-imagining of library spaces, fire stations and schools. In Alexandria, 64 units were created at an old fire station near Potomac Yard; Arlington is considering land near the East Falls Church Metro station.

3.  Reduce the number of exemptions from inclusionary zoning laws.

Many municipalities have laws on the books requiring some sliver of units in any new development be affordable. Still, there are myriad exemptions. In the District, these exemptions — for buildings with fewer than 10 units and certain neighborhoods that have historic designations, or other building restrictions — have led to a development pipeline that includes 89 projects, representing more than 26,000 units, not a single one affordable.

Montgomery became a national model for inclusionary zoning efforts, producing thousands of affordable units through the laws since the ’70s. But those units only had to remain affordable for 10 years. After that, prices climbed out of reach for the poor and the middle class.

The report suggests tightening these laws to prevent so many exemptions, while extending the period that affordable units must remain affordable (something like 30 years).

Another issue: Inclusionary zoning laws in the region don’t help the very poor. Many are geared toward the working and middle classes, those who make between 50 and 80 percent of the area median income. The report suggests changing the standard to make the units affordable for those who make 30 percent of the area media income, which would allow poorer residents to be included.

4. Have employers pick up the slack.

The report calls for private employers to offer housing assistance to those who want to stay in the area, a benefit enjoyed by governments in the District, Fairfax, and Arlington. The report states government might be able to encourage businesses by offering tax incentives to those who vow to help their staff stay within municipal limits.

5. Embrace “Granny Flats.”

“Granny flats” are stand-alone units on single family lots, typically equipped with a bedroom, kitchen, a bathroom and a separate entrance. They are heavily restricted throughout the region. In the District, they can only be used as homes for domestics. In Montgomery, they are allowed only in owner-occupied single family homes more than five years old and they must come with a parking space. They are not allowed in Alexandria or Fairfax, and Arlington only grants permits for 28 of them a year. The report theorizes looser restrictions might increase the number of granny flats in the region.  When restrictions were loosened in Portland, Ore., the number of permits granted increased from 30 to 200 in a single year. This might help to reduce the strain put on households that now have multiple families living in the same single-family home, an increasingly popular arrangement known as “doubling up.”

6. Reject the idea that rapid rehousing will help.

In the District, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has heavily touted a program called “rapid rehousing” as a way to reduce the homeless population, the end result of the struggle for affordable housing. Rapid rehousing places homeless families in apartments, subsidizing the rents for a limited time — usually between four months and a year. Although the increase in homelessness has been directly tied to the lack of affordable housing in the District, the report notes that “rapid rehousing” doesn’t address the core issue of rents being out of reach for the poor, and the middle class.  “Once the funding has ceased,” the reported noted, “many families cannot afford the rapidly increasing  rents.”