The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. development has soared under Bowser. So have housing costs.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser speaks about affordable housing at the Spring Flats housing complex. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Housing Production Trust Fund creates 10,000 units a year. It creates 1,000. The article has been corrected.

The first apartment Ursula McManus rented as a young German immigrant in the nation’s capital was a one bedroom in Friendship Heights. It cost $90 a month.

Sixty years later, the cost to live in the neighborhood has shot up more than 2,000 percent. A yoga studio occupies that building, and the $90 she spent on rent would today only be worth a four-class pass.

McManus, 84, owns a home and has a healthy nest egg to see her comfortably through retirement in Ward 3. But she worries, she said, for immigrants like her, for mothers who have worked hard but are still struggling.

Her longtime housekeeper, a Central American immigrant and mom of four, had been shelling out $2,300 a month for an apartment on Georgia Avenue NW. Appalled by the price and living conditions, McManus decided in 2021 to help her buy a home. “In D.C.?” she was asked. “Oh, no,” McManus said with a laugh. “Have you seen the cost of homes in the city?”

Housing affordability has become one of the most widespread anxieties among Washingtonians regardless of ward, income, age, race or background. When asked to name the overall biggest problems facing the District, housing was the No. 2 most frequent response after crime, according to a Washington Post poll this year.

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Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ran on a promise eight years ago to end homelessness and invest more in affordable development to rein in the local housing crisis. She has made record investments into the Housing Production Trust Fund, the primary tool the city has for financing affordable housing, and expanded programs that assist first-time home buyers. But a dire shortage persists.

“When you have the type of amenities, good-paying jobs that we have in this city, people want to live here, businesses want to locate here. And so that has made us a city where housing costs are challenging, and they didn’t just become challenging this year,” Bowser, who is now seeking a third term, said in an interview with The Post last month. “I have made it the hallmark of my tenure to build more affordable housing in the city.”

But her critics say her push for citywide development has accelerated the affordability crisis and contributed to the displacement of Black and Latino families. D.C. Council members Robert C. White Jr. (D-At large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), the top challengers to Bowser for mayor, have blamed her policies for leaving the poorest residents behind and further eviscerating the middle class in the District.

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Since Bowser took office, housing prices for both renters and buyers have increased by roughly 30 percent, according to real estate groups, driving up the cost of living in the District and driving some residents, including McManus’s housekeeper, out. McManus helped the family close on a three-bedroom near Rockville that cost $250,000, she said, about a third of the median home price in the District.

“I resent that the [District] is rich but we still have a situation where so many people who rent can never afford to buy their own home, so they get stuck paying more and more until they get pushed out,” McManus said. “With all this gentrification, I really worry about what the hell is happening here.”

An ‘impossible’ task

Bowser took office in 2015 at a time of transformation in the District. Luxury high-rises were going up. The population was growing and becoming Whiter and more affluent. Longtime residents now say they no longer recognize the city as their own.

The average rent in the District has risen from around $1,700 in 2015 to around $2,200 by the start of this year, according to a Post analysis of Zillow data. Other cities, like Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, have seen similar increases in the same period. In Austin, Denver, Tampa and Phoenix, rent shot up over 50 percent.

Over her two terms, Bowser has put forth a number of plans to address the housing shortfall and rising costs. She pledged to invest $100 million a year into the Housing Production Trust Fund, a number meant to create about 1,000 units annually.

In all but two years, fiscal 2015, during which Bowser took office, and fiscal 2018, the District has met those investment goals. Each year since fiscal 2020, the mayor has upped the ante, culminating in a record proposal of nearly $499 million in her 2023 budget.

In total, 21,915 new housing units have been created under the Bowser administration, according to her office. Just under 19 percent of those units are considered affordable to families earning 80 percent of the median area income or less. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the median family income in the District is $142,300.

According to a study issued in collaboration with Howard University in Jan. 2020, researchers determined that D.C. rents would have increased by nearly 6 percent in the year 2018 had the District not doubled the rate of new housing development starting in 2012. Researchers found that “even though the city’s demand for rental units is growing” as the population increases and becomes more affluent, the increase in housing stock has helped to “mitigate the annual appreciation rates of apartment rents.”

Bowser said her administration has focused primarily on building and financing mixed-income apartment complexes, with a certain number of homes specifically earmarked for families earning below a specific threshold.

“Those are the kind of projects we feel that we have been able to invest in the last eight years,” Bowser said, noting the recent opening of the Spring Flats redevelopment in Petworth, which offers 185 new housing units, of which 149 are affordable and 88 are specifically designated for seniors.

Bowser promised to end homelessness and here is how it is going

Yet the need for affordable housing in the city continues to far outstrip the supply. According to the D.C. Policy Center, as of 2020, there were nearly 40,000 households in the District for whom paying more than $750 a month in rent would create a financial burden greater than a third of their household income. The city had fewer than 800 apartments with rents at that level.

Kimberly Cunningham, 56, grew up in Southeast but moved her family to Columbia Heights in the 1990s to raise her children. About a decade ago, a conflict with her landlord resulted in Cunningham losing her housing voucher. For the next 10 years, she did her best to hide the fact that she was homeless from her adult children.

She slept in her car, at her mom’s house, even at her daughter’s apartment when she could. “It has been 10 years, and for most of that time, I didn’t know the whole story because 10 years ago, I was just 21,” said Rashida Taylor, Cunningham’s daughter and the executive director of the local nonprofit It Takes A Village. “We have been looking left and right for her to live somewhere, but finding affordable housing in the District is impossible.”

Cunningham, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair, is on a fixed income and unable to afford market-rate rent. She was approved for the rapid rehousing program, which is meant to lift homeless families and individuals into housing by providing one-year rent-subsidizing vouchers.

But while Cunningham has applied and even taken classes for a handful of city programs, she has struggled to find an apartment that is wheelchair accessible in a building with an elevator.

“There are housing programs, there are, but when the mayor starts a new program, she only shows you the tip of the iceberg. She doesn’t show you what you really have to go through to get it,” Cunningham said.

“Being a third-generation Washingtonian, it’s horrible to see people who have been here for so long struggling to live in the city. Something that my mom is going through is just needing a place to live, and we have been working on this for years,” Taylor said. “She’s in a position where she can’t get up steps and she’s sleeping on floors some nights.”

Last year, the Office of the Inspector General released a report that said city officials in fiscal 2020 misspent nearly $82 million of affordable-housing funds earmarked for extremely low-income residents like Cunningham, who relies on Social Security and disability as her main sources of income.

The report, which has been repeatedly cited by Robert White and Trayon White in their primary challenges, detailed the District’s failure to properly monitor the vast majority of projects funded through the Housing Production Trust Fund and to recoup more than $10 million in past-due loans. It also raised questions about the process in awarding contracts for affordable-housing development.

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The report noted that although at least 50 percent of Housing Production Trust Fund spending is legally required to provide housing to households with incomes below 30 percent of the median family income, which in the District is about $42,700, according to federal data, most of the affordable housing created was instead meant to cater to higher-earning households.

According to data provided by the mayor’s office, the Bowser administration has not once come close to hitting that 50 percent threshold.

Support and obstacles

Middle-class Washingtonians are also feeling the squeeze. The median selling price for homes went from about $487,000 in January 2015 to about $650,000 as of last month, according to the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors.

Randy, a 33-year-old renter who has lived in Southeast since 2014, knows how tough it can be. Randy, who asked to be identified by his middle name because he works for the D.C. government and was not authorized to speak to the press, said he has been wanting to buy a place of his own for a few years now. But the cost of purchasing has remained beyond his means.

In her first term, Bowser doubled the amount of down-payment assistance that potential home buyers could receive from the Home Purchase Assistance Program and created a program specifically for District workers, teachers and first responders. She expanded resources for senior homeowners who need to renovate their homes or make them accessible through a program known as Safe at Home.

According to her office, 2,579 home buyers since Bowser took over as mayor in 2015 have been assisted by the Home Purchase Assistance Program and a similar employer-assisted program that offers an additional $20,000 in financing for D.C. government workers, teachers and first responders. Prospective home buyers may qualify for up to $80,000 in gap financing and an additional $4,000 in closing-cost assistance, as determined by income and expressed need.

But participants in the program still have struggled to stay competitive. Randy is eligible for a number of programs meant to help first-time home buyers, Black home buyers and D.C. government workers. But their requirements, such as an approved home inspection, can be a disadvantage to buyers going up against others who can get faster financing or are willing to waive all contingencies.

“In a market that’s moving quickly, if you can’t check off all the same boxes, you’re just not competitive,” said Thomas Daley, president of the D.C. Association of Realtors.

Earlier this month, Bowser announced the 14 members of a new “strike force” aimed at boosting Black homeownership and closing the racial equity gap in the District. The group will issue recommendations by October that will guide how the city spends the $10 million that Bowser has allocated for Black homeowners in her fiscal 2023 budget, according to the mayor’s office.

“We know that there is a disparity in our city between White homeownership and Black homeownership. There’s this disparity from east to west in our city on homeownership,” Bowser said, noting that building wealth and equity helps families find stability in areas beyond housing. I have focused, quite frankly, on making sure that more D.C. residents and more D.C. government employees have access to financial products that are going to allow them to buy,” she added.

Decades of neglect

In May, Bowser appeared at the Potomac Gardens public housing complex to announce a program to bring high-speed internet to low-income households. As she spoke, a piece of paper made its way through the crowd. Residents had written a letter to the mayor outlining issues in the building, including mold, holes in the walls, floods, leaks, roaches and rats.

The issues are emblematic of billions of dollars in backlogged repairs that primarily affect some of the poorest families who live in public housing in the District. “WiFi is a great concept,” said the letter residents passed up to Bowser, “but we face more tragic circumstances.”

Misha Pettway, 47, president of the Potomac Garden resident council, said she was shocked the mayor chose the complex, where Pettway has lived for 21 years, to roll out such a program when they had more immediate needs.

“Our community has had a number of shootings, deaths, the living situation inside is not the greatest,” she said. “So, while we appreciate the WiFi, we also want to live better, to be able to actually feel safe in our homes, so that we can enjoy the WiFi.”

After several security guards disappeared, leaving parts of the property unpatrolled, Pettway said, she has taken it upon herself to patrol the hallway and the staircase where her daughter comes and goes. She works for a property management company and said it is frustrating to know how a well-maintained property is run and then return home to her own building overcome with problems. After unsuccessfully petitioning management for upkeep to her unit, Pettway said, she has done her own renovations.

Potomac Gardens is managed by the D.C. Housing Authority, which has been marred by scandal and accusations of mismanagement, including a $2 billion backlog in repairs. In her conversation with The Post, Bowser declined to discuss the note or interactions with Potomac Gardens residents following her visit in May and sought to draw a distinction between her administration and the Housing Authority, which she described as “not a D.C. agency under the control of the mayor.”

This is how the regional housing market fared by Zip code last year

However, the director of the agency is a Bowser appointee and its board of directors is packed with mayoral allies, including Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio, who oversees planning and economic development. The city is also able to contribute money to fund repairs.

The mayor and the D.C. Council began investing $50 million annually for repairs in 2021. Before that, according to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer and analyses by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, District leaders approved more than $24 million for repairs in fiscal 2020, up from less than $10 million the year before.

“We don’t want any residents living in substandard conditions. No one should be living with mold. No one should. Everyone should understand that if they have a complaint in their unit, how they can get it resolved,” Bowser said.

The Housing Authority has not accepted any new families onto its waitlist since 2013, creating a starkly limited resource that has left families in limbo for years. Those who live in government-owned buildings, like Potomac Gardens, have sounded the alarm about crumbling infrastructure, safety hazards and health risks. Some units deemed too dilapidated to live in have sat empty for years.

Earlier this year, after the recent infusion of public money for repairs, the agency signaled that “hundreds of public housing units” would soon be available to “people who have been waiting for many years,” according to a statement from Director Barbara Donald.

That news was encouraging to Pettway, who said since Bowser visited some residents have been able to keep the conversation going with city officials. It feels, in small ways, like progress. But then she walks out her door and sees what still needs to be done. The building is still unsecured. Nonresidents sleep in the stairwell and loiter in the halls. Basic maintenance requests languish as problems get worse.

“We have people living in detrimental situations just like Potomac Gardens right now all over D.C., but no one has come back to say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do to abate or clean or fix it,’” Pettway said. “I want a mayor to be honest. When I say honest, I mean when you say you’re going to do something, do it.”


This story has been republished with mention of a study the District issued in collaboration with Howard University, sent to The Post after publication, on the impact of the increase in housing units on rents.