Six. That’s the number of years that the District has been running a program that requires developers building fancy condominiums with custom floating Leicht vanities and subway tile backsplashes to set aside a certain percentage of units as affordable housing for lower-income folks.
And six. That’s the number of condos sold under that initiative, the District’s highly touted Inclusionary Zoning program, according to figures the city shared with advocates.
And that about sums up the fight to make the nation’s capital a city for all.
It’s not like those condos are housing any of the 700 homeless families that represent the face of the city’s affordable-housing crisis. The two latest sales — offered by developers as triumphs — went to folks who make, respectively, 50 and 80 percent of the area’s median income (which is among the nation’s highest, at about $90,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).
Basically, one of our city’s big affordable-housing programs helped one, unmarried person who makes about $68,000 a year — and five others from similar backgrounds — get a new condo more cheaply.
Which means we have some serious work to do if we want to make a dent in the District’s homelessness problem.
Some homelessness is about mental illness and family dysfunction and substance abuse, sure. But mostly, it’s about affordable housing. And changing that pattern must be No. 1 on our agenda.
Because many of the people who make our city run — bus drivers, janitors, preschool teachers, police officers, cooks, clerks, health-care workers, security guards, barbers — cannot afford to live here.
So move, you say? Not everyone gets to live in Paris or Manhattan; the District is becoming a rich-people’s paradise. The problem is that moving isn’t always an answer. Housing is pricey everywhere, and adding on the cost of commuting and child care and the other expenses that come with two extra hours of travel — not to mention the regional gridlock that comes with importing a workforce — makes a move equally unfeasible.
This week, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who wants to remake the city as a fair, accessible place for everyone, released a plan to close the family homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital by 2018. It’s a good plan, similar to the one Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) was trying to get underway during his last months in office.
We’re all in agreement that cramming hundreds of people — up to 600 of them children — into an abandoned hospital near a methadone clinic, a jail and an old morgue isn’t good for anyone.
So Bowser would like to break that up into small shelters across the city. Each one would have only about 10 families, and they’d be tucked into average neighborhoods, demolishing poverty clusters and perhaps helping families thrive in their surroundings. And it would save money in the long run.
Right now, it costs taxpayers about $50,000 a year to house each family in the horrible state that is D.C. General. In addition, it’s about $100 a night each for all the families we have put up in hotels. Spending that same amount of money on smaller shelters with better staff support — who can get families get out of bad situations, into self-sufficiency and off government assistance — will make for happy people all around.
The first is illustrated by Bowser’s very own actions when she was a D.C. Council member. Remember when she helped block an identical plan for an old and still-abandoned nursing home in Ward 4?
In 2010, when the District’s housing director began looking into Hebrew Home in Northwest Washington as a way to take some pressure off D.C. General, Bowser challenged him. “These neighbors have been mightily accommodating of their homeless neighbors,” she said, pointing to two shelters totaling 88 beds — a drop in the bucket in a sprawling ward of nearly 80,000 people.
So it’s her previous not-in-my-back-yard sentiment that she’s going to have to overcome in creating new shelters for homeless families.
Second, I sat in with the folks at the Department of General Services — the people who have to find buildings that may be good candidates for new shelters — and their job is not easy.
They put out a full advertisement in September asking folks to offer their apartment buildings, underfunded condo shells, flailing construction projects, warehouses or even commercial spaces to be redone and run as shelters.
What they got were mostly crickets. So far, only four prospects are serious. The market is just too hot at this stage for developers or property owners to think such an option is realistic.
So programs like Inclusionary Zoning are one of the ways to make affordable housing possible.
To be fair, the initiative isn’t only about selling nice condos to people who make chicken scratch at nonprofits.
Inclusionary Zoning battled a lot of developments that were grandfathered in before the law went into effect, said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. And much of the program’s focus has been on rentals, as it will remain until the building market falls under these new regulations. So far, they have 48 units rented under Inclusionary Zoning rules — or a dismal eight rentals a year.
With about 1,000 people moving to the District every month, we simply cannot, morally, continue to be a city that helps only a handful find an affordable place to live.