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Bowser’s record investment in housing won’t fully meet need, but she’s putting the suburbs to shame

Brookland Manor, a sprawling, Depression-era housing complex in Northeast Washington with many lower-income tenants. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser wants to put more than half a billion dollars into affordable housing. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s plan to pour more than half a billion dollars into affordable housing isn’t enough to meet the need or halt gentrification in the city, but give her credit for trying.

The District merits applause for going far beyond the Virginia and Maryland suburbs to address the high cost of shelter that poses one of the main threats to the region’s long-term prosperity.

The mayor’s plan, unveiled last week, also comes shortly after another major District housing initiative in which the D.C. Council approved potentially significant changes in the city’s long-term zoning plan. Those aim to expand the city’s housing stock by 15 percent and reduce racial disparities, such as by adding more low-cost homes in mostly White neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park.

This one-two punch marks the biggest effort in years to restrain rent and mortgage costs that overly burden tens of thousands of D.C. households. The financial investment was enabled, in large part, by federal dollars surging into local coffers under the American Rescue Plan (ARP), signed in March by President Biden.

“These are two extremely significant developments that really help put D.C. in a much better position to address the affordable housing challenges that it’s been facing,” said Peter Tatian, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

D.C. to pour a record $400 million into affordable housing this year and next

Even the left-leaning DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which frequently accuses Bowser (D) and the council of doing too little for the city’s poor, was impressed.

“We’re really excited,” policy analyst Eliana Golding said, referring to the proposal to add a record-breaking $400 million over two years to the Housing Production Trust Fund. The fund helps finance construction and preservation of low- and middle-cost housing. More than $100 million in additional ARP money is going to other affordable housing programs.

“The federal funds have been a complete game-changer on this,” Golding said.

Admittedly, some caution is required. The council must approve the budget, although it appears to support key elements of the housing plan. Golding said that even Bowser’s robust proposal doesn’t add enough money to end homelessness or sufficiently repair public housing.

It also doesn’t match the scale of housing needs, which have soared in affluent metropolitan regions like ours.

For instance, Bowser said the extra money in the trust fund would help developers build an additional 2,700 subsidized housing units over the next two or three years. But the National Low Income Housing Coalition says the city needs an additional 23,370 affordable rental homes just for its lowest-income families, or those earning $38,940 or less for a four-member household.

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“Every dollar helps in terms of trying to meet needs, [but] there’s still a need for more,” said David Bowers, vice president of Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit organization focused on affordable housing. “That message hasn’t changed.”

Nonetheless, the District is doing more than its suburban neighbors to meet specific affordable housing goals set in 2019 by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

In 2020, for instance, the District fulfilled 31 percent of its annual target for new housing for the “lowest” income households, and 52 percent for the “low” income category. That’s according to a useful Web tool,, created by the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers, which tracks each jurisdiction’s performance.

By contrast, both Fairfax and Montgomery counties produced so little housing in those two brackets in 2020 that they barely registered on the charts.

“No jurisdiction is meeting all of the targets for the middle-income and below categories,” the association says. But it adds, “D.C. is leading the way in the low-income band and produced the largest number of units in the lowest income band.”

The District’s investments in the housing trust fund are reported to be the largest on a per capita basis of any major city in the nation. Bowser has made it her signature issue, telling an audience last week, “You know affordable housing is my baby.”

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In the other major initiative, the council on May 18 unanimously approved overdue revisions in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides long-term zoning decisions.

Among other things, the 1,500-page document allows for developers to add density by constructing more multifamily buildings along stretches of major corridors, including Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues NW.

The Bowser administration and other supporters say the increased supply of housing will help lower costs, but some analysts are skeptical.

Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the District should have gone further by allowing townhouses and apartment buildings to be built in many parts of the city where only single-family homes are permitted.

“Too much of the District, particularly the more affluent parts, are locked into fairly low density,” Schuetz said. “The Comprehensive Plan starts to nibble away at that, but these are relatively modest steps.”

Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC, a community organization of low-income residents, said: “More density does not create more affordability. It’s a smokescreen.”

Norouzi said more supply might drive down rents in some cases from $2,500 to $2,200 a month, “but it doesn’t go down to $900, which is what the most low-income people need.”

The revised plan also legally requires the Zoning Commission to consider “racial equity” in approving projects. Some activists say that gives it a new tool to block projects that will lead to displacement of Black or Latino residents.

In theory, it also will lead the commission to ensure that more affordable housing is constructed in predominantly White, affluent communities in Northwest Washington.

Critics counter that such neighborhoods have proved adept in the past at blocking projects they don’t want. Nothing in the plan is guaranteed. It’s still up to the Zoning Commission to approve individual projects and city agencies to supply adequate funding.

The Comprehensive Plan “is not self-implementing or self-actuating,” said Kirby Vining, chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a 98-year-old civic group. “At this point, it’s an awful lot of nice talk.”

But Vining said he sees the plan as a step forward. And the money in the budget will be very real. The District is setting an example the suburbs should follow.