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

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announces record funding for affordable housing at the Spring Flats housing complex on Monday.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announces record funding for affordable housing at the Spring Flats housing complex on Monday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Monday announced plans to invest $400 million into affordable housing production in the District, a record-setting figure that comes amid renewed pleas from housing advocates to increase options for low-income residents.

Bowser’s proposal would provide an immediate boost to the Housing Production Trust Fund — the city’s primary tool for financing affordable housing — by placing an additional $150 million into the fund for the current fiscal year, with $250 million more allocated for fiscal 2022.

The funding, set to be included in Bowser’s budget proposal to the D.C. Council this week, will help developers build an additional 2,700 subsidized housing units over the next two or three years, she said. The mayor has placed at least $100 million into the housing fund each year since 2015. She said the $400 million will expedite her goal of building 36,000 housing units by 2025, 12,000 of them affordable to targeted income groups.

Since January 2019, the city has produced about 16,000 new housing units; 2,558 are classified as affordable.

Bowser’s budget proposal will include enough housing vouchers through the Local Rent Supplement Program to ensure that half of all homes built using the fiscal 2022 funds are reserved for the lowest income bracket in the District — those who earn less than 30 percent of the area’s median family income (about $39,000 for a family of four). Advocates for the poor for years have criticized the city for allowing many subsidized homes to be priced for higher earners.

“I promise you, we will be very intentional about the types of housing that will come with these investments,” Bowser said at a news conference Monday. “We know, especially as the median income has gone up in our city, not all affordable housing is created equally.”

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Polly Donaldson, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, said a portion of the fiscal 2021 funds will go toward a series of projects that will create 462 affordable housing units while preserving 175 more.

She was one of several officials to join Bowser and members of the D.C. Council for the news conference at the Spring Flats housing development, a 185-unit affordable complex in Petworth that includes 88 apartments for seniors and was described last year as being affordable for a range of low- to moderate-income households.

“We have to consider Black families and the history of displacement and making sure people can call this place home,” said council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), who represents the area. “Oftentimes we hear the community say, ‘We support affordable housing.’ But then when it comes to the type of affordable housing, we start to see a difference there.”

The funding announcement comes less than a week after the council passed amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a massive document that lays out a blueprint for planning and development in the District and pushes for construction of more affordable units in affluent neighborhoods that have historically lacked them.

It also comes at a time when the District is flush with cash, including federal coronavirus relief money — a sharp contrast from one year ago, when economic fallout from the pandemic pushed Bowser to propose a variety of cuts to balance the budget.

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Brittany Ruffin, an affordable housing advocate at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, praised Bowser’s announcement, highlighting in particular the mayor’s commitment to make sure that operating funds are available to support new affordable housing units after they are up and running.

In the past, Ruffin said, a lack of operating funds has resulted in some developers saying they couldn’t afford to construct units for the lowest-income earners in the District, because they would not be able to generate enough revenue from rent to staff and operate the buildings. A far larger share of the Housing Production Trust Fund has gone toward creating units accessible to those with higher incomes, despite legislation that is supposed to mandate that 50 percent of the fund’s expenditures go toward designated “deeply affordable” units.

“Without the money that will go to operating the unit, you can build a unit. But to actually fund someone being there — there’s no money to actually operate those units,” Ruffin said. “It just shouldn’t happen that the money is put there without the matching operating money. That’s pointless.”

The deputy mayor for planning and economic development, John Falcicchio, said the city will survey housing developers to explore how best to utilize the new pot of money and will offer greater subsidies for projects in areas with high land values. For example: The D.C. nonprofit So Others Might Eat has pitched a housing project in Ward 3 — the wealthiest ward in the city — that would add 23 affordable units and align with Bowser’s goal of spreading affordable housing throughout the city.

The mayor’s long-term plan calls for building 2,000 more affordable units west of Rock Creek Park by 2025. There are fewer than 500 affordable units in that part of the city right now.

“We need projects, that’s where it starts,” Bowser said. “We don’t make the projects, but sometimes we give nudges.”

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