The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In D.C., the rent is still too darned high

Construction is in full swing at D.C.'s Southwest Waterfront along Maine Avenue SW near the Wharf in 2016. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Heather Raspberry is executive director of the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers.

More than 10 years ago, a New York gubernatorial candidate became an Internet sensation with a campaign that declared the rent was “Too Damn High.” In the D.C. region, we can relate to rents that are still too high. Affordable housing continues to be out of reach for those in need and is not keeping pace with demand. This region has more than 6 million people and the one of the largest economies in the United States. Someone earning a $15-hour minimum wage would have to work 88 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom rental in D.C. For minimum-wage earners in Maryland and Virginia, it climbs to more than 100 hours.

As the pandemic reshapes how and where we live, sustained investments in the future of affordable housing for our region cannot be an afterthought. The region must develop 375,000 net new housing units by 2030 to meet its affordable housing demand. We measure the numbers, yet within every “unit” are people who deserve a safe and affordable place to call home.

We know racial inequities were embedded in housing long before the coronavirus. Our society’s very fabric is woven with policies and programs that are intended to maintain the status quo. If hurt and harm can be legislated, we can also legislate equity and justice by boldly tackling systemic racism in our housing systems and repairing the resulting harms.

As a change association, Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers’s collective of 450 members working across the private, public and social sectors are united around a common goal to develop and preserve affordable housing in our region. We recently released a Housing Indicator Tool (HIT) to give policymakers and stakeholders an additional instrument to hold local jurisdictions accountable in their efforts to expand affordable housing options for individuals and families.

The governments tracked in the tool still have a considerable amount of work to do to reach the housing targets. To thoughtfully address the challenge, they must adequately fund and scale programs to meet the demand for housing serving middle and lowest-income households.

Even this level of commitment is not enough on its own. Rather, it will be critical to have private-sector and philanthropic partners at the table.

Though targets are a critical component of affordable housing production, it is an endeavor facilitated by policies, tools, funding sources and strategies working in concert. To move the needle, you must have priorities set and have the tools and policies in place to meet the housing targets.

First, identify affordable housing and the prevention of displacement as a priority. The D.C. Comprehensive Plan, a blueprint for development, must include strong investments in affordable housing to achieve greater housing equity.

Second, mandatory or voluntary inclusionary housing programs must be a part of planning. Require or incentivize the production of below-market-rate housing units to address the housing needs for people in the lowest-earning brackets.

Third, establish, fund and maintain a housing trust fund. One of the biggest problems facing the region is capital. With a housing trust fund, jurisdictions can plan accordingly as they work to meet their affordable housing targets.

Fourth, adopt policies to attract investments. This includes offering property tax, fees or other abatements or exemptions to rental housing projects that include affordable housing units.

Lastly, making publicly owned land available for affordable housing will ensure that there is an adequate supply in areas with high land costs and limited development opportunities.

The D.C. Council is debating its Comprehensive Plan, which provides a robust model for achieving housing equity. D.C.’s plan includes setting goals to have at least 15 percent of homes in each part of the city designated as affordable to low-income families, increased capacity for new homes near Metro stations, a racial equity lens in official decision-making and constructing more than 1,000 affordable homes that now are stalled at the Zoning Commission. Combined with other elements and an expanded inclusionary zoning requirement, this plan is representative of a holistic approach to expanding affordable housing.

The region’s affordable housing crisis is in the hands of leaders and legislators who can put policies in place that address the housing needs of the region. Combined with support from all sectors — business and philanthropic — our communities can thrive, setting an example for the nation to follow. It is up to all of us to cooperate and collaborate in solving this challenge. We must navigate these waters with intention, placing our communities and their humanity front and center to solve for the need, because the rent doesn’t have to be so darned high.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Rents for the rich are plummeting. Rents for the poor are rising. Why?

Balakrishnan Rajagopal: The pandemic shows why we need to treat housing as a right

The Post’s View: In housing, a surprising piece of evidence that the fight against racism is working

Joy Sharon Yi: How a bus ride tells the story of a crisis that existed long before the virus hit

Kirby Vining: Are the proposed changes to D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan already out of date?

Neil Albert: D.C.’s growth is tied to the amended Comprehensive Plan

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