Housing DC's Future


Whether its residents relish the role or not, the District of Columbia is the nation's capital city. As such, it symbolizes what America stands for. What it does, and how it does it, is broadcast around the world. It helps shape global opinion of our down-to-earth success in achieving our lofty goals and ideals. Who lives here, votes here, pays taxes here, and governs here has the unique burden of being on display as America's urban showcase.

The city is now struggling to prepare a new 20-year Comprehensive Plan that appropriately recognizes virtually every American special interest. A combination of idealism and pragmatism, it will provide a public guide book on how the city should grow. How it grows will depend on who it attracts to live here and work here. This in turn depends on how the city's limited land is zoned for continued development. Housing, and all that goes with it, will help define the desired evolution of the city's "residential mix", the lifeblood of the capital city's 'body politic'.

This analysis is intended to provide some (updated) quantitative data to inform that ongoing debate.

[It is also the subject of NARPAC's Editorial for February, '06]


Due to the amount of quantitative graphic data presented in this new analysis (much of it from the Census Bureau's 2004 American Community Survey), this work has been broken into seven bite-sized pieces for easier loading, printing and greater reader selectivity. You can read the brief summary immediately below, and then decide to continue to the end of this chapter, or shift to another one by clicking on the chapter titles listed below.


This opening chapter provides a summary of the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force Report (CHSTFR) which forms the basis for the Housing Element in the draft Comprehensive Plan. NARPAC details each of the major recommendations, and provides several direct quotes which seem to capture the philosophic essence of their objectives. NARPAC provides frequent "asides" in the form of italicized commentary. In essence, we believe that this report is strictly an advocacy document for more affordable housing, and lacks the breadth or quantitative backup to be easily transformed into a balanced element of the Comprehensive Plan.

Issues addressed here:

o background
o summary of task force report recommendations:
o a clear underlying philosophy

If this does not hold your interest, click ahead to:








In December, 2005, at a meeting of the Washington Regional Network, the Mayor's Task Force for a Comprehensive Housing Strategy for DC, provided an open and valuable briefing on its forthcoming task force report. The Task Force appears to pick up on many of the issues and suggestions of the Urban Institute's "Equitable Housing Strategy for DC" critiqued earlier by NARPAC.There may not be 100% correlation between the two efforts, but it is abundantly clear that there is zero correlation between this report and the comments and suggestions provided by NARPAC above.

There appears to be something inherent in the outlook of affordable housing advocates that results in the generation of only subjective argumentation within the narrowest confines of DC's borders at the expense of objective analysis with a broader regional focus. The result is a product which is tightly honed to achieve a set of specific objectives for which there is little or no broader rationalization. It appears to NARPAC as an exercise in futility: it explores the "partial derivative" of a much larger and more complex equation in what amounts to "social engineering to maintain the status quo".

But more troubling to NARPAC is the pronouncement that this document is likely to be incorporated into DC's new 20-year Comprehensive Plan with minimum change. It would metamorphose from a mid-term single-purpose wish-list into a long-ranger action plan to shape the future of the nation's capital city. It would be essentially independent of any interaction with other elements of the plan. Since the same treatment is being proffered for DDoT's independent "Transportation Vision", the quality of the Comprehensive Plan is in serious jeopardy. For this reason, we are going to some extremes to point out the weaknesses in this supposed "strategy". We start with a summary of the Task Force's recommendations, move on to a sampling of their underlying philosophy, and conclude with an extensive list of specific comments. As appropriate, we offer parenthetical, italicized comments [like this].

summary of task force report recommendations:

Homes for an Inclusive City
A Comprehensive Housing Strategy for Washington, DC

Recommendation #1:The Government of DC (GDC hereafter) should adopt a plan to implement the "Vision for Growing and Inclusive City" by increasing residential development throughout the District.

1.1: DC should increase the supply of housing by at least 55,000 units to accommodate a growth in population of 100,000;

[no reason given why.] 1.2: The location of new production envisioned by the task force should support a balanced growth policy, which will allow increases in population density;

[a 20% increase in the city's population will certainly require an increase in population density, but many of the suggestions here are very sound.] 1.3: Both assisted and market-rate housing produced in DC should adhere to high architectural design standards, providing housing with amenities and access to transportation for all neighborhood residents;


Recommendation #2: The GDC should accelerate its efforts to preserve and increase high-quality affordable housing for both owners and renters.

2.1: The city government should use federal programs and its own resources to ensure that at least a third of the new units built in the city are affordable on a long-term basis;

[no rationale provided whatsoever.]

o 7600 units for 0-$26,790 (30% of AMI)
o 5700 units at $26,790-$53,580 (30-60% of AMI)
o 5700 units at $53,580-$107,160 (60-120% of AMI)
o about 4400 should be accessible to people with disabilities

[AMI basis does not really reflect DC's much lower base]

[use statistically relevant income brackets such as used for reporting household income, and avoid the false impression of arithmetic precision: 0-$30,000; $30,000-$50,000; $50,000- $100,000]

2.2: The GDC should strive to increase the city's ownership to 44%

[that's about what it is now: shouldn't it improve over the next 20 years?]

2.3: The GDC should increase its efforts to assist low-income renters

[why not stimulate shift towards capitalist goals of property ownership?]

2.4: The GDC must give priority to preserving existing affordable units

[this is tantamount to preserving a poverty base of 33% of all urban households indefinitely.]

2.5: The city should undertake a multi-year, mixed media, public service announcement campaign focused on the housing affordability challenge with the objective of providing a strong case in support of the social and economic advantage of a progressive and inclusive housing plan for DC

2.6: The GDC should review existing grant and loan requirements and procedures tied to the Housing Production Trust Fund to ensure that the current funds are utilized efficiently and effectively

2.7: The city should identify and top new sources of revenue for the Housing Production Trust Fund to support subsidies needed to keep rental and owned housing affordability

Recommendation #3: The GDC should direct public and private funds towards developing attractive mixed-income neighborhoods in all parts of the city and especially in the "new neighborhoods"

3.1: Housing programs should be an important part but only one part of the city's overall strategy to reduce and deconcentrate poverty and revitalize neighborhoods

[in fact, it is not clear that more subsidized housing is the place to start in many areas]

3.2: The city should choose existing neighborhoods with potential for sustained improvement and coordinate its investment in them, targeting a limited number of neighborhoods at a time

[good, realistic approach.]

3.3: DC should continue its successful efforts to transform distressed public and assisted housing projects into viable mixed-income neighborhoods, using federal public housing HOPE VI, capital and modernization funding, CDBG dollars, and its own resources

[good, realistic approach.]

3.4: The development of the large parcels of public land (for example, the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative) into "new neighborhoods" should provide housing affordable to all income levels and types of households

[this may be a reasonable approach, but may not be "sufficient" to the objective]

Recommendation #4: The GDC should integrate housing for persons with special needs into all types of housing in neighborhoods throughout the city

[Mercifully, NARPAC lacks the competence to plunge into this poverty-steeped area]

4.1: permanent housings solutions
4.2: coordinate housing and service funding
4.3: follow recommendations of "Homeless No More..."
4.4: coordinate housing agencies with mental health department
4.5: include multi-family senior housing
4.6: additional short-term rent subsidies for returning offenders
4.7: additional short-term rent subsidies for youth leaving foster care
4.8: 8% of all units should be accessible to the disabled
4.9: don't discharge from hospitals, foster care, jail, and prisons into homeless shelters

Recommendation #5: The GDC should increase its capacity to facilitate subsidized and market-rate housing production and renovation and to manage housing programs efficiently

[certainly consistent with stated objectives]

5.1: support improvement of DCRA agency performance (and others)
5.2: improve coordination, streamline actions affecting housing production
5.3: get pro-active in enhancing affordable housing production
5.4: centralize affordable housing data
5.5: update/modernize housing and rehab codes
5.6: institute a "site plan review process"
5.7: simplify PUD process
5.8: housing agencies must be culturally, linguistically competent and accessible to disabled
5.9: relevant city employees must be versed in Fair Housing Act policies

Recommendation #6: Since housing programs alone cannot create a livable, inclusive city, all GDC departments should work effectively to attract and retain residents, especially families with children, by improving schools, public safety, transportation, air and water quality, and city amenities

[this comes across as hopelessly subjective. An equally good case could be made for making several items above prerequisites to providing the housing. The case for attracting "families with children" is simply not there. Why not differentiate an ideal urban lifestyle from an already available quality suburban lifestyle?]

6.1: reflect neighborhood development priorities in transportation, infrastructure, parks, public safety, etc.
6.2: re-direct and coordinate "under-utilized funding streams"
6.3: DCG should persuade DCPS, local colleges, major employers, to work collaboratively to improve adult literacy, stimulate education-to-work initiatives, and encourage workforce- employment programming (?);
6.4: address persistent housing code violations more firmly....
6.5: encourage neighborhood-scale retail through zoning changes, financial incentives, marketing and recruiting efforts

a clear underlying philosophy

To the Task Force's credit, the scope and focus of its objectives are not disguised, nor are its guiding principles. It is clearly more subjective than objective, and appears in many respects to be trying to make a marginal urban quality of life more tolerable rather than significantly upgrading it. Here are some excerpts from, (and not necessarily fully reflective of) the draft introduction (as of 9/7/05):

"The final report of the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force Report (CHSTFR) will lay out a ten year blueprint of the goals, methods, schedule, and estimated public and private funds for improving the housing of DC residents and ensuring better access to affordable housing."

[this cannot be converted from a ten year, near-term, plan into a comprehensive 20-year plan by simply changing one "10" to a "20"]

"The prices of homes are soaring either further out of the reach of the city's low-income residents, making it even more difficult for them to move up to the middle class."

[a good argument for increasing home ownership, or at least a stake in property ownership. More important, the step up to the elusive "middle class" almost certainly depends more on income potential (i.e., household education) than subsidized housing.]

"The affordability crisis is widening the gap between the income and racial groups and worsening the tensions between them."

[NARPAC was surprised here, and again later, to see the race issue raised as a justification for affordable housing. The issue is affordable people in a land-limited city, and the determinant is not skin color but income potential (i.e., household education).]

"In previous decades, DC lost many of its middle class residents and is now in danger of losing the rest."

[This cannot be corroborated in fact. It is a romantic crutch not supported by Federal Statistics of Income data on either numbers or income levels of DC residents.]

"Yet the same booming housing market that precipitated an affordability crisis also offers the opportunity to transform Washington into a vibrant, inclusive changing their hometown from a place divided by race, wealth, and geography into a tolerant community where people of all incomes, races, and cultures enjoy the benefits of urban living and economic opportunity".

[Surely 19,000 affordable homes are not going to turn DC into a "vibrant, inclusive city" without divisions. Words like "inclusive", "divisive", and "diverse" contain a flavor of demagoguery inappropriate for quantitative planning efforts. Those three words are examples of convenient euphemisms lacking measurability. More later.]

"We believe that by strategically developing and preserving housing, Washington's people and government can create an inclusive city of mixed-income and mixed-race neighborhoods across the city not just selected areas and increase the population by 100,000 residents during the next ten years"

["Mixed-income", and "mixed-race" are more examples of amorphous words which come across as Utopian to dreamers and ambiguous to analysts. Just what are the criteria for the optimum mix? What is the norm? How is it graded? Which of the two is more important? Which is more natural? What is the objective? What really draws neighborhood together? What really causes them to deteriorate? More later.]

New mixed-income neighborhoods will benefit all our citizens. A strengthened tax base will finance outstanding education, health care, and other services that especially help our lowest- income residents."

[One of the world's most persistent myths is that good old, solid, "middle income" residents strengthen the city's tax base. Most of the time, the tax revenues from the "middle income" tax payers barely cover their own demands for city services, and seldom cover the additional demands of the poor unless the middlers greatly outnumber them, which is surely not the case in DC now, or as envisioned. The costs of additional households at and below the mythical, seldom quantifies "middle income level", will have to be counterbalanced by high- and very-high income households that currently keep local, state, ands federal governments in the black. In NARPAC's view, it is the common sense and solid ethical values of the middle class that makes them so crucial to sound American neighborhoods, not their tax payments. More later.]

"Mixed-income neighborhoods will also offer the opportunities that encourage economic mobility among the lowest-income residents."

[NARPAC is not known for its sociological sensitivities. but the concept of '"upward mobility" resonates strongly, particularly relative to alternatives that appear devoted to making a marginal status quo more tolerable and/or persistent. Relative to whipping up vibrancy and inclusiveness, the use of mixed neighborhoods to enable mobility seems to be a winner.]

"(Through rising) real estate values, incomes, and sales, the housing boom pours new tax revenues into the city's coffers...."

[One of the few references to the need for additional tax revenues.]

The task force believes that a growing middle class is the key to the city's future viability:"

[See above: moral viability, yes; financial viability, no.]

While the city must use part of its new resources to improve housing conditions for the lowest income groups, whose needs are the most desperate, it must also make a major effort to enable middle income working people to find and retain housing they can afford. Without these efforts Washington will increasingly be a divided city, which is home only to the affluent and the poor."

[Surely, the American "middle class" does not yet need to be subsidized by its "upper class"!]

"Ensuring high-quality dwellings for people of all incomes, however, is only part of what we need to build strong mixed-income neighborhoods. To attract and retain residents, the streets must be safe. All communities must have excellent schools and well-maintained parks."

[NARPAC could make a sound case for reversing this point: "Unless DC can make its neighborhood streets safe and its community schools competitive, high-quality housing will not attract either the families or the childless households the city needs and wants."]

"The neighborhoods also need more retail stores and restaurants to provide our residents with convenient shopping and dining and to recapture sales now lost to neighboring jurisdictions."

[The inference that public funds should not only subsidize housing, but subsidize the other normal small-business manifestations of a capitalist system, seems ill-advised. Why should the city permanently underwrite communities that cannot attract small retail shops?]

[The notion that DC is losing a significant amount of retail sales to neighboring jurisdictions is not supported by available data. The major retail component lacking in the city is automobile sales which requires large open lots.]

"Time is short the housing boom and the revenues it offers will not last forever. .....(DC) must act quickly. We must not squander this chance to create an inclusive city."

[Create an inclusive city?, surely we're not starting from scratch. And surely the possibility must be explored that DC is already too inclusive!]

or Go forward to:







Any serious reader who wishes an (informal) hard copy of this text and/or charts can provide a mailing address by using the "feedback" feature immediately below. Please signify "all" or a specific chapter. Expect some modest delay, please.

return to the top of the

Did you find this of interest?
Please give us your FEEDBACK

This page was updated on Feb 5, 2006



© copyright 2007 NARPAC, Inc. All rights reserved