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What's 'new' in affordable housing? Not a lot--yet

The message was clear at Bisnow's 'New Era of Affordable Housing' panel Thursday: the DC region needs more of it, and we aren't yet making enough of it.

It's not just the right thing to do, but an economic competitiveness issue, said David Bowers, VP and market leader, Mid-Atlantic, for Enterprise Community Partners. "If...these projections [come true] that more workers are going to be low, moderate-income workers who cannot afford the housing in the region, we become less competitive."

Bowers and others praised the city's recent $100 million commitment to D.C.'s Housing Protection Trust Fund, but noted that "developers could use billions of dollars. We've got tens of thousands of families in this region struggling every day to make it."

Challenges are numerous--financing a new affordable project is one, of course. Another is the time it takes to get deals done. "It's a rare seller who wants to hang around for a two-year closing," said Stephen Wilson, president of Stratford Capital Group, another panelist.

Existing affordable housing is also disappearing to be replaced by luxury buildings, too. In Arlington, said Nina Janopaul, president of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, a fourth of the county's housing was affordable in 2000. That percentage has dropped to 9 percent. "A lot of people living in those units are hanging on by their fingernails, they're doubling up. Why do they stay here? Because cities have been built to be economic engines"--in other words, this is where the jobs are.

Bo Menkiti of the Menkiti Group added that the reason D.C.'s population is growing--besides jobs--is that people are attracted to "diverse, thriving and economically vibrant neighborhoods. That happens in transition, not stability." A neighborhood that is  only struggling or only contains $3000-per-month apartments is one-note.

But the panel saw signs for hope. One such sign came from the previously mentioned $100 million commitment, which Department of Housing and Community Development director Polly Donaldson called "unrivaled." (Per capita, it's the largest investment in the country.)

Phuc Tran, investment manager at Jair Lynch, suggested that perhaps private investors might start seeing affordable housing as an attractive investment, because there's so much competition to invest in other multifamily housing. Michael Bodaken, executive director of the National Housing Trust, saw signs for hope in energy efficiency and clean energy, which will cut energy costs for residents at 11 D.C. buildings by $55,000 a year.

Despite the panel discussion being billed as a "new era," the fact remains that affordable housing is one of D.C.'s most entrenched challenges--and luckily, the region has no dearth of people working to solve this challenge.

Read more articles by Rachel Kaufman.

Rachel is the managing editor of Elevation D.C. She also covers tech, business and science for publications nationwide. She lives in Brookland.
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