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Working toward a more affordable city

Bob Pohlman

Supporters at CNHED's Housing For All rally

In a district where the median rent for a home is nearly double that of the U.S. average — and the average home value is double the rest of the country's — the term "affordable housing" can feel like an oxymoron (especially for those of us paying rents and mortgages here).

As an umbrella organization for the nonprofits, agencies and businesses working to chip away at D.C.'s high cost of housing, the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development certainly has its work cut out.

There are some bright spots in the picture. A mayor-appointed housing task force will release its report on improving the local housing picture, and Mayor Vincent Gray announced at his State of the District address a $100 million investment in preserving and creating affordable housing, in addition to ongoing efforts.

But several trends that are a boost to the overall economy, like an ever-improving housing market and an influx of new residents to D.C., do not bode well for lowering the cost of living here.

CNHED's Executive Director Bob Pohlman tells us about the challenges and opportunities the nonprofit envisions for the coming year.

How does the coalition work to combat unaffordable housing in the District? What can its members do?
Our organization does a lot of advocacy. We advocate for more resources because you really can't do afford housing without some government resources. If it could be done by the market, then you wouldn't need affordable housing programs. By definition, it requires outside resources.

We also do capacity building for our member organizations to do the work and operate the housing programs, like housing counseling for tenants and assistance with purchasing, building, preserving and operating (the properties).
We don't spend a lot of time with federal government because we don't have a vote here in the District... It's much more fruitful to focus on local decision makers and their resources, like the mayor, D.C. council and local agencies. We also focus on advocacy on policy and processes, finding better ways to get the funds out to programs.
What does news that the housing market is picking back up nationally — and that it never really dropped here in DC — mean for your efforts?
The region has done better in the housing crisis. That's just going to put increased pressure on housing prices, and also rents. We have about 1,100 people moving into the District each month and the population has gone up by 30,000 in the last 27 months. That's obviously putting enormous pressure on the housing prices and pushing up rents. 

What makes DC unique or different from other cities on the affordable housing front?
We have an enormous population that's below the poverty line and are paying more than half their income for housing. They have severe housing burdens. We're not unique in the sense that large cities have that issue, but we have a lot of low-income people and a pretty large homeless population. (Elevation's note: The last count showed nearly 7,000 adults and children without homes.)

Do you see the affordable housing problem in DC getting better or worse? And what contributes to the problem?
Well, it's been harder in the last few years because of the Great Recession and declining revenues in the Local Rent Supplement Program and Housing Production trust fund — and actions by the [D.C.] government to use some of the money in the trust fund for other purposes. Also, we have federal cuts that are having a big impact. The HOME program [which provides formula grants to states and localities] was cut in half. The Community Development Block Grant was reduced 20 percent.

However, revenues for the District are up considerably above estimates, so we expect things will be looking up in terms of local housing funding. 

Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin.

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist who covers food, agriculture, and the environment and lives in Alexandria, Va. She writes about food, etc. at thinkabouteat.com.
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