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Elevation Q&A: Georgetown University's Michael Diamond on affordable housing in DC

Michael Diamond, director of the Harrison Institute for Housing and Community Development

Everywhere you look, new homes are under construction. As D.C.'s population grows by 1,100 every month, the influx of urban professionals is fueling demand for new apartments and condominiums. With abundant options in established and edgy, gentrifying neighborhoods, middle-class urbanities face the challenge of choosing which vibrant, walkable hot spot to call home.
Lower-income people are facing radically different challenges as housing costs rise with the demographic tide. As developers eye formerly ignored neighborhoods, affordable housing becomes a relative term.
Michael Diamond is among the leading observers of the affordable housing dynamic. Diamond heads the Harrison Institute for Housing and Community Development, a project of the Georgetown University law school that helps tenant groups buy, renovate and operate affordable housing. A long-time analyst of D.C. housing policy, he helped write the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act of 1980, which requires landlords selling their property to give tenants a good-faith opportunity to purchase the property.
Elevation DC spoke to Professor Diamond about the institute and its support for low-income home ownership.
What is the Harrison Institute’s philosophical and policy vision?
We define poverty as both a lack of means and a lack of ability to influence one’s environment. Our goals are to assure affordable housing and build power among the poor.
What are some of the projects you’re working on now?
We’re working with a tenants' building on Upper Georgia Avenue that’s racially and ethnically quite diverse. It’s almost evenly divided between African Americans and Latinos, with a smattering of Asian and white residents. We’re helping a single-room-occupancy building in Adams Morgan to get financing so the residents can buy and run it as a tenant-owned cooperative. We’re renovating a cooperative on East Capitol Street near the Maryland line.
What does gentrification look like from your vantage point?
There’s no longer a neighborhood that’s immune from potential gentrification. It used to be that in Southeast, gentrification was not an issue. We have to figure out where low-income residents are going to live. They’re beginning to be priced out of Southeast. Not in the immediate future, but it’s beginning to happen. Shaw, U Street and Columbia Heights took many years to gentrify. Southeast is in the early stages of that process now.
What are the policy solutions?
The city needs to put more money into the production and preservation of affordable housing. Vacant or underused city buildings could be made available to affordable-housing developers on favorable terms. Strict enforcement of inclusionary zoning [which gives developers the option to build more units if some are set aside as affordable] would be something of a help.
Financing is the biggest issue. The city used to fully finance homes with 40-year loans at 1 percent interest, which made a gigantic difference. Now low-income people are often offered private 25-year loans at 5.5 percent. If there were a blended public-private rate, it could come out in the middle around 3 percent.
The city could put together a loan-guarantee fund so more private lenders would be willing to lend at reduced rates.
In terms of financing and policy, the city has moved a little bit away from its formerly very strong support of tenant ownership. Bureaucratically, the three city housing agencies need to work better together so that there’s more coordination among them.
How can we stay informed about these issues?
Because our work is legal and confidential, we generally don’t publicize projects until they’re done. Some of the organizations working on affordable housing are the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development, ONE DC  and Shelterforce. People can read the report Housing the in the Nation’s Capital by the Urban Institute and Fannie Mae. People can donate money. Lawyers, accountants, developers and community organizers can donate time and skills. This is an important issue and many people don’t quite know the story. Something has to be done about it. 

Read more articles by Andrea Adleman.

Andrea Adleman is a freelance journalist, food critic and communications consultant based in the Atlas District. Her portfolio ranges from political science and sociology to advanced cupcakology.
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