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Special Report: Why D.C. needs more affordable housing--and how we can get there

Abby Vineyard, 60, pictured with her daughter Alexis, 32, and son Sam, 30. Vineyard just bought her first condo. "The reason why we're here is because I push myself to do for them."

Affordable housing is not a benefit just for the very poor; it's something that can tie a city together. D.C. has some progressive housing policies, but it's clear the need is greater.
Abby Vineyard sleeps on her floor, and she couldn’t be more thrilled.

Vineyard, 60, just bought a two-bedroom, two-bath condo in Anacostia with the help of nonprofit developer Manna, Inc. It’s a process that started in 2009, when her last living situation went from bad to worse.

The apartment Vineyard rented in Adams Morgan had had problems with mold and flooding for two decades; her landlord ignored her complaints, said she was “exaggerating.” She and her two adult children, who live with her and have cognitive disabilities, were getting sick, having trouble breathing.

Then one day her toilet overflowed. Sewage poured into her unit.

“I realized then I had to do something.”

She put in applications “everywhere,” but because Vineyard’s household income is so low (Sam and Alexis, her children, bring home some money from the adult day care center where they do janitorial work, but Vineyard isn’t currently working), she got no responses, until Manna.

Vineyard says Manna helped her figure out how to save up for a down payment and navigate the mortgage application process. The organization also introduced her to her future neighbors through financial literacy classes. Finally, in August, six years after the flooded toilet, Abby, Sam, and Alexis moved in to their new unit in The Buxton. Home.

All her furniture was ruined by the floods in the last apartment. She’s managed to get a couch, a TV stand, and beds for her but not a bed for herself yet.

Vineyard doesn’t care about sleeping on the floor. “I can breathe.”

A shortage
This ending to Vineyard’s story, 30 years in the making, makes her one of the lucky ones.

According to data from the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis, by 2023, the D.C. region will add 149,000 low-income households earning less than 80 percent of the area median income, or just over $100,000 for a family of four. About half of those households will be "extremely" low income, meaning they make less than $32,000 yearly.

Many of those households will be coming here for jobs and will need somewhere to live. Yet D.C. is not building much housing for families making $32,000 a year.

This housing shortage will have ripple effects on our economy. But done right, affordable housing can be an asset to an entire community.

Sabrina Moore has faced intermittent homelessness since age 18, when her mother passed away. Since then, she spent time in the DC General homeless shelter, couchsurfed, and even squatted in abandoned buildings, all with her son Rayqwan, now 5, in tow. Last year, after giving birth to her second son, Samir (pictured), she was referred to an apartment run by the East of the River Clergy-Police-Community Partnership through D.C.'s Rapid Re-Housing program, which pays half her rent for a year. But her time is almost up, and she currently works at a Safeway in McLean, a 90 minute commute that costs $14, or just about two hours of pay at Virginia's minimum wage. “I’m thankful I have a roof over my head, I'm not [sleeping] in a car,” Moore says.

What is affordable housing?
Housing is considered affordable when someone is spending no more than 30% of their income to live there.

Some housing is affordable because of subsidies: either the construction of the building was financed partially through tax credits and other means to make the project cost less than it otherwise would, or the tenant is given a housing voucher to make up the difference between what she can afford and what the unit costs.

Other housing is affordable because it is older or less desirable than newer apartments and freestanding homes with better amenities. This kind of housing is important as well.

D.C. is losing ground on both fronts. According to a March report from the D.C. Fiscal Policy institute, the number of apartments renting for $800 or less (in dollars adjusted for inflation) has dropped by half since 2002. Apartment buildings that were affordable have been flipped and rents have gone up, so older housing is not being preserved. New construction in the District is overwhelmingly built not for low- or even middle-income people, but for the luxury market. 

This makes economic sense. "If you're a builder, you're not going to build for poor people. I wouldn't," says Linda Couch, senior vice president for policy at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. "Your business would tank. There's no profit to be made in the development...of affordable housing."

That leaves programs like D.C's inclusionary zoning policy, which gives developers the right to build extra units in a project so long as some of them are set aside as affordable. But these programs are difficult to implement and have yet to produce substantial numbers of affordable units.

So public investment is crucial. Yet public funds are dwindling. Couch says that the federal government has cut its public housing capital fund by about $600 million since 2010.

Angelia came to D.C. in 2002, fleeing domestic violence, and ended up almost immediately in a shelter; she stayed there 7 years and three months. Angelia, who did not want her last name used, says that throughout her time in the shelter she looked for work, but couldn't find any. “For anyone, [the shelter] is really awful. You can’t prosper in it,” she says. Two months after moving into an efficiency in NoMa, she landed a job. Her efficiency is run by housing-first provider Open Arms, which provides homes to 16 women who have histories of mental health issues, trauma, chronic poverty, and unstable relationships. “This housing issue really changed my life. It’s done so much for me. It would for anyone.”

Who needs affordable housing, anyway?
Affordable housing in the District is not simply for the jobless, the elderly, and those with disabilities. The area median income for the District (which is calculated based on the entire metropolitan area) is $107,000 for a family of four. Much affordable housing built is priced for a household making 80 percent of AMI, or $85,000 a year--not exactly an unemployed loafer.

Put another way: The National Low Income Housing Coalition says a person need to make over $28/hr to afford a median-priced two-bedroom apartment in D.C. That's more than the average teacher salary at many charter schools (DCPS pays more). More than many EMTs are paid, slightly more than the starting salary for police officers.

The lack of affordable housing is also having ripple effects across the entire economy. In New York City, for example, good cooks are getting harder to find. One cause is housing. A cook in New York earns between $10 and $12 an hour, and on that salary, she can't afford to live near her job. As rents go up, fewer people find themselves willing to work the long hours demanded in a restaurant kitchen and then have to commute farther and farther to get home. Some restaurants may ultimately have to close their doors. In D.C., service and hospitality jobs are also a growing sector; if restaurants here can't find workers who live near enough to make commuting realistic, they may also need to close.

What should affordable housing look like?
In the postwar years, architects had this idea of the "garden city," where buildings would turn their backs on the street. Public housing was not immune to this trend, so housing projects were designed, architect Dave Stembel says, "to face these verdant pedestrian courtyards—which by the 1970s were paved with asphalt and nobody hung their laundry out anymore because it would be stolen."

In fact, most affordable housing in the country was, until the 1980s, built by the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development, with, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “an eye to quantity, not quality.” But “the projects” have become racially isolated islands, concentrations of low-income people and concentrations of unemployment, drug use and crime. As these bunker-like eyesores deteriorated, those who could move out, did, leaving the remaining inhabitants worse off.

Now, most affordable housing is built by private developers, but the idea that it should be well designed is still catching on.  In The Architecture of Affordable Housing, the seminal book on the subject, author Sam Davis, U.C. Berkeley professor of architecture, explains:

"That [affordable housing] should meet the cultural and psychological needs of its residents or have the quality and amenities of market-rate housing is often seen as a misguided use of money...this patronizing attitude has led to the construction of housing that stigmatizes and penalizes its residents." Why, the thinking goes, should people in affordable housing have it as nice as the richer people, who have “earned” it?

Stembel, the architect, says that isn’t a fair approach.

“Should we be able to drive down a city street and know somebody's income level because they don't have a stoop or they don't have a fenced-in backyard? Should we be able to stigmatize people just by looking at the street?”
It is also a myth that good design is expensive (though it certainly can be); careful planning and a few small tweaks can ensure that a project fits into its surroundings, looks good, and yet doesn't cost a fortune.

Affordable housing: Then and Now
The Cabrini-Green housing complex, a project born in the 1940s, housed thousands of low-income residents in Chicago. The city gradually relocated residents and tore down Cabrini-Green structures, demolishing the last high rise in 2011. Some have held up this project as a reminder of what can go wrong with affordable housing design.

The John and Jill Ker Conway Residence, shown here in an architectural rendering, was designed by Sorg Architects with dignity and function in mind. "When you first look at the building, it doesn't look affordable, it looks like high-end housing," says founder Suman Sorg. When complete in spring 2016, the building will incorporate 124 units, 60 of which will be reserved for homeless veterans. The remaining units will rent to households making 60 percent or less of the average median income for Washington, DC. The building is named for historian and memoir writer Jill Ker Conway and her late husband, John. Both John and Ker Conway's father were veterans wounded while serving.

Good design is not just fair for the residents who will live in the units. It can be a benefit for the entire neighborhood. According to a study out of New York University’s Furman Center, when the city built new affordable housing, nearby property values rose. (A couple important points: the city, like D.C., has placed an emphasis on creating mixed-income buildings—and most of the buildings were built on the sites of vacant or dilapidated property.)

High design also helps a neighborhood accept a new building. The Wall Street Journal tells a story of Marcus Johnson, a public-relations professional in Oakland, who opposed a low-income housing complex planned for his neighborhood. “It was going to be a hangout for drug dealing,” he said—and then he saw renderings of the modernist project and changed his mind.

Stembel says he sees the PR perspective in his work, too. “It really seems that the tide has changed in terms of how affordable housing is looked upon … which I take as a great sign. I think that design in a small way has played a part in that.”

What should we do?
The city's $100 million per year investment in the Housing Protection Trust Fund is an important step; that money can be used to help low-income tenants purchase their apartments and preserve them from becoming high-end buildings.  It is more than the city spent on the trust fund in 2011 and 2012 combined and is among the biggest investments in a fund of its kind in the nation.

D.C. is also one of the few jurisdictions to give tenants the first right of refusal to purchase their building if a landlord decides to put it up for sale.

Couch's group thinks we can do more. "Ve need some basic structural changes in the tax code to free up more money," she says. Her organization wants to change the income tax deduction that homeowners get for paying their mortgage so that only interest on the first $500,000 of debt is deductible (currently homeowners can claim interest deductions on mortgages up to $1 million). By doing that, she says, the government would save $230 billion over ten years. By directing that money into HUD's budget, "Every city, every governor would have the resources they need to build housing, to preserve housing, and to operate housing that's affordable to low-income people...Mayor Bowser would have the money she needs to build housing, to have rental assistance, to give families help all year round."

Three myths about affordable housing
Myth: The people living in affordable housing are unemployed.
In D.C., the majority of the people living in subsidized or otherwise affordable housing do work, not counting retirees or people with a disability. "The problem is not that it's not people aren't working, it's that they don't earn enough even working full time to afford what rents are," says Linda Couch of the Low Income Housing Coalition.

Myth: Bringing "those people" into my neighborhood will cause the crime rate to rise.
Fact: A 2013 study found that "there is virtually no relationship" between the number of households using housing vouchers and crime rates. The study, by Michael C. Lens of the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA, found that in cities, there is actually a tiny negative relationship between vouchers and violent crime (in other words, a 75 percent increase in the voucher rate would lead to a 4 percent decrease in the violent crime rate).
The amount of housing built using Low Income Housing Tax Credits and HOPE VI "do not appear to have any relationship with crime."

Myth: Affordable housing will lower my property values.
Fact: According to Arizona State University's Housing Research Synthesis Project, which looked at 21 recent studies on this topic, there's no one answer to this question. But of the studies that did find that building affordable housing lowered nearby property values, ASU says "the impacts are generally slight and often transitory." And a set of studies in New York found building affordable housing often increased nearby property values.

Thinglink annotations by Rhea Kennedy. Cabrini Green image by David Wilson, used according to CC-by-2.0; Main image courtesy of DLR Group|Sorg

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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