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DC's affordable housing might be saved through collaboration

Polly Donaldson, director, DHCD: "�anybody who wants to be able to live in the District should be able to live in the District."

Moderator Andy Shallal: Are DC's efforts toward affordable housing "too little, too late?"

Fernando Lemos of Mi Casa explains that the cost of building new affordable housing is on the rise

Ed Lazere: "�I wish our [former] leaders would have anticipated that opening up a brand new metro line...would have led to gentrification"

Housing advocates came together October 13 to discuss the best ways to ensure that "anybody who wants to live in the District should be able to live in the District."
Nearly a year after Elevation DC questioned the inclusivity of DC’s housing market at its “Gentrification, Revitalization or Renaissance?” panel discussion, affordable housing advocates and concerned community members gathered again to assess the state of the market under the District’s new administration.
The lively event, "Who Needs Affordable Housing?" took place October 13 at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Anacostia. Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets and 2014 D.C. mayoral candidate, moderated the event, which included panelists representing government, nonprofit and private agencies.
To start, Polly Donaldson of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development affirmed to guests on behalf of Mayor Bowser that “anybody who wants to live in the District should be able to live in the District,” it’s just a matter of how.
As the DC Housing Authority tends to an applicant waiting list in the tens of thousands, she said, one solution is to build housing throughout the city “at all economic levels.” To this end, the government must work with private developers to ensure that affordable units are accessible in new projects. Further, the government must work to build what the private market isn’t building, preserve existing affordable housing units and link affordable housing investments to public policy.
The landscape of housing affordability varies now more than ever as “housing prices are going through the roof and incomes are not,” said of Ed Lazere of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Still, “the people at the bottom”—meaning those who live in households making $30,000 or less annually for a family of four—have the most severe problems,” he says. “Two out of three are spending more than half their incomes just to keep a roof over their heads, so those are the folks who are most at risk of not having food in their refrigerator and not being able to pay the rent from month to month.” Those are the folks who need affordable housing most.
Several nonprofit organizations in the city receive government funds to work specifically with this growing group of people.
While they are lucky to have a relationship with the District government, says Fernando Lemos of Mi Casa, organizations like his need more assistance. In addition building affordable housing for aging residents, the organization advocates for young people who were born and raised in D.C. communities and plan to raise children in those same neighborhoods, except now “[they] don’t need a one bedroom apartment anymore, they 2 and 3 bedroom apartments and large houses,” he says.
While renters can barely afford these accommodations, neither can those who are helping them. Over the past few decades, the costs of acquisitions and construction for Mi Casa continue to rise, leading Lemos to suggest the need for more groups, investors and resources.
Those additions may also be available through the government, said Donaldson. Under the Bowser administration, the government has reserved $100 million for the construction of new units or the preservation of existing units. Developers who use the funds must price 80 percent of the units at 50 percent of the Area Median Income. 
Donaldson is also chair of a short-term Strike Force, she said, that exists to “come up with that strategies and the resources that are needed to be leveraged in the private sector.”
As plausible as these resources may seem, “is it too little too late?” asked Shallal.
“I wish our [former] leaders have anticipated that opening up a brand new metro line going straight downtown would have led to gentrification in Columbia Heights, Petworth and U St.,” said Lazere. While it may be too late for some neighborhoods, he continued, all hope is not lost throughout the city.
From a developer’s standpoint, said Dave Stembel of Grimm+Parker Architects, the struggle comes in the form of “how do we create a project that is going to make and contribute to the sustainability of that community,” even as the demographics of a community change. The answer: he wasn’t quite sure.
While gentrification and changing demographics are a challenge to some, Lemos sees it as an opportunity where longtime tenants are given the chance to purchase their properties when owners decide to sell. The Tenant Opportunity Purchase Act “is a great instrument to be able to buy,” he said, in addition to home ownership programs like HPAP.
In the end, “it’s going to be a group effort,” said Donaldson. It’s the only way to create and preserve affordable housing in the city.

Read more articles by Christina Sturdivant.

Christina Sturdivant is a native Washingtonian who's always watching and writing about the latest cultural, community and innovative trends in the city. She's interested in people and companies that create equitable opportunities for longtime residents and transplants alike.
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