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D.C.'s Wealthiest Neighborhoods Have Built Little Affordable Housing, But That Could Soon Change

D.C. has built thousands of new affordable units in recent years, but many wealthy neighborhoods in Northwest have failed to deliver any meaningful contribution to the city's housing stock. 

Connecticut Avenue NW, a main commercial corridor, is lined with low-rise buildings in parts of Ward 3.

District officials, developers and advocates are pushing to spur more affordable housing construction in these neighborhoods, but face roadblocks from high land costs to restrictive zoning to community backlash. 

Ward 3, a high-income area west of Rock Creek Park dominated by single-family housing, has contributed less than 1% of D.C.'s new affordable housing since 2015, according to a September study from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Of the 9,285 affordable homes created in the city during that period, the study found just 53 were produced in Ward 3. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser recently set an ambitious goal of building 36,000 new housing units by 2025, with at least 12,000 of them affordable units. Department of Housing and Community Development Director Polly Donaldson said the mayor is working to ensure that areas like Ward 3 play a larger part of that housing development than they have in recent years. 

"That has been a historic pattern that we're working very hard here at the agency to change," Donaldson said of the geographic disparity. She will discuss the issue March 20 at Bisnow's D.C. Metro Affordable Housing Summit

Donaldson said the administration is currently conducting a fair housing study that is looking at the distribution of affordable housing and will come up with recommendations for how to change the pattern. She expects Bowser will address the issue in her March 18 State of the District address and the budget she releases soon after. 

"We have to be intentional about expanding affordable opportunities," Donaldson said. 

A map showing the distribution of new (blue) and preserved (yellow) affordable housing projects across the District since 2015

Former D.C. Planning Director Ellen McCarthy, now a professor at Georgetown University, said the District has for years struggled with building housing in areas with a higher cost of land. 

"It's always a dilemma for the city when you have a finite amount of money and are trying to figure out how to get the best leverage," McCarthy said. "The policy in the past had been, 'Let's get the biggest bang for our buck, let's put affordable housing where land is cheaper and we can achieve more units.' What we realized is all that succeeded in doing was concentrating poverty." 

Providing affordable places to live in high-income neighborhoods is important in creating upward social mobility, Jubilee Housing President Jim Knight said. Jubilee focuses on affordable developments in Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant, areas it calls "high-opportunity neighborhoods." 

"If you are able to make room for a family who has limited resources in a high-opportunity neighborhood, they're going to benefit from that neighborhood like anybody else would," Knight said. "It may cost a little more up front to make a property affordable, but over the long haul, the benefits are greater for the family and the city." 

A rendering of Jubilee Housing's project at 1724 Kalorama Road in Adams Morgan

Jubilee last year launched a fund aiming to raise $5M to put toward affordable projects in those Northwest D.C. neighborhoods, and Knight said it has exceeded that target. It currently has four projects around the Adams Morgan area in various stages of development. He said overcoming the high land costs requires creative financing methods, and Jubilee utilizes several federal and local housing programs. 

"It certainly takes a lot of determination," Knight said. "The budgets are tighter because of the acquisition costs. We end up having to layer more sources into a project ... so it's a complicated capital stack that often takes longer to assemble. To drive that deep affordability in higher-cost properties, it takes that sort of creativity." 

In addition to mission-driven developers like Jubilee, advocacy groups have also formed with the goal of creating an equitable distribution of affordable housing.

McCarthy serves on the steering committee of Ward 3 Vision, an advocacy group pushing for more housing, both market-rate and affordable, to be built in the ward. She said the largest roadblock to developing housing in the area has been community backlash. 

"The opposition to development projects in Ward 3 has been so vocal that it has definitely discouraged developers," McCarthy said. "Even where there is underdeveloped land, there has been a reluctance to proceed because of fear that community opposition would drag it out, and even if you get it approved, it might be appealed."

Appeals have delayed thousands of housing units across the District, and D.C.'s federal court has blocked multiple projects that had previously been approved, including developments the city is partnering on such as McMillan and Barry Farm. Donaldson said the ongoing process to amend D.C.'s Comprehensive Plan will be critical in helping alleviate these roadblocks to building housing. 

"The comprehensive plan is going to need to address issues such as affordable housing that's held up in litigation with units that are ready to be built but can't be because of that," Donaldson said. 

McCarthy, who testified at the D.C. Council's 14-hour Comprehensive Plan hearing in March 2018, hopes to see the city increase allowable density in areas like Ward 3 and resolve issues around the planned-unit development process that have led to appeals. 

The city can also create more affordable housing by being creative with properties it owns, McCarthy said, proposing projects that would build housing on top of recreation centers, fire stations and other city-owned facilities. She also said the District should make it easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units on their property, a method that can increase the housing stock in single-family neighborhoods.

While there are many potential solutions the District can pursue, all agree that housing affordability is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed. Thousands of people continue to move into the District every year, increasing demand for housing and pushing up costs. 

"As investments are occurring across all eight wards, there does come a time when it's too late to build enough affordable housing," Knight said. "We're at that time." 

Donaldson and Knight will discuss ways to solve the District's affordability problem March 20 at Bisnow's D.C. Metro Affordable Housing Summit, held at The Hamilton Live.