D.C.’s transformation from a city struggling and losing population in the 1990s to today’s increasingly popular and booming district has brought many benefits. But this transformation has created a growing affordable housing crisis. Many longtime residents and would-be new transplants without large bank accounts feel that they don’t have a place. Local leaders from Mayor Muriel Bowser on down rightly perceive this as a problem that must be addressed.
Unfortunately, there is no one magic bullet to keep our city inclusive and make sure longtime residents can enjoy the same amenities as wealthier new comers. Rather, we need to look at an array of policy solutions as we would a toolbox where a number of different tools are needed to effectively tackle any job. In keeping with this metaphor, we also need to remain ready to add to that toolbox and sharpen or upgrade existing tools.
One tool ready to be sharpened is Inclusionary Zoning, or IZ.
Adopted in 2006, IZ requires builders of most residential developments larger than nine units to set aside 8 to 10 percent of the units as permanently affordable to middle-class and lower-income house- holds. Typically these units are reserved for families making between 50 and 80 percent of the area median income. For a household of two, this equals $44,000 to $70,000 a year. IZ pays for lower priced homes in market rate developments by allowing the developer to build more units than would otherwise be allowed under zoning rules. It requires no direct subsidies. Thus we are able to use our city’s sustained building boom to create additional affordable units now and bank them for the future.
Critics say the program is too slow to put units on the market. To date, just over 100 units, mostly rent- als, have become available. As of late April, 61 of 105 available IZ rental units had been leased, with another 11 sold or under contract out of 13 for sale. Additionally, the beginning of the program has suffered from many administrative kinks.
Both of those initial problems are being addressed. IZ’s slow start will soon be a thing of the past, with an estimated 1,000-plus units currently in the pipeline. Many of the administrative problems are being resolved, and the city now has a fully staffed team to manage the program. The IZ program is operational and doing what it was designed to do. The Urban Institute recently pronounced D.C.’s pro- gram sound and of great potential.
IZ is about to deliver 19 affordable units in Upper Northwest at 5333 Connecticut Ave., and is now leasing 17 affordable homes at the Drake at 17th and O streets in Dupont Circle. How else would such moderately priced housing opportunities ever be possible there?
But IZ can and should do more. That’s why a coalition of housing, religious, labor and smart growth groups is urging the Zoning Commission and mayor to act. The D.C. Council just passed a resolution asking the same. We should strengthen IZ to increase the number of low-income households that qualify for the program and the number of IZ units produced.
This means bringing down the top end of the income range from 80 percent of area median income (AMI) to 70 percent AMI or lower, and increasing the number of units gained at the 50 percent AMI level (affordable for a two-person house- hold earning just under $44,000 annually). We should also ask for at least 10 to 12 percent of homes in a residential building to be affordable, and provide additional bonus density and zoning flexibility to ensure developments recover the added cost of the affordable units.
Fixing any problem as complicated as D.C.’s affordable housing crisis requires a lot of tools. IZ is one way we can make up ground in our affordable housing crisis — and one that doesn’t require millions of dollars out of D.C.’s budget. It helps working-class residents have more housing options as prices continue to rise out of reach. Other programs better address the needs of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Along with strengthening IZ, these other efforts — part of the needed continuum of help require our deepened investment and support, too. The unprecedented level of funding for affordable housing in the budget proposed by Mayor Bowser and given initial approval by the D.C. Council is a great start to the Bowser administration and council session.
We hope that Mayor Bowser and the Zoning Commission will take the opportunity to act now while our city continues to attract more people and build new housing at a rapid pace.
Cheryl Cort is policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth and a leader of the DC Campaign for Inclusionary Zoning.
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