The Wash

D.C. on track to meet its housing goals, but some advocates say they aren’t seeing benefits yet

D.C. set a six-year goal to build 36,000 units by 2025, 12,000 of which should be affordable. So far, the city is on track to achieve this. But some advocates are still dissatisfied. 

Amidst rising housing prices, D.C. has managed to meet its affordable housing goals, including in Ward 8, a region with a high concentration of low-income residents. Even so, some advocates are dissatisfied with the progress. 

City data suggests that D.C. has exceeded its six-year housing creation goals in its poorest neighborhoods, including far Southeast and Southwest D.C. The goals were set in part to relieve D.C. residents of the skyrocketing housing costs, though some residents in these neighborhoods say they aren’t feeling the difference yet. 

When Mayor Muriel E. Bowser began her second term in 2019, she set a housing goal of producing 36,000 units by 2025 — 12,000 of which are to be affordable. 

The District is on pace to meet its housing goals by 2025, some experts say. (Danny Nguyen/The Wash)

Housing goals like these — which aren’t unique to the District — often lay the foundation for an administration’s priorities and its agency’s plans. D.C. is no exception to this.

Since 2010, the District’s population has grown by over 100,000, but new housing unit permits have not been issued at a comparable rate, according to the Office of the Mayor

All this has contributed to spiraling housing costs relative to income. In the District’s Ward 8, the median annual household income is about $47,000, making the area D.C.’s poorest, according to data from DC Health Matters, a group of hospitals and community health centers that tracks the District’s demographics. The average annual cost of living in the District, though, is over $85,000, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a federal agency that studies the US economy.

Since setting up the housing initiative in 2019, the city has seen an increase of over 30,000 total units, with over 8,000 being affordable units, according to data from the deputy mayor’s office. And in poorer regions, like Lower Anacostia, Southwest, and Southeast D.C., which includes Ward 8, the city has exceeded its six-year target, city data showed. 

Ward 8 has the second highest number of new affordable units created since 2015. Some housing experts suggest this is because of the neighborhood’s zoning laws, which allow for easier housing creation.

That’s because regions like these are easier to build upon, said Yesim Sayin, executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, a nonprofit research center. “The zoning is more permissive than, say Wards 3 or 6, with a lot of opportunity to build medium to high density housing,” Sayim said. 

Large swaths of D.C. are zoned for low-density single-family units that must be 7,500 square feet or larger, according to a D.C. Policy Center study. But Wards 8, 7, 5, and parts of Ward 3 are prominently zoned for semi-detached homes — single-family homes joined by a wall, which allows for increased density, the study found. More than that, semi-detached homes are usually more affordable than single-family homes, as construction and utility costs are usually cheaper for the former housing option.

At least in Ward 8, Sayin said housing development hasn’t stalled yet. The District still has many parcels of land available to it, which should make way for over 2,500 units, she said.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission representatives for Ward 8 did not respond to requests for comment. 

Even with this progress, the District “can do better… given the level of need,” said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a D.C.-based advocacy group. “There are many many long vacant properties in Ward 8 and citywide – thousands of vacant units – both multi-family and single-family homes – lying fallow for years.” 

For this problem, the city needs to use eminent domain — which allows the government to take private property from unwilling sellers and convert it for public use — on “vacant and blighted properties” across D.C. to increase the city’s housing stock, Lynch continued. 

Eminent domain has a controversial history, especially in D.C., which tried to take control of private land to use for the District’s soccer team in 2015. The private owner of the land sued the city and won $32 million in 2018. 

“With a fixed income, it’s still hard out here,” said Wendy Bryant, 67, a decades-long Ward 8 resident, about D.C.’s housing creation progress. “Everything is getting so expensive… I don’t know what the city is doing but I know I can barely afford to live here.”

Danny Nguyen

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