D.C. Has Mechanisms To Provide Affordable Housing. Inexplicably, It Doesn’t Use Them

Ryan Cooper makes some good points about gentrification in D.C.–though the missing ingredient in all of the discussion about gentrification is the rise of the gentry class. But I digress (boldface mine):

Liberal Democrats are in charge of most major cities in America, and they’re not doing well at one key aspect of the job: providing housing for their poorest residents. Two recent developments illustrate this fact.

First, a report from the DC Fiscal Policy Center finds that affordable housing (which is to say, apartments at $800 per month or cheaper) has basically vanished from the private rental market in DC — public housing is about all that’s left, and there’s not remotely enough of it to satisfy demand…

In other words, DC is gentrifying. Why? Conservatives sometimes argue that it’s all those left-wing regulations to blame for preventing developers from building new capacity to meet the increased demand. This brings me to the second story.

In fact, DC has been building new apartments at a breakneck pace. About 24,000 new apartments have come on the market in the past two years. The problem, as you might have guessed, is that they are almost all luxury apartments. There are so many that, according to research from the firm Costar Group, rents of high-end apartments actually fell sharply in 2014, narrowing the cost gap between mid-range and luxury apartments.

So the supply argument does hold, in a sense. It’s just that all that vast effort and expense has been put forth to make luxury housing cheaper for rich people…

Ultimately, this is the result of the typical suite of liberal housing policies. Without coordinated city-wide policy to force the creation of the tens of thousands of affordable apartments that are needed and to open up existing rich areas, neighborhood after neighborhood will fall to the developer’s axe, which will then be frozen in amber, LEGO Movie-style, by the conservatism of the new rich residents. As I’ve argued before, the typical liberal solutions of inclusionary zoning and rent control don’t create nearly enough units.

How exactly to get there is an open question — personally I favor massively expanded public housing, upzoning, especially in already-wealthy areas, and mandating developers to build “lower quality” units (meaning smaller apartments without the concierge service or rooftop pool). That might involve changing the political structure of city governments in favor of city-wide decisions and away from local obstruction.

Here’s the thing–D.C. has a very good legal structure to preserve affordable housing, the District Opportunity to Purchase Act (‘DOPA’; boldface mine):

In February 2008, Marion Barry, then the chairman of the D.C. Council Committee on Housing and Urban Affairs, introduced a bill to help preserve affordable housing in the District. If a property owner was going to sell an apartment building that was home to low-income residents and put affordable housing at risk, the legislation stipulated, the District would have the chance to step in and buy it in order to keep those apartments affordable.

“If we are serious about preserving our affordable housing stock we must take an active and aggressive role in doing so,” Barry said in introducing the measure. The bill, known as the District Opportunity to Purchase Act, or DOPA, passed the Council unanimously six months later and became law that Christmas Eve.

Yes, that Marion Barry. Here’s the problem–the law has never been used (boldface mine):

But more than six years after it became law, DOPA has never been used. In fact, even as D.C.’s stock of affordable housing continues to disappear, the city has never even issued the regulations that would govern its usage….

The law didn’t come with a dedicated funding source, but in the boom times that still lingered as Barry started drafting the legislation in 2007, that wasn’t much of a concern. “The idea was to get it passed, and then try to look at the budget from there and try to move some funding,” says the staffer.

Then the housing market crashed, and with it the economy. The Housing Production Trust Fund, which uses fees from property transactions to finance affordable housing production and preservation, dried up, as did the budget surplus. “We had to deal with the reality,” says the staffer. “So we didn’t really push it much to try to find new money.”

…Yet the Department of Housing and Community Development still hasn’t issued the regulations governing DOPA—not a legal prerequisite for DOPA to apply, but a necessary first step before DHCD can begin invoking it. Nor has the city identified a funding source for the program.

According to DHCD spokesman Marcus Williams, the agency is “actively working on DOPA regulations” that will allow the city to begin preserving affordable housing under the law.

During the recession and the immediate aftermath, DOPA was largely forgotten because the city simply lacked the funds to use it, says Steve Glaude, executive director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development and previously director of Community Affairs under former Mayor Vince Gray. “I can honestly say, in my previous position, a lot of community interest group stuff came my way,” he recalls. “The DOPA regulations never did.”

I’m not Cooper is right about the D.C. Council being especially liberal. They probably do care about gentry, upper-middle class and middle class households. Given that most of the D.C. Council members identify strong with the gentry class, if not the wealthy, the reason they enact certain policies should be self-obvious. It’s not a bug. I suspect that quite a few would be happy if the poor moved to Maryland or Virginia.

That aside, I realize generic suggestions are the pundit’s stock-in-trade, and far less sexy than the doings of the D.C. Council, but there is a specific policy Cooper could be fighting for*–DOPA. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here–just fund it.

*DOPA does need to be changed so it can be activated if a property is being sold or demolished, or if the rental housing is discontinued; currently, it can only go into effect when a property is sold. But fighting for that isn’t sexy either.

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1 Response to D.C. Has Mechanisms To Provide Affordable Housing. Inexplicably, It Doesn’t Use Them

  1. colnago80 says:

    I suspect that quite a few would be happy if the poor moved to Maryland or Virginia.

    This is been happening for years, especially in Prince Georges Co., Md. which now has a greater percentage of Afro-Americans then does the District.

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