Affordable housing: it's not just one element, it's many elements
One of the ideas in the Washington City Paper "How to Fix Everything"issue is on affordable housing. It's written by Joe Sternlieb, director of the Georgetown Business Improvement District.
He writes that the best way to focus on affordable housing ("Stop Building Affordable Housing. Buy It Instead") is to focus on preserving existing affordable housing, by buying apartment buildings for sale, and putting easements on a certain proportion of the housing to maintain affordability permanently.
He makes the point that this will maintain a greater stock of affordable housing than the focus on inclusionary zoning requirements requiring that a certain amount of newly produced housing be affordable.
Note that the Montgomery Housing Partnership owns some buildings, including in the heart of Silver Spring, that have mixed income apartments that function exactly as Joe suggests. (MHP press release, "Montgomery Housing Partnership Brings Business Community Together to Reflect on 20 Years of Providing Affordable Housing in Montgomery County")
Of course he is right. But it misses the point in at least one respect. You have to engage in many policies and practices in order to build and maintain a stock of affordable housing, one policy, one idea, even his, isn't enough.
But he is right that advocates fighting the inclusionary zoning battle missed that the "real war" was the overall loss of already existing "affordable"housing, which as the real estate market heated up, was repriced. The problems of course were abetted by the conversion of apartment buildings to condominiums, which further reduced the stock of rental housing.
A balanced policy for producing and maintaining affordable housing involves at least seven policies:
(1) portfolio investment in existing multiunit buildings to maintain housing as permanently affordable--in DC, Jubilee Housing and Community Preservation* and Development Corporation are examples of nonprofits that do this (* in the public housing field, preservation doesn't mean historic preservation but preservation of affordability), WC Smith Company, a for-profit real estate company, has similar projects in their portfolio also (see "With project near H Street, Enterprise Community Partners offers vision for affordable housing" from the Washington Post), Arlington Housing Corporation and others do this around the region, etc.;
(2) support for community land trusts and cooperatives to extract land from the market to maintain affordability (one of the problems with this is by reducing the upside of appreciation potential for property, people do lose some potential wealth benefits);
(3) putting easements on apartment buildings so that a certain proportion of the units remain affordable, as Joe Sternlieb suggests;
(4) providing density bonuses and other incentives for the production of affordable housing as part of new developments (which is called "inclusionary zoning," and for which Montgomery County, Maryland is a national leader);
Left: Brown's Court is accessible from the 100 block of 6th Street SE in Capitol Hill. This dwellings are on the "interior" of the block. Some are on separate lots, others are on the backside of street fronting properties.
Note as an aside that there needs to be a system developed to sell/rent these units that works with individual properties, but doesn't put the responsibility on the developers for running the process. E.g., in Montgomery County, the Housing Partnership may buy for-sale units in bulk and then rent them. I have suggested that the city set up the equivalent of a real estate sales operation, just as how groups like the Mayhood Company are retained by developers to market their condominiums, because they are good at it.
(5) allowing accessory dwelling units and accessory apartment units in single family houses and lots--the new Zoning Code will be either/or, but not both; many houses and lots, like ours, could accommodate both--the Office of Planning has waffled on this because of opposition in some quarters.
Adding this kind of housing allows people to rent housing more cheaply while living in settings other than large "multiunit" buildings, it spreads additional housing throughout the city and throughout neighborhoods (ideally it would be focused in areas served well by transit). It also may make buying property more possible by some people who would otherwise be priced out of the market, so that they need additional income from the property, which they can get by renting out ADUs and apartments (also see, A Guide to Building a Backyard Cottage in Southeast Seattle, and the Income Property TV Show on HGTV).
(6) monitoring privately owned multiunit buildings and stepping in when necessary to ensure that properties are maintained and that housing doesn't become decrepit or vacant, as discussed in the blog entry "Deeper thinking/programming on weak residential housing markets is required: DC example, Anacostia."
(7) which can mean, stepping in and taking properties over through receivership, when they are mismanaged. This is a problem in Prince George's County and has been in DC. See "Pr. George’s begins to address ways to preserve affordable housing" from the Post about evident problems with certain properties in the county and the lack of a procedure, policy, and system to deal with it.
My biggest lesson that benefits from hindsight: without advanced planning, when circumstances change, you're screwed
In 2000, the city's planning function was pretty weak, but rebuilding, after having been neglected for many years. But advocates were unprepared for the acceleration of development that we would begin experiencing.
Not having housing policies in place focused on affordability, not having neighborhood plans, not having a parks master plan, and other more rigorous planning and urban design and transportation planning frameworks in place meant that a lot has happened without any means to correct the faults.
These problems continue today, and affordability in housing is merely one element. Although recently the city produced a housing plan (press release, report--Bridges to Opportunity: A New Housing Strategy for DC), although a housing strategy was produced at the tail end of the Williams Administration, and was mostly ignored by the next Administration (see also "In District, affordable-housing plan hasn't delivered" from the Washington Post).
Note also that the operation of the DC Housing Production Trust Fund (DC Department of Housing and Community Development), and its provision of financial support to various housing developments, is a national best practice.
-- EPA report, Affordable Housing and Smart Growth: Making the Connection
-- NTHP report by Donovan Rypkema, Historic Preservation and Affordable Housing: The Missed Connection
-- Shelterforce Magazine/National Housing Institute