How to Build Affordable Housing Without an Expiration Date

September 12th, 2016 | by Claire Zippel

A promising new policy can help preserve DC’s disappearing affordable housing – by requiring that all housing built with government support be kept affordable forever, instead of only for a set number of years, as is often the case right now. Last week, DC area housing leaders discussed the how’s and why’s of “permanent affordability” at a roundtable convened by Enterprise Community Partners, Urban Institute, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and DCFPI. District leaders should adopt this forward-thinking permanent affordability policy to break the cycle of building affordable housing, only to risk losing it when affordability requirements expire.

Photo/Aimee Custis for Coalition for Smarter Growth

Photo/Aimee Custis for Coalition for Smarter Growth

Today, affordable housing built with public dollars usually comes with an expiration date. Programs like DC’s Housing Production Trust Fund require the housing it supports remain affordable for a set number of years, after which the owner is free to convert to market-rate housing. The terms can be short as 30 years for rental housing and 5 years for homeownership housing.[1] When entire buildings of low-cost housing are lost, low-income residents are displaced from their homes and communities, and it is expensive and often impossible for the city to rebuild the lost housing.

But what if affordable housing built with public dollars had no expiration date? Housing officials from Boston, Massachusetts joined DC housing leaders to discuss their policy of requiring all projects receiving public subsidy to stay affordable permanently. Boston did this after seeing its past housing investments evaporate as affordability terms expired. The city ensured its permanent affordability requirement worked financially, by putting in more dollars up-front so buildings can stay in good condition long-term, and by pledging to step in if buildings run into trouble.

The District has adopted permanent affordability for some of its housing programs – affordable housing built on land sold by the District, and inclusionary zoning units remain affordable as long as the building stands – but not for all of its housing programs.

The District will get better bang for its buck by adopting a permanent affordability requirement like Boston’s. The city is investing record amounts in affordable housing, yet that housing may not be there for future generations of DC residents if it’s allowed to expire after a certain number of years. DC’s housing leaders should build upon the productive discussions at the roundtable last week, and bring permanently affordable housing to DC.

[1] 30 years: National Housing Trust Fund.

5 years: DC Housing Production Trust Fund (pending final regulations on “distressed areas.”) See:

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