New Bill Diagnoses a Serious Affordable Housing Problem in DC, But Does it Offer the Right Prescription?

November 16th, 2011 | by Jenny Reed

Tomorrow, the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development will hold a hearing on a bill that aims to increase affordable housing opportunities for certain groups of DC residents.  The bill identifies an important problem, because the targeted groups — such as residents with severe mental illness — have some of toughest affordable housing challenges in the District. But the bill would rely on an affordable housing program, Inclusionary Zoning, that is not best suited to solve it. 

DC’s Inclusionary Zoning program was passed in 2006, but has only recently gotten underway. The program works by giving residential housing developers a “density bonus” that allows them to build 20 percent more residential units than zoning regulations would typically allow.  In exchange, the developers are required to set aside between 8-10 percent of the total housing units as affordable to people who make between 50 percent and 80 percent of area median income, or between $36,000 and $58,000 for a single individual.  

The Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) Amendment Act of 2011 would restrict all housing built under the IZ program to  the chronically homeless, people who have severe mental illness, people with HIV/AIDS, people with developmental disabilities, and people who are victims of domestic violence. 

While the goal of helping these groups get housing is important, IZ is not the most effective solution: 

  • Many residents with these special needs have incomes too low to qualify for IZ. For example, about four-fifths of clients of DC’s Department of Mental Health receive Medicaid, meaning that they have income under $22,000.  Homeless residents have incomes on average of less than $8,000 per year.   
  • Many of the groups targeted in the bill have better outcomes when their housing is combined with supportive services.   A number studies have found that the chronically homeless spend less time in shelters, hospitals, and utilizing emergency services when placed in housing that connects them with case management and supportive services. IZ housing does not include any supportive services.   

But there are programs the District could look to that would be more effective at providing affordable housing opportunities for the groups identified in this legislation: 

  • Expand Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) and the Local Rent Supplement program (LRSP).  PSH is specifically geared towards the chronically homeless while LRSP is used to create affordable housing for very low-income residents.  Non-profits who utilize LRSP often also provide the crucial link to supportive services.   
  • DC can leverage the value of its public land to create affordable housing opportunities.  The District could pass legislation to require that public land used to develop housing should have a certain percentage set aside as affordable.  The value of the public land would provide the subsidy needed to support the affordable housing. This approach was used was by the District in the past, on parcels of land belonging to the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation. Legislation could require that nonprofits providing case management and additional services for populations such as chronically homeless would get preference for any affordable units created.   

There are many residents who need help to afford DC’s extremely high housing costs, and residents with special needs often need more aid to navigate DC’s housing market.  DCFPI supports the intent of the proposed legislation and looks forward to working to support efforts that will meet these goals most effectively.

One Response to “New Bill Diagnoses a Serious Affordable Housing Problem in DC, But Does it Offer the Right Prescription?”

  1. […] Should all inclusionary zoning units go to chronically homeless and people with disabilities? [DCFPI] […]