Testimony on the Green New Deal for Housing Amendment Act of 2022

DCFPI Policy Analyst Eliana Golding’s testimony at the public hearing on the “Green New Deal for Housing Amendment Act of 2022,” DC Council Committee on Housing and Executive Administration, November 22, 2022. 

Chairwoman Bonds and members of the Council, thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is Eliana Golding, and I am a Policy Analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI). DCFPI is a non-profit organization that shapes racially-just tax, budget, and policy decisions by centering Black and brown communities in our research and analysis, community partnerships, and advocacy efforts to advance an antiracist, equitable future. 

I am testifying today in support of the Green New Deal for Housing Amendment Act of 2022. My testimony lays out why social housing could be a transformational tool that fills some of the gaps in DC’s ongoing fight against displacement, which disproportionately harms residents of color and their families. My testimony also offers recommendations to strengthen the potential impact of the bill based on existing models and urges Council to invest in the creation of social housing infrastructure for the District.

The DC government is responsible for ensuring the health, stability, and vitality of the District’s neighborhoods. In order to achieve this, residents need access to high quality, affordable housing where they can build and nurture community. The social housing model as outlined in this bill would offer District residents the kind of stability that is essential to the health and wellbeing of all communities. By creating social housing infrastructure, an investment in municipally owned, permanently affordable, and sustainable housing, DC Council will be fulfilling its responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of District communities.

A Social Housing Program Would Fill Affordable Housing Gaps and Protect Tenants from Climate Change 

While the District is among the nation’s leaders in prioritizing affordable housing, the increasing cost of housing places an ever-greater burden on the residents with low and moderate incomes. It is clear that the District’s current policies, programs, and practices are insufficient to meet the need for safe, stable, and affordable housing. Tenants, especially those with low incomes, are vulnerable to vast fluctuations in the housing market and to the business decisions of landlords. Furthermore, supply of affordable housing lags significantly behind demand. An Urban Institute Study of 2017 data showed that DC had just 47 units of adequate, affordable, and available housing units for every 100 extremely low-income families in need of those units.[1] 

While groundbreaking investments in tools like the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF) should help the District meet residents’ need for affordable housing, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has struggled to meet the statutory requirement to use 50 percent of the HPTF for deeply affordable housing. As a result, progress toward meeting the need for deeply affordable housing is slow. Furthermore, as articulated by multiple heads of DHCD, the Fund is limited to the projects it receives as proposals from developers. In other words, the priorities of private developers, as reflected in their development proposals, shape the landscape of affordable housing.[2] 

Federal and local vouchers also fail to mitigate the District’s affordable housing shortage and to house residents in safe, healthy units. Nearly 40,000 eligible District residents are waiting for, but have not received, a housing voucher, which makes clear that existing voucher programs cannot meet residents’ need for subsidized housing.[3] Additionally, as advocates and residents with vouchers have noted, poor oversight of the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) means that the agency is overpaying for voucher-subsidized units that have safety and quality issues.[4] The District needs to invest in new tools that guarantee the creation of stable, safe, and deeply affordable housing. 

Climate change is another ever-growing threat to the health and safety of the District’s tenants, particularly DC’s Black and brown tenants. As noted in the World Health Organization’s Health and Climate Change Urban Profile report of DC, residents of color are most vulnerable to climate risks including poor air quality, heat islands, and flooding. Coastal flooding will have a larger impact on residents of Wards 7 and 8, areas which are predominantly Black and have poverty rates over twice that of the city’s average. As the number of extremely hot days in DC rises, those who are most at risk of heat-related health conditions are those who cannot access or afford adequate cooling.[5]  

In creating a social housing paradigm for the District, it is important for the Council to learn from the history of public housing in the United States and to ensure that social housing is different. The roots of public housing management are deeply flawed. Designed with segregation at its core, the US public housing system has suffered as a result of decades of federal disinvestment  motivated by racism.[6] The harms of federal disinvestment in public housing are apparent in the dilapidated conditions described by DC tenants for years and outlined in the recent US Department of Housing and Urban Development report on DCHA.[7]   

In developing its social housing program, the District must 1) maintain stable investments in the upkeep of social housing buildings and 2) ensure sufficient building oversight and management that is accountable to the residents. The bill as proposed indicates that social housing developments may maintain a tenant leadership board to participate in the management of social housing buildings. The bill should require that tenants be given the opportunity to form a leadership board. Council should work closely with tenant associations, tenant organizers, and those who have participated in co-op or condo boards to develop a tenant leadership model that ensures accountability to tenants but does not place undue burden on tenants for the management of their buildings. 

The social housing model proposed in this bill will help the District meet residents’ need for affordable housing while avoiding the challenges faced by existing programs such as the Housing Production Trust Fund, voucher programs, and public housing. This bill’s social housing model also protects tenants from the encroaching harms of climate change. If appropriately funded, social housing would be a powerful new tool for slowing and preventing the displacement of Black and brown residents across the District.  

Longstanding Social Housing Models Offer Lessons in Promising and Ineffective Practice   

Internationally, social housing is a widely embraced affordable housing strategy. While programs vary from country to country, social housing generally refers to publicly owned housing that prioritizes affordability, democratic resident control, and social equality. The program outlined in the Green New Deal for Housing Amendment Act adheres to these basic tenets while also prioritizing much-needed environmental sustainability provisions.  

As the Council develops a social housing program for the District, it is important to consider key lessons both from the affordable housing programs already being implemented in DC and the social housing programs administered abroad highlighted below:  

Lessons from Austria and the United Kingdom 

Similar to many European countries, the majority of Austria’s social housing infrastructure developed following World War II, when war damage necessitated public investment in the reconstruction of housing. In Austria’s capital, Vienna, residents can access social housing provided either by the municipality, limited-profit housing associations, or private providers receiving public subsidies.[8] While Vienna’s model cannot precisely be replicated in DC due to differences in governance and economic systems, I want to highlight a few instructive elements:

  1. Eligibility for social housing in Austria is semi-universal (income eligibility is capped at 200 percent average median income), meaning that social housing is treated as a public good rather than a time-limited safety net program. As a result, social housing communities are stable, mixed-income, and do not produce economic segregation. 
  2. Social housing is abundant and accessible because there is political consensus that housing is a basic human right. Roughly 24 percent of Austrian housing stock is social housing; in Vienna, that number is nearly 44 percent.[9] 
  3. The prevalence of social housing in Austria, and the government’s robust involvement in the country’s housing supply, has the effect of capping market rents. In other words, the existence of social housing keeps rents more affordable for everyone, not just for social housing residents.[10] By investing in social housing, DC can regulate the market.

A social housing program for the District can draw lessons from the way that Austrian lawmakers have put affordability and accessibility at the core of their social housing program.  

Similar to Austria, the United Kingdom (UK) also heavily invested in the construction of social housing following World War II in an effort to house returning soldiers and to address the safety hazards of privately owned slums. By 1977, almost half of the population (42 percent) lived in social housing but this rate vastly declined in the 1980s due to mass privatization of the Right to Buy program begun under then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government.  

The UK’s Right to Buy policy gave social housing tenants the right to purchase their dwellings, leading to the sale of about 2 million social housing units between 1980 and 2015.[11] While the tenants who were able to purchase their units benefited from this policy, the UK’s significant reduction in social housing supply means that the UK’s current need for truly affordable housing far outstrips its supply.   

The District can avoid UK-style social housing decline by preventing, even in the long-term, provisions allowing the sale of social housing units on the private market. Tenant purchase and homeownership are clear priorities for the District, but can be better achieved through other existing tools. A social housing policy for DC should guarantee public ownership and affordability in perpetuity. If the Council chooses not to safeguard against privatization, tenants of those buildings should maintain the first right to purchase under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. 

Social Housing Could Revolutionize Affordable Housing in the District 

The Green New Deal for Housing is an opportunity for the District to create an innovative model for affordable housing that centers on community stability, affordability, sustainability, and social equity. Council should look closely at the successes and the failures of existing affordable housing programs and subsidies in order to design a social housing program that is financially sustainable and accessible to those who need it most. Council also should look at existing social housing models and work closely with values-aligned nonprofit housing providers to develop a robust and sustainable financial model that will allow DC to maintain properties as affordable, District-owned housing in perpetuity. 

[1] “Mapping America’s Rental Housing Crisis,” Urban Institute, 2017.

[2] “DHCD Performance Oversight Answers,” Government of the District of Columbia, 2022.

[3] https://dccouncil.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/DCHAATT.pdf

[4] Annemarie Cuccia, “Thousands of people in DC use housing vouchers. How much should they be worth?” The DC Line, October 2022.

[5] “Health and Climate Change Urban Profile,” World Health Organization, 2022.

[6] Richard Rothstein, “The Color of Law.” New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017, page 34-37.

[7] US Department of Housing and Urban Development, “District of Columbia Housing Authority Assessment” October 2022.

[8] Susanne Marquardt & Daniel Glaser, “How Much State and How Much Market: Comparing Social Housing in Berlin and Vienna,” German Politics, 2020.

[9] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Housing Sector Snapshot: Austria,” 2021.

[10] Saoirse Gowan and Ryan Cooper, “Social Housing in the United States,” People’s Policy Project, 2018.

[11] Alan Murie, “The Right to Buy? Selling off Public and Social Housing.” Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2016, page 2-6.