By: Carlo Massimo
Last week, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI), a progressive think-tank, released a report on affordable housing in the District. Specifically, the report mapped affordable housing units built since 2015. An interactive map on the DCFPI website shows affordable developments, “deeply affordable” developments (for incomes below 30 percent of area median income, or AMI), which D.C. agency or program contributed funds to developments, and the percentage of construction by Ward.
In Ward 3, there’s only 0.6 percent of D.C. affordable homes in the Ward. Rock Creek Park, or rather 16th Street, NW, cuts an unmistakable border through the District. Of 9,285 homes, only 53 are west of that line. Wards 6, 7, and 8 have the highest number of new affordable units.
There’s an easy assumption to make in front of these figures. Ward 3, where the median household makes over $116,000 per year, is a bastion of privilege, a private island for the District’s elites.
Or maybe it’s not so simple. Mary Cheh, D.C. Councilmember for Ward 3, emphasized to The Current that the DCFPI study only covered recent construction.
“Recent is very important,” said Cheh, “because we have a lot of old stock affordable housing, much of it from the 70s and earlier.” These units are frequently subject to rent control.
She added that while other wards are undergoing enormous new developments, Ward 3 is largely built out. There is little to no room for new apartment blocks along thoroughfares like Wisconsin Avenue, Northwest or Connecticut Avenue.
Furthermore, Ward 3’s housing stock is mixed, with more affordable housing units than the study implies. How many exactly? That’s the problem. “We don’t know,” said Cheh. “We don’t have good databases across D.C.”
“I’m baffled,” she said. Nowhere does the District keep one consolidated database on affordable housing. The DCFPI study is a case in point: the authors had to draw on D.C.’s Open Data portal, two websites maintained by the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Housing Authority’s website, and a patchwork of press releases and online blurbs.
To Councilmember Cheh’s credit, she brought up this lack of a comprehensive affordable housing database to the Council. And she will do so again once the fiscal year ends at the end of this month. She also proposed “beefing up” the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate with a full-time economist and IT staff. But as these are executive functions, these reforms lie out of the purview of the Council. “That’s not to say we can’t do better,” Cheh said, “or that we shouldn’t.”
Moreover, she cited a number of problems came to her attention in recent years: landlords abusing rent control laws to jack up rents; rent-controlled units reverting to market rate once a tenant has moved out. But she insisted the DCFPI survey be read in context.
But those statements, too, deserve their full context. The median income for a white family in DC is $126,000, according to DCFPI. And it’s $38,000 for an African-American family. The number of families who spend over 50 percent of their income on rent is staggering.
So if 16th Street, NW isn’t the iron curtain that it has been made out to be, the mistake is, at the very least, understandable.