According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the population of Washington, D.C., topped 700,000 residents last year, the first time since 1975. But the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments estimates a shortfall of more than 200,000 housing units by 2025 to meet the projected job growth and transportation system performance in the urban core of the D.C. region. A ULI Washington Impact Task Force report addressed two main barriers to opportunities for supply growth and attainability: navigating the entitlement and approval processes, as well as gaining community acceptance through engagement and participation.
Improving housing attainability requires growth that is responsive to population, demographic, and economic trends; a range of housing types in various locations to meet citizens’ needs across all circumstances and preferences; and development must be equitable.
The task force found in surveying existing data that particular pressure is placed on lower-income households in the region, with 80 percent of renters and 73 percent of owners earning below 80 percent of area median income, spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. And, nearly half of all renters (47.9 percent) were housing-cost burdened. The increased demand for housing and growth in the higher-income renter population have additionally led to a decreased supply of rental homes attainable for lower-income households.
The research team found that the region’s approach to planning, entitling, and approving development raises housing costs by limiting the supply of new housing units, increasing both hard and soft costs for housing that is built, and making it more difficult to produce more naturally affordable housing types.
“These entitlement processes,” said outgoing ULI Washington chair Yolanda Cole, “particularly for special-density processes—anything you ask for permission to do in exchange for extra density—are strained, expensive, drawn out, and nearly impossible, and therefore many developers are not doing them. And that constrains housing [development], and in turn, part of that is affordable housing.”
In addition, each jurisdiction has different processes in place, and so it is necessary to approach them differently based on the jurisdiction, said Cole. “Unfortunately, it would be great if we could be consistent across more jurisdictions, but they’restructurally unique, so how do we get there under these sets of rules and regulations?”
Both private developers, who seek to design and build profitable projects, and public agencies, which seek to keep communities healthy and thriving, require the buy-in of community members to realize successful development and growth. Public policy—including zoning, guides for land use, density, and design—must meet the needs of the community while still also allowing the developer to realize the project’s economic viability for society as a whole.
As the D.C. region has seen an influx of growth, which in some neighborhoods displaces longtime residents, there is a backlash in the community, said Cole. “The community has become more vocal and litigious, and this is all slowing down processes . . . or even stopping projects, which is further constraining housing supply.”
“If you think about mass population movements and real estate development . . . like suburban development, there were not a tremendous amount of people to negotiate with in terms of the community,” said Michelle Beaman Chang, founder and CEO of D.C.-based Imby Community, a hybrid digital/grassroots platform aimed at connecting developers with the people affected by their projects to get a better sense of public attitudes and improve dialogue. “But now there’s a wave back into existing urban areas where there are communities of people in places that were underinvested in—in part based on socioeconomic levels and race,” she said.
“Now, there is a return to existing neighborhoods without really spending much time talking to these communities of people to ask, ‘What do you need? What do you want?’ That’s a huge change in community dynamics . . . from sparse suburban development, which is a completely different situation than the migration back into cities where people already live.”
There must be clear and transparent dialogue, and we need to encourage participation among historically marginalized or underrepresented voices, said Cole. “How can we get residents to say, ‘Yes, we need more housing, because we want to live in a healthy, vibrant city, neighborhood, or town, and therefore, these are the steps that we need to take’?
“What we really need is a vision and planning for larger neighborhoods,” said Cole. It is important to look at the goals and targets at a larger neighborhood level to win the hearts of the people. “What does the community need? What benefits could we trade for this housing? Do we need a community center or a park? Do we need to upgrade our sidewalks? What are the things that the larger community needs in exchange for allowing greater density and equitable housing for people at a lot of different price points?”
Creating a development framework for more attainable housing requires action from the development community, including local elected and appointed officials, planners, housing departments, and developers. The research team identified nine recommendations to build a more attainable housing supply:
- Build trust through inclusive and transparent community engagement.
- Improve education and communication about development and housing considerations in the land use process.
- Establish a shared regional and local vision.
- Advance geographically and socioeconomically equitable development.
- Preserve and expand committed affordable housing choices.
- Increase the efficiency of local government planning and zoning processes and institutional structures.
- Adopt flexible planning and zoning policies to accommodate shifts in housing demand and other market conditions.
- Improve how and when developers interact with the community.
- Improve clarity and prioritization with respect to community benefits and developer contributions as a part of the development process.
So, how can we really start to build a more attainable housing supply? “Creating an environment in which more attainable housing can be produced is a shared responsibility,” wrote Michael Spotts, president and founder of Neighborhood Fundamentals, a ULI Washington member and contributor to the report. With no single cause and no silver bullet for a solution, continued Spotts, “dramatically improving the development process will require a thorough and systematic review of existing policies to address a large number of barriers. Such action will require trust, collaboration, and will from local officials, community leaders, developers, and the community at large.”
The report is intended to serve as a conversation starter, and the task force plans to visit various planning departments, policymakers, government development offices, and others who want to listen to present the report’s findings and demonstrate the barriers, blockages, and recommendations. “What we want to do is encourage people . . . to get each jurisdiction to look at their own processes, and look for ways to improve them, with the intention of getting more units on the ground,” said Cole. “It seems we are at a critical point where many organizations and policy makers are coming together, so we’re looking to hopefully partner with some of these groups to push the issue forward.”
In addition to this report, ULI Advisory Services hosted a panel in July looking to make recommendations on increasing the number of affordable units in Northwest D.C. At this year’s ULI Fall Meeting in Washington, D.C., a panel will address “Chipping Away at the Housing Affordability Crisis.”