Using available land is a key strategy for filling the District of Columbia’s need for affordable housing units, said Mayor Muriel Bowser, who recently articulated her vision to construct 36,000 additional housing units in the District by 2025.

“We have a challenge: we’re going to run out of space to build housing,” Bowser said at ULI’s 2019 Fall Meeting in Washington, D.C. “We have to look at our unused space.”

Joining her on the panel was Anthony A. Williams, mayor of the District from 1999 to 2007, and moderator Tom Murphy, a ULI senior resident fellow, ULI Klingbeil Family Chair for Urban Development, and former mayor of Pittsburgh.

Creation of an adequate supply of housing is a universal problem, and the solutions are not easy to identify, said ULI Global Chief Executive Officer Ed Walter in introducing the session.

A ULI Advisory Services panel recently completed a report for the District exploring the possibility of developing affordable housing on available land in the affluent Rock Creek West area on the northwest side of D.C.

“While the panel dealt with all these issues, I found it particularly interesting the panel focused on what could be done right away,” Walter said. “We don’t want to just keep talking about this problem; we want to do something about it.”

The panel report notes that the Rock Creek West area has high land costs, zoning complications, and high construction costs. Building 2,500 housing units there would entail a capital requirement of about $1 billion, the report says.

The panel also recognized that affordable housing efforts in Rock Creek West would likely be met with well-funded litigation by affluent property owners, said Christopher Ptomey, executive director of the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing. Ptomey, who presented a summary of the ULI report at the session, said a significant gap existed between overall housing production and need in Washington, D.C., from 2010 to 2018. Workforce housing, including rental properties, is not attainable for vast portions of the working populace, the report says.

Members of the panel noted that the high cost of urban housing is pushing development to outlying suburbs. Williams said continuation of existing patterns could ultimately result in a city with a very dense and expensive urban core that will never have opportunity for attainable housing options.

Bowser said she often hears from suburban dwellers who refuse to consider urban living options. “They are saying, ‘I want to be closer to great amenities,’” the mayor said. Other suburbanites express doubts about urban schools.

Many people are open to the concept of affordable housing and its benefits to the community, the panelists noted, until the solutions get too close to home. “Everybody wants affordable housing, but ‘not next to me,’” Murphy commented.

Convincing homeowners to take a long-term view of neighborhood change could be a formula for easing the NIMBY-ism (not in my back yard) pushback, Bowser said. “It’s a 50-year proposition,” she said. “They can get themselves out of the idea that this is going to affect neighbor XYZ. But neighbor XYZ won’t be there in 25 years.”

“We have to come up with another way to explain [the implementation of affordable housing programs] so they can embrace it. Or at least if they don’t embrace it, they will look shameful,” Bowser said. “We have to give people a mission that they can embrace.”

She said she also is committed to having a good relationship with the business community and rejects the national rhetorical themes that pit the business community against the government and other sectors. The District has been successful in building a reputation as a good place for corporate relocations, she said. “The last thing we want to be is a one-company—that is the federal government—town,” Bowser said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a better relationship between the mayor and the nongovernmental players than we do now,” said former mayor Williams, now chief executive officer of the Federal City Council, a nonprofit association focused on advancement of civic life in the nation’s capital.

In response to a question from the audience, Bowser said the city will be encouraging growth and development on the east side of the Anacostia River, which has been home to some of the District’s lowest-income residents. “We continue to make amenities east of the river. People will have a sit-down restaurant. We continue to focus on the public spaces there on the Anacostia River,” Bowser said. “In a very few short years, we are going to have a swim-able, fish-able Anacostia River.”

Washington, D.C., needs to continue to expand and be open to change, the mayor said, because growth is imperative. “Your city can go in one of two ways,” Bowser said. “You can grow and improve, or you can die.”

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