Lydia DePillis and V. Dion Haynes, Affordable rents fading away in D.C.’s housing picture, Aug. 30, 2014, RE-10 

That article documents how the District of Columbia’s rental housing stock “has become unbalanced, with too many luxury apartments and too few affordable ones.” About 28 percent of D.C. renter households “are severely cost-burdened, meaning that they spend more than 50 percent of their incomes on rent” (based on figures for 2009-2011). In all, “51 percent of D.C. renter households are ‘cost-burdened,’ meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing.”

Other area jurisdictions generally had a bit lower percentage of cost-burdened renters—but only a bit. Alexandria and Arlington were the only jurisdictions with less than 20 percent of renters paying 50+ percent of income for housing. Only Arlington had less than 40 percent of renters paying 30+ percent. The article noted that “the housing market appears to be working against the interests of those who are strapped, a trend that also is playing out in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major U.S. cities.”

Although the D.C. government makes housing a strong priority, its public subsidies do not allow it to even come close to meeting the housing demand. The District’s problems are typical of other cities and suburbs.

Thus, the article asks: “Must affordable housing be synonymous with subsidized housing?” Numerous things that local governments can do “that might allow the market to supply organically more units at a lower rate over time . . .” are mentioned. For example:

Local government can streamline the permitting process. It can allow developers to exceed standard density limits in exchange for keeping a certain percentage of units below market rate (Montgomery County has done this successfully for years; the District’s program is still getting moving).

Housing targets can be established through immutable comprehensive plans that weaken the power of communities to resist development. Relaxing restrictions that make it extremely difficult to build anything substantial in some historic districts and other desirable neighborhoods would also help.

As to comprehensive plans, they are required of DC-area local governments but generally fail to include adequate plans for where housing may be built for the workforce—as George Mason University has documented. (For more, click on 2013 GMU HOUSING REPORT.) Zoning and other land use restrictions flow from such comprehensive plans. Thus, those regulations generally don’t permit housing to catch up with demand.

Dropping regulatory barriers that unnecessarily impede the growth of privately-financed, moderately-priced housing—directly or indirectly—is the absolute minimum the public should demand of its local governments.  Dropping such barriers would not require any net cost to the government. And doing so would correct self-defeating local government housing policies that take away affordably-priced housing with one hand (through zoning and land use restrictions), while attempting to increase it with the other hand (through affordable housing programs and subsidies).

The article says that, unfortunately, efforts to reverse overly restrictive zoning and land use policies are a “huge political lift. Affordable housing advocates have preferred instead to push the shorter-term fix: more subsidies.” Given the clear inadequacy of subsidies to solve the overall problem, however, there is a need for more public voices calling on local governments to end zoning and land use policies that interfere unjustifiably with the production of needed, moderately-priced housing. EHI intends to continue being one of those voices!

The barriers created by those policies really serve no one’s interests--except perhaps those of some local government officials, whose fiscal anxieties and workload might be reduced by serving a smaller and wealthier segment of the population. The excuses that local governments rely on to rationalize their exclusionary housing policies lack merit. And those policies can be changed, when the facts are presented and the fallacies in the exclusionary mindset are exposed. For examples, read HOUSING PROGRESS ALONG DULLES RAIL CORRIDOR.

For more on the fallacies behind today’s exclusionary zoning and planning policies, click on EHI’s analysis of:

(A somewhat similar version of the “D.C. housing picture” article is available online at: