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How to Keep DC From Becoming the Next San Francisco

Washington, DC and San Francisco have some striking similarities. Both are mid-sized cities with institutions (government and the tech industry) that pack a punch above their population size. Both are somewhat restrained in terms of expansion, with DC’s small, set borders, and San Francisco’s watery boundaries. And above all, both have seen extreme gentrification in recent years, with the cities growing rapidly and becoming wealthier and whiter as time goes on.

But San Francisco is undoubtedly further along in this vicious process: while DC’s average monthly rent of $1,400 for a single person is the fourth highest in the US, San Francisco’s is the highest in the world at an impressively awful $2,000+.

That allows DC residents to look to San Francisco for some lessons—or, if we’re not careful, to behold our future.

Based on these insights, we’ve got some recommendations for the city council… and for you, the reader. Read on.

What will the future hold for DC if it follows the Frisco model?

  • All housing development, including affordable housing, will be stymied as fear over housing shortages and NIBMY-ism drives irrational opposition. In the Bay Area, this has resulted in severe housing shortages at every level, not just for low-income families. Unlike San Francisco, DC is currently in no danger of a total housing shutdown. The recent explosion of luxury units and high-end condos contributed to overall supply actually outpacing demand in the District’s housing market last year. Of course, affordable housing is nowhere near keeping up.
  • Homeownership will drop even further and DC, like San Francisco, will become truly a renters’ city. Ownership rates in San Francisco have been on a multi-decade slide, with only a third of residents now owning their own homes. DC isn’t much better at a 40 percent homeownership rate.
  • In part because of rock bottom homeownership rates, displacement will move from a low-income issue to a middle class issue. Only the truly wealthy will be able to afford the city proper. That’s already the case in San Francisco, where things have gotten so bad that even good-paying professional jobs are starting to move out because the companies’ employees can’t afford the city.

“Yikes!” you say. “That’s pretty grim. What can we do to avoid all this?” Well, I’m glad you asked!

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One of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars

DC doesn’t have to go down this path—there’s still time to change. Here are some simple steps we can take to make sure the District remains home for everyone.

  • Affordable Housing: It needs to be funded and constructed like never before. That’s why we’re asking the city council to commit at least $125 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund for the coming year. And honestly, that number might not be big enough. Because of problems in the Low Income Housing Tax Credit market, a primary funding tool for many affordable housing projects across the country, $125 million is probably the new $100 million. If the council really wants to take a step forward rather than just holding even, we’ll need even more commitment.
  • Homeownership: Increasing homeownership needs to be a top priority, both because of the wealth it builds and the protection it offers against sky-rocketing rents. We’re calling on the council to keep funding the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP) at $16 million, the level it was increased to last year. HPAP provides crucial down payment assistance and secondary mortgage loans to first time homebuyers in DC. That builds wealth, moves people into the middle class, and keeps long-time residents in our city.
  • An ever-broader movement: More middle-income Washingtonians need to realize that affordable housing is their issue, too. NIMBY-ism and indifference might work in the short term, but sooner or later it will catch up. We need to build a broad coalition of DC residents, new and old, of all wealth levels and racial backgrounds. (The rich benefit from affordable housing, too, by the way. Unless wealthy urbanites want to start entering the service industry en masse, it’s in their best interest to keep around the people who make cities run.)

If DC is to avoid the fate of its West Coast sister city, we need to move on funding and organizing now. Tell your councilmembers to boost the Trust Fund. Get their commitment that they’ll keep supporting HPAP. And join a local organization that’s fighting for affordable housing. Hey, we’ve got a suggestion right here.

If you would like more information about joining the Housing Advocacy Team, email Jonathan Nisly at jnisly@mannadc.org!

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