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Affordable Housing at The Wharf?

One of the largest developments to ever happen in DC, The Wharf, has finally revealed itself to many “Ooh’s & Ahh’s”. With progressive legislation in place, and a highly-celebrated public-private partnership, let’s see what is there for us in the affordable housing realm.


Of the 649 apartments becoming available in Phase 1, DC’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) highlights that 30% of the units will be affordable housing. But over one-third of those “affordable” units are considered workforce housing, pegged at 100% or 120% of AMI- or for those families making between $110,000 and $132,000  per year.

While it is not a problem to have “workforce housing” – it is a problem to have that included in the affordable housing calculations. It makes it confusing for the general public and forces us to scrutinize the numbers to see exactly what they’re talking about.

 The most confusing thing is DMPED spotlighting how half of the affordable housing units are for those households at 30% AMI and 60% AMI- but that is only true if the “workforce” units aren’t included in the calculation.

However, that same statement boasts how a third of the total 639 units are “affordable housing,” which can only be true if the “workforce” units ARE included in the calculation. You cannot have your cake and eat it too, DMPED.

You can't have your cake and eat it too... unless there's another cake we don't know about

You can’t have your cake and eat it too… unless there’s another cake we don’t know about

In any other situation, us housing advocates would be quite pleased to have 20% of a development’s units at less than 60% of AMI- because that’s about double what Inclusionary Zoning rules require- and us housing advocates are conditioned to accept whatever pieces of success we’re given.


However, let us not forget that much of The Wharf came from the selling of public land by the district. WAMU’s story in 2013 revealed that the publicly-owned land valued at $95 million was sold to Paramount Development Corporation for *drumroll* $1.


Yes, you heard that right. $1. Oh yeah, plus $200 million in public subsidies and tax breaks. That is an incredibly steep price to pay for just 131 affordable units so far, one-third of which are micro-units.

Micro-Units, between 330-360 square feet

Micro-Units, between 330-360 square feet

And so, I think we are completely in the right to develop more transparency in this process and to ask why the numbers that DC’s DMPED highlights are not quite true to reality. Also, what is the point of a high percentage of affordable housing if there isn’t much housing to begin with? For a project this large, 649 units is not very much, plus the fact that there are more hotel rooms than apartment units, and so it seems to be another aspect of this development- and future developments- worthy of scrutiny.

Phase II of The Wharf is still in process, and let us all pay attention to ANY sale of public land that does not include high amounts of truly affordable housing, with opportunities to increase the equity of those DC residents who need it most.

dc house

HPAP, EAHP, and Hard Work: Homeownership Success

To say that lifelong Washingtonian Erin Skinner has been busy the last few years is an understatement.

When the lease on her old apartment expired more than two years ago, she applied at a few other buildings in the area. But she quickly learned that, despite having a stable job as a DC government employee, she didn’t earn enough to even qualify in the buildings where she wanted to live. That realization led her to start looking for a home to buy instead, and she joined MANNA’s Homebuyers Club—on top of everything else in her life.

Skinner is a single parent to her two sons, ages 17 and 4. At the time, she was also hard at work on her undergraduate degree—all while never cutting back on her DC government job.

“I was in school full-time and working full-time. And looking for this house,” says Skinner.

After getting her credit score up with help from the Homebuyers Club, Skinner started looking for her new home. The search was possible thanks to DC’s Home Purchase Assistance Program, the District’s down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers, and the Employer Assistance Housing Program, which Skinner was eligible for because she is a District employee.

But even with the incredible amount of work Skinner was putting in and funding sources all lined up, the process was a constant challenge.

Skinner had a house picked out that seemed perfect, and she was set to go to closing. But at the last minute she found that the regulations calculating her eligibility had been changed—her student loans now counted against her total debt.

The deal fell through. Skinner had to pass on her perfect house and start the whole process over again. With everything else in her life, it felt overwhelming.

But Skinner kept pushing, she says, in large part because of her love for DC. “I never wanted to leave DC. I was born and raised here.”

She recognizes that in many ways it’s a different city than the one she grew up in. “The city is changing so rapidly, all the new storefronts and condos. I’ve been wondering whether that would happen to where I live [in Southeast].”

People often ask why she doesn’t leave. “I want to stay here,” says Skinner. “I want to be able to benefit from everything that’s going on. All the changes are not bad… I want to benefit from the good changes that are going on in DC, and also to have my children benefit from those changes.”

Finally, Skinner’s dream has come together. This year, she says, “has been the year of me.” In May she graduated from college, and soon after she found a house that fits her family’s needs even better than the one before. And with the lift from HPAP and EAHP, her mortgage payments are far more manageable than renting.

What’s more, it meets her top goal: staying in DC. “Actually,” says Skinner, “where I live now is 10 minutes from where I’ve lived my entire life.”

She has some advice for others going through MANNA’s Homebuyers Club.

“To other prospective homebuyers, there are going to be days that you want to quit. There are going to be times when you see the house that you really, really want, and you find out that you can’t get it. Just know that if you keep going, you’ll find a house that’s even better than the one you thought you had to have.”

After seeing what hard work and HPAP can do, it’s hard to argue with her.


Sign the Petition: Schedule a hearing for the HPTF Guarantee Funding Act!

The Housing Production Trust Fund is DC’s best tool for building and preserving affordable housing–it has made and saved homes for thousands of Washingtonians. Mayor Bowser and the Council have done historic work by funding the HPTF at $100 million each year since the Mayor took office.

Sign the petition here!

But each year the trust fund is subject to political fights in the budget process. We can’t count on always having a Council and a Mayor this committed to affordable housing. That’s why we need to make funding the HPTF an automatic part of the DC budget. What’s more, DC’s affordable housing crisis is still getting worse, and President Trump’s disastrous leadership is threatening affordable housing dollars across the country.

Councilmember Anita Bonds (At-Large) has introduced a bill to guarantee funding for the trust fund at $120 million each year. Getting this bill passed would be the biggest win for affordable housing in years! Read the petition below, and add your voice urging Councilmember Bonds and Chairman Phil Mendelson to schedule a hearing for this important legislation!


Who’s Got Housing?

Is housing a privilege or a right?

Regardless of your opinion (it is a right), there is a NEED for housing in DC among those in plain view most easily forgotten–and a program with financial incentives to people who open their door.

How many homeless people are here in DC? 7,473 as of January 2017.

shock face

The District’s New Lease on Life program connects landlords with available units to families currently experiencing homelessness. Landlords receive a partial subsidy from DC, and the family pays the rest of the rent. The families also receive any necessary support services during their one-year lease.

The program has been incredibly successful, with participating landlord Thomas Batmen noting that, “Families exiting homelessness pose no greater risk than any other family applying for a lease.”

Monthly Landlord Outreach meetings organize folks to host meet and greets, establish risk mitigation funds to assuage landlords’ fears of losing money, and propose broader policy changes.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, DC Department of Human Services, DC Interagency Council on Homelessness and CNHED are holding a reception this Friday from 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM to talk about the New Lease on Life program.

TOPA: he-said, she-said

TOPA… where’s the cream filling?

DATA: THAT's the stuff!!!

DATA: THAT’s the stuff!!!

Something is missing in all of this talk about TOPA… data.

A hearing was held this past Thursday mulling over a change to the District’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which gives tenants a chance to match any offer by a third party looking to buy the tenants’ home. It’s one of DC’s best tenant protections, as well as a crucial way in which renters can become owners of their homes, and any attempt to change or weaken it is understandably met with considerable alarm.

But on Thursday, one of the most alarming things was the lack of cohesive data that either side could agree on. Data leads to facts, and facts should inform laws.

The change to TOPA currently being proposed is, on the surface, relatively minor—tenant advocates and the DC Association of Realtors (DCAR) have agreed on fixes to speed the TOPA process for single family homes, and both sides feel they’re close to reaching an agreement on tenants’ option to assign their TOPA rights to a third party (also just focusing on single family homes). However, the testimony went well beyond that, and the chair of the Council made ominous claims** towards a larger fight over TOPA.

In the hearing, Councilmember Anita Bonds (At-Large), who introduced the bill, and Chairman Phil Mendelson asked the realtors testifying from DCAR about how many successful buyouts  have occurred in their experience with cases involving TOPA.

The anecdotal remarks led to differences in the magnitude of 10x- from .5% to 5%.

Magnitudes of 10

Magnitudes of 10

The same questions posed to the legal counsel for tenants also produced questionable data. One of the tenant advocates testifying retorted that a tenant with good enough credit to execute TOPA rights isn’t seeking those in the legal counsel that were testifying at this hearing, implying that these questions about successful cases were anecdotal at best, and ridiculous to be putting on the record.

It should be noted that the metrics for which we evaluate TOPA depend on whether we define “success” as the tenants succeeding in purchasing their unit, “succeeding” at staying in their unit as a tenant, or “succeeding” by leveraging their TOPA rights so that they can see some small benefit from their displacement.

The fault is perhaps with the city for not tracking data on rental units in general, and those employing TOPA rights being an especially important aspect of that in this case. Due to obscure facts, those lobbying on both sides are putting forth data that supports their case, instead of being able to lay a factual foundation.

"I heard it through the grapevine, and I'm just about to lose my mind"

“I heard it through the grapevine, and I’m just about to lose my mind”

For the most innovative and impactful legislation that DC has to empower tenants, I am stupefied by the lack of data.

Here is an example of the data that I would like to see before changes are made:

The change to TOPA being discussed has the potential to effect _____ property owners and ______ tenants.


** Chairman Phil Mendelson went as far as encouraging “a flat-out exemption to single-family homes,” which was well beyond the scope of the legislative hearing

Cement the District’s commitment to affordable housing: Guarantee the HPTF


It is time to cement the legacy of the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF). The housing crisis in DC has been well documented, and the issue is not going away anytime soon. The HPTF is the most powerful tool that the District has to address this crisis. It is time for the District to solidify funding for the HPTF so that we can move forward. Let us all encourage the passing of the Housing Production Trust Fund Guarantee Funding Amendment Act of 2017!

Right now, the HPTF gets most of its money from yearly budget allocations. For the past four years, the Mayor and the Council have gotten together on putting $100 million in the fund.

This investment is historic. However, it’s vulnerable to changing political will–the $100 million needs to be re-debated each and every year. What’s more, it still doesn’t meet the need that exists in DC!

That’s why this bill, introduced by Councilmember Anita Bonds (At-Large), would guarantee the HPTF’s budget at $120 million each year.

Note: People in need of equitable assistance are not to be likened to toddlers

Note: People in need of equitable assistance are not to be likened to toddlers


Did you know that the HPTF has been in existence since 1988? It didn’t receive significant investment until sixteen years after, in 2004 ($50 million), and didn’t have a fund balance of more than $100 million until 2013/14.

Did you know that $100 million is enough to build or preserve approximately 1,000 units?

Did you know the shortage of affordable units is in the tens of thousands? In December of last year, DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported that “26,000 extremely low-income DC households spend more than half their income on rent,” and that “only 2,100 received new help over the past six years.”

Did you know that in DC, people of color were doing economically worse in 2016 (most recent census data) than the year prior?


While there are criticisms of the HPTF, and whether it addresses those most in need, most critics and advocates agree that the fund is necessary and that it can be strengthened. Stabilizing the revenue source and guaranteeing its future can shift the focus towards managing it more effectively as we diversify our efforts.

There will be a public hearing on two bills related to the HPTF on Thursday, October 19th at 11:00 AM in the Wilson building, room 500. You can testify as an individual or as an organization, and if you cannot be there then you can send in written testimony to the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Suite 112, Washington, D.C. 20004. The record will close at 5:00 p.m. on November 2, 2017

We’ll be at the hearing, and we hope you will too!


florida project

Florida Project a Must-Watch for Policy Makers

Giggling children aren’t normally what you think of when you’re talking about family homelessness, but that’s exactly what Sean Baker’s new movie The Florida Project serves up. Of course, there’s always more to the story.

The tears, the frustration, the agonizing choices that no family should ever be forced to make—those things come, too. But what The Florida Project does best is show all of these things through the magic of childhood. It refuses to accept that deep trauma can’t go hand in hand with love and wonder, because in real life it almost always does. That complexity is part of what makes this film must-watch material for any government officials working on affordable housing.

In the gilded wasteland of tourist trap Florida, six-year-old Moonee and her young mother Halley have made their home in a bright purple discount motel: The Magic Castle. Well, not technically “home”—we’re soon treated to the family’s monthly ritual of marching all of their belongings out of their room and spending one night at the motel next door. It’s a move that’s mandated by The Magic Castle’s management to avoid Moonee and her mother being able to claim residency, in which case the motel would be “totally screwed.”

These slums outside the teeming metropolis of Disney may look almost uninhabitable, but they present a wonderfully lively and colorful canvas for Moonee and her friends to paint their own adventures. The shrieks of excitement and happiness that ring out as these kids go on safari through abandoned grass fields or play in the back of a box store parking lot are so real and genuine (Brooklyn Price as Moonee is indisputably the star of the movie) that in the first 30 minutes, it’s possible to be lulled into thinking that maybe life isn’t so bad for these children and their families.

florida moonee

Moonee and friends explore abandoned houses in typical rambunctious fashion

The community among the adults is equally close-knit, and the shared parenting that happens at The Magic Castle is enough to put any upper-class family neighborhood to shame. Another community fixture is Bobby (William Dafoe), the gruff but deeply loving hotel manager/father figure. Although Dafoe does a great job in the role, it’s still highly improbable. It’s a very rare low-income family that has a property manager who not only keeps sewage out of the bathtub, but takes an active interest in their lives.

Of course, even with that arguably unrealistic advantage, life just doesn’t go that smoothly for long when your family is homeless. Things start to fall apart for Moonee and Halley, and as their downward spiral plays out on screen, the audience is forced to contemplate one question over and over: what should Halley have done differently?

The answer is… nothing. Despite what the hotel owner next door might think, despite what HUD Secretary Ben Carson might say, this homelessness is not Halley’s fault, and no amount of positive thinking or bootstrap-pulling is going to get her family out of it.

Job opportunities never materialize. Halley puts in long hours selling perfume and other trinkets to tourists, occasionally blurring the lines between salesperson and panhandler. Somehow it’s often enough to keep them in The Magic Castle, which costs $38 a night—over $1100 a month.

That figure alone points to a fundamental truth of homelessness: you have to have money to save money. Halley isn’t financially secure enough for a lease, so she’s forced to overpay for a motel. She can’t afford a place with a kitchen, so she and her daughter are forced to bear the financial and physical costs of take-out for every meal.

Halley isn’t doing anything wrong. The system just doesn’t work for her family and thousands upon thousands of others like hers. This point is driven home in a hauntingly sweet and cruelly ironic scene where Moonee and her friends explore row after row of blighted houses in an abandoned development, presumably a leftover from the housing crash.

“This would be my bed,” intones Moonee with a smile. “This would be my bookcase.”

Maybe, if Secretary Carson sees and understands The Florida Project, that can be reality for another little girl just like Moonee.

Then again, a campaign to turn low-income property managers into father figures might just be more realistic.

Ground Breaks, Rents Shake, Fears Await… Purple Line & Langley Park


The purple line is here. With it comes opportunity for homeowners – and apprehension for renters. While the jurisdictions involved have heralded the beginning of the Purple Line’s construction, these same jurisdictions and their partnering organizations have been silent about the threats to affordable housing that they previously highlighted.

Langley Park appears to be the canary in the coal mine here, as the Washington Post and GGWash have followed the lead of UMD in focusing on the effects that the Purple Line will have on the affordable housing stock there, although it should be noted that these challenges will be faced at each and every one of the proposed stations.

Langley Park does seem to be especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of rising land costs. Of more than 5,000 housing units in the neighborhood, nearly 75% are rental units. Combine this with the fact that nearly 50% of the residents earn less than the DC Metro’s Area Median Income and it appears that there’s a huge risk posed by becoming more connected to the region. purple-line All of Langley Park’s residents will be within a half-mile of the the two transit stations proposed in the area. A CASA Needs Survey found that one-in-four respondents has had their rent increasing by at least 10% per month over the past two years. A major housing crisis is certainly on the horizon. If Prince George’s County cannot protect its population from being displaced, then a complex chain reaction will be felt across the region as various jurisdictions are threatened by displaced people desperate for secure places to live.

There are plenty of ways that the local jurisdiction can mitigate the impending displacement through measures aimed to preserve and rehabilitate the housing stock by way of grants, loans, and tax credits from federal and state agencies, and with the help of private and nonprofit assistance. In the dozens of potential options that the UMD study looked into, Prince George’s County and Langley Park were under-represented seeking this help, indicating failures among leadership.

While there are many ways forward, it is noteworthy that the majority of apartment units are owned by three companies and their subsidiaries, and that intervention and/or mediation by the public or private sector could lead to a deal that would maintain affordable housing. For example, the Conversion of Rental Housing Act of 2013 would require the owners to give Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development the option to purchase the property before they offered the sale to another party. This legislation is not perfect, as the right is not extended to tenants and there are significant loopholes where the owner is not required to follow this process; however, the program has three priorities for implementation, and Langley Park fits all three criteria.

There are also ways in which Prince George’s County can save the carrot and use the stick in order to help out the tenants. There is a misdemeanor and $500 fine for any property in violation of the County Code, and each day is a separate offense. As noted in the UMD study, there are many complaints about the housing conditions there, and “the county has the right to demolish, repair, or otherwise bring the property up to standard and place a lien in the amount of all funds expended on the owner.” This type of initiative could put pressure on the owner to sell, or if the county bureaucracy wasn’t entirely on board then it could backfire and result in the condemnation of the building and subsequent displacement.

What is clear is that all of the paths forward require a municipality willing to assist this community under threat and allow the people to be a part of the opportunities that are to come with the Purple Line. We certainly will be paying attention.


  1. All of the data in this post comes directly from “Preparing for the Purple Line: Affordable Housing Strategies for Langley Park, Maryland,” presented by CASA & the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education Center at the University of Maryland, College Park
DC zoning

How DC’s Comp Plan Promotes Segregation… And What We Can Do About It

“Development [near transit] must not compromise the integrity of stable neighborhoods…”

That’s the kind of bland, boiler plate language that a local coalition of housing-minded groups says helps keep DC segregated. It’s from the District’s Comprehensive Plan, a document that provides guidance to DC’s Zoning Commission.

That document is chock-full of references to “stable” and historic neighborhoods that don’t need anything built there. In effect, that ensures they remain predominantly white, wealthy, and low-density.

The group, which includes everyone from affordable housing advocates to for-profit developers, was brought together by local blog Greater Greater Washington around a common grievance: a city zoning code that keeps people from building what needs to be built.

The group saw an opportunity for impact with the Comprehensive Plan being open to amendments this year, something that only happens about twice a decade.

Overcoming traditional divisions in DC housing, the group of activists, housing nonprofits, and developers came together to set out a list of goals.

Among these were a desire to increase the availability of affordable housing, meet the housing demand, and to equitably distribute that housing. That’s in line with the federal government’s recent rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which requires local governments to take an active hand in desegregation efforts.

And a big way that segregation perpetuates itself is through declaring that “stable neighborhoods” are closed for development. These neighborhoods are almost always whiter and wealthier than the city as a whole, often with considerably less density to boot. The current language helps them slam the door on affordable housing developments that could diversify and in-fill these neighborhoods in a number of ways.

GGwash comp planExample of proposed additions in green and deletions in red to the current Comprehensive Plan, along with an explanation for the changes. (Pg. 5 of link)

At the same time, as the city continues to gentrify, development ramps up in long-time communities of color. While investment in these communities is often needed (and deserved after years of public and private neglect), all too often it heralds the arrival of wealthier, predominantly white newcomers, rising rents, and a subsequent cultural and physical displacement.

After the dust settles that could well be a newly stable neighborhood, in Comprehensive Plan speak—no more development or affordable housing needed.

At the very least, the stability that the current Comprehensive Plan talks about is correlated with whiteness. More likely it’s a subconscious piece of the underlying definition.

That’s why the GGW group has painstakingly gone through, line by line, and offered suggested amendments that reflect DC’s responsibility to affirmatively further fair housing. Affordable housing and new development, the amended document would say, need to be spread more evenly throughout the city.

With the right vision for the future, hopefully one day “stable neighborhoods” can be more than just a euphemism in DC.


For Bipartisanship and Affordable Housing, Try MID Reform

The next contentious battle to sweep through Congress looks likely to be tax reform. Already the partisan lines are forming, with a more-than-healthy dose of special interest groups on both sides. But one area where there could be bipartisan agreement is the mortgage interest deduction. It would take serious political courage all the way around, but for the first time in decades progress is possible on one of the American tax codes most costly mistakes.

What is MID?

The mortgage interest deduction, or MID, allows homeowners to deduct interest payments on mortgages from their taxable income. (Translation: lower taxes for homeowners.) Because it’s a deduction and not a credit, it only applies to tax payers who itemize their taxes rather than taking the standard deduction. (Translation: lower taxes for upper income homeowners.)

What is it supposed to do?

With the current version coming from one of Reagan’s tax overhauls in the 1980s, MID has long enjoyed bipartisan support as a way to increase homeownership. The idea is simple—if you give people who buy a home a tax break, you’ll see more people buying homes. It was part of a broader push in the ’80s to move housing affordability into the private sector, which also included the end of building new federal public housing and the birth of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

What is it actually doing?

Answer 1) Not increasing homeownership. Research has shown that while MID may convince someone to buy a bigger home, it almost never is the determining factor in whether or not someone will buy something. That’s in large part because…

Answer 2) MID mainly helps rich families. Because it just applies to tax payers who are itemizing their taxes, only half of all homeowners are able to take advantage of MID at all. And among those homeowners, a hugely disproportionate amount of the overall money goes to the top. MID is a big part of the reason that 75 percent of all federal housing subsidy actually goes to wealthy families. (It really makes you think about who those “takers” are that some on the right rail against.)

That’s why groups as diverse as the CATO Institute and the National Low-Income Housing Alliance have come together in calling for the cap on deductible mortgages to be lowered from $1 million to $500,000. The move would affect just 6 percent of all mortgage holders, but it would save a whopping $241 billion over the next decade.

The Trump Administration has also floated this plan, although it’s not clear how it will fare once the full weight of the real estate lobby comes down against it.

The path forward

Unfortunately, disagreement arises with the question of how those savings should be put to use. While affordable housing advocates would like to see the money moved to lower-income homeowners and renters, congressional Republicans are likely to want the savings applied to their larger plan of tax breaks for the wealthy and increased military spending.

Regardless of how this plays out on a national level, DC has its own version to deal with: the Homestead Deduction, which allows all DC homeowners—no matter how wealthy—to save on their property taxes. It’s another piece of subsidy for the rich that could be fixed with a simple home value limit.

As Congress looks to rewrite our tax code, it’s important to remember who the “takers” really are. With 75 percent of federal housing subsidy going to wealthy households, MID is long overdue for restructuring.