Funding Deficiency Delays Public Housing Development

The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute published a report on Washington, D.C.’s public housing Jan. 27, citing a lack of federal funding as the leading cause of delay in affordable housing redevelopment.

Using data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the report finds that 78 percent of public housing units in the District, which correlates to approximately 6,500 units, need extreme capital improvements. Last year, the D.C. Housing Authority received $14 million in federal funding to make these improvements, while the estimated cost of the projects totaled $1.3 billion.

According to the report, 55 percent of D.C.’s public housing units, which correlates to approximately 4,000 units, have seniors or adults with disabilities as the heads of the households. On average, the occupants of public housing units earn 15 percent of the median income for the D.C. metropolitan area.

Mayor Muriel Bowser allocated upwards of $82 million of the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund to assist in affordable housing projects in the District on Jan. 29. Bowser stressed the importance of affordable housing in the District in a press conference Jan. 29.

“We all know that housing affordability is one if not the top issue in the District of Columbia,” Bowser said. “And everything that we do is going to help make more people be able to afford to live in Washington, D.C.”

Of the 800 units that will receive funding from the city’s housing trust fund, 216 will go to residents in the lowest income bracket, which is specified as a family of four living on $32,880 or less a year. Eighty-three other units will be used as permanent housing for the homeless.

Fiscal Policy Institute Housing Policy Associate Claire Zippel, the author of the report, highlighted the need to redevelop public housing in urban areas to better serve residents.

“Public housing is very unique because it serves probably the lowest income level of any other housing program,” Zippel said. “Around the country, there has been a growing sense since the 1990s that public housing is in bad shape. It has been underfunded especially in big cities – New York, Chicago, D.C. – and the instinct is to redevelop it.”

The main attempt at redevelopment by the District is the New Communities Initiative, which began in 2005 in response to federal budget cuts to D.C. public housing. The initiative cites guiding principles such as one for one replacement, which aims to ensure no net loss of existing housing; mixed-income housing, which works to end the concentration of poverty and low-income housing; the opportunity for residents to return or stay in their communities; and prioritization of building, which calls for the development of new housing to begin prior to the demolition of existing housing units.

The initiative is only in effect in four neighborhoods of the District: Barry Farm in Ward 8, Northwest One in Ward 6, Lincoln Heights-Richardson Dwelling in Ward 7 and Park Morton in Ward 1.

D.C. Councilmember LaRuby May (D-Ward 8), who represents an area that includes Barry Farm, highlighted the importance of the initiative in monitoring housing and reducing resident displacement.

“New Communities is the vehicle that the District has to be able to look at our local commitment to the preservation of low-income housing,” May said. “No one wants to uproot and displace any family. If possible you want to keep people in their neighborhood, in their community, with a level of familiarity of where they are.”

The report also includes recommendations to improve redevelopment, including ensuring that residents have access to reliable, affordable housing throughout the process, increased communication between the redevelopers and unit occupants and a confirmation that occupants have a right to return to redeveloped units.

Zippel said that though redevelopment is beneficial to the community, it must be done according to the guidelines set by both her report and the New Communities Initiative.

“I think that the main point of the report is that if redevelopment is possible, if you have the funding to do it, it is really important to do it right,” Zippel said. “Any kind of housing development or redevelopment is really, really tricky. You have to make all the numbers work, you have to have all the land, you have to have all of your development partners lined up, so there is a lot that can go wrong. It is a very delicate operation that requires a lot of vigilance.”

Research associate at the Urban Institute and sociology professor Mark Treskon said the issues D.C. public housing faces are not unique to the region.

“D.C. is facing the same issue that I think that a lot of the big cities are facing,” Treskon said.

“Across the board, those kinds of developments ran into problems. There was money put forth for building them in the first place, but there wasn’t really money put forth for upkeep to the same extent.”

Katherine Cole (MSB ’18), coordinator of Threads of Hope, an organization focused on assisting low-income communities, said that increased access to housing for low-income individuals could improve many lives. Cole said she believes that many Georgetown students are unaware of the city’s public housing crisis.

“We are kind of in our Georgetown bubble, and we don’t see the things that are going on, and they are there and they are big problems,” Cole said.

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