Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sure, housing is a business. But it's also a movement.

by Chris Estes, National Housing Conference

One of the benefits of living and working in Washington, DC is that this city is experiencing the kind of growth and rapid neighborhood change that regularly puts issues of displacement, development and affordability in the local news.

This past weekend I was struck by several local news stories that highlighted the federal and local response to housing issues that are common here and around the country. Some have real implications for our messaging and communications, some for local advocacy participation and some have federal leverage points. For today I will focus on one story from the Washington City Paper that I think combines all three.

While redevelopment, crime reduction and expansion of the local tourism economy can be good things, without planning and preservation, massive displacement can take away the people and character that gave an area like DC’s Chinatown its identity. This is exemplified by a current battle over the Museum Square Apartments, a 302-unit project-based Section 8 building in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood. Located next to Chinatown, the building houses much of the area’s remaining Chinese population, many of whom are elderly. This affordable development was one of the only residential offerings in the area until the relatively recent entry of high-end condos and apartments. The property’s project-based contract is expiring and the owner wants to redevelop, while advocates are rallying to protect the tenants’ access to affordable housing.

While the details of any one property involve business decisions and intensely local politics, the story holds several lessons for our work. First, quality, long-term affordable multifamily housing must be part of a response strategy to neighborhood (re)development. Affordable homes need to be part of the plan early on. Second, preservation of key affordable residential developments is paramount for every city’s long-term success. Is Chinatown as vibrant a social and economic destination if all the former residents cannot stay?

In the end, this is why affordable housing is a movement, not an industry. As I have said before, it’s true that housing is very much a business, one that demands a high level of expertise from multiple partners. But because the need for affordable housing interventions is so great and we are so short of meeting the demand, we are all called to look beyond the individual business case and advocate together across the continuum of affordable housing for solutions that channel the expertise of the business community into meeting the community’s housing needs.

We must continue to use value-based messaging to help local officials and the public understand why quality affordable homes are central to community success. We must continue to look at factors that make housing such a vital platform for success and go beyond a “units produced” mentality with useful research and best practice examples. Each of us must advocate—not just those of us in “advocacy jobs”—at  the federal level for more resources and locally for regulations that ensure preservation of existing units is more easily facilitated.

This story provides a cautionary tale for the hundreds of communities facing redevelopment decisions or gentrification pressures. It is also one that helps focus us here at NHC on our mission to bring everyone into the affordable housing movement and keep moving housing forward.

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