Monday, December 15, 2014

DC is the latest city to prioritize public land for affordable homes

by Robert Hickey, National Housing Conference 


One of the better tools cities have for protecting economic diversity and improving housing affordability is using publicly owned land creatively to include affordable homes. Recognizing this, the Washington, DC city council recently voted unanimously to require that all new multifamily residential developments on city-owned land include at least 20-30 percent affordable housing. With the mayor’s acquiescence landing the day after Thanksgiving, this big news was easily overlooked. But the act’s passage is an important step for the city, and places the District in the company of other cities locally and nationally that have become more intentional about using “public land for public good,” and making affordable homes a priority.

Like neighboring Arlington County (Va.), Montgomery County (Md.) and the city of Alexandria (Va.), Washington, DC is seeking to incorporate affordable homes on more types of pubic properties – from surplus property sites to the grounds of new fire stations, libraries and community centers. Offering land in these contexts at a discount to developers that agree to include a significant share of affordable homes helps make new affordable homes more financially feasible. Given the shortage of affordable land in the District, especially in safe, desirable neighborhoods,  the new DC law can help ensure there are more reasonably priced housing options in well-served locations for long-time residents and essential workers who are increasingly priced out of the city.

Arlington Mill Residences, a 122-unit, affordable residential property built on public land alongside a new community center, opened in Arlington County last February. 
(Credit: Anice Hoachlander/ Hoachlander Davis Photography).

November was a big month for affordable housing policy in the District. In case you missed it because you were immersed along with the rest of us in our successful Solutions conference, the DC council also voted unanimously in mid-November to appropriate at least $100 million annually to the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund. This is another big step forward for housing efforts in the city, and an important complement to the city’s public land policy. 

In a forthcoming report from NHC’s Center for Housing Policy due out in January, my co-author Lisa Sturtevant and I look at lessons that can be learned from similar land policies and local case studies – including the recently completed Arlington Mill Residences. Stay tuned!

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