An early report card on D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s affordable housing efforts

Lowering housing costs requires more than writing a check, and come the 2018 election Mayor Muriel E. Bowser may be judged more on her ability to simultaneously work with — and regulate — housing developers than on her $100 million annual commitment.

After all, Bowser isn’t the first D.C. mayor to propose a major increase in housing spending; her predecessor, Vincent C. Gray, also proposed putting $100 million annually into the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund.

Plus, because developers also play a central role in funding city political campaigns, Bowser’s toeing of the line between advocating for poor residents and facilitating new projects often comes under close scrutiny.

What decisions have shaped Bowser’s housing record so far? Here are three.

Get the money out faster: Trust fund dollars typically fill financing gaps for projects relying on a bevy of other public and private sources. For the District to effectively spend $100 million a year, the private market must submit timely, appropriate projects.

Under Gray, there was not a large enough pool of developers to consistently bring quality projects.

“We were seeing the same names as the sponsors of some of these [funding] requests,” said Jeff Miller, deputy mayor for planning and economic development under Gray. “Doing these projects means a lot of brain damage, and a lot of people aren’t necessarily specialists in it.”

Building private-sector interest requires demonstrating there will be ongoing opportunities to build affordable units if companies commit to it. Polly Donaldson, Bowser’s housing director, is issuing more requests for projects and assessing them more quickly. Previous funding requests went out every year or two; Donaldson is shooting for every six months.

“Knowing that there is certainty in the amount of money that the city is putting into affordable housing production actually motivates all the other stakeholders,” said Claire Zippel of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, an advocacy group. “Look at philanthropy, look at the banks – there are other sources going in the door, and it gives the other sources confidence that the city is there and it’s going to step up on a consistent basis.

Rushing to get money out the door has obvious pitfalls however. Bowser’s plan to build seven new homeless shelters across the city was so beset by unnecessary costs that it was modified before being passed by the D.C. Council.

Fix inclusionary zoning: As of last spring, many onlookers agreed that the District’s inclusionary zoning program — which requires developers of most housing projects to include some affordable units – had been a colossal failure. In six years, it had generated an average of one for-sale unit and eight rental units annually.

When advocates pressed for changes, Bowser’s administration floated multiple proposals, one of which would have required builders to offer units at much more deeply discounted rents than the current law requires.

A number of advocates backed one of the administration’s proposals – only to see it pulled back after criticism from developers who said it would be too expensive.

The advocates won the day, and they are encouraged at how the District overhauled the system for delivering inclusionary zoning units to people on a waiting list.

The DC Department of Housing and Community Development “has gotten better and better at administering inclusionary zoning and deserves a lot of credit for improving the administration of the program,” said Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “A lot of the early problems are gone, and the administration is working very hard to figure out the process. They’ve cut by substantial amounts the time it takes to place an applicant into a unit.”

Hold developers to their commitments: As a member of the D.C. Council, Bowser helped weaken a bill requiring deals for District-owned land to include affordable housing.

However, as mayor she applied the new rules before they went into effect, picking up three development deals she inherited in rapidly gentrifying areas and requiring the developers to include affordable units in their projects. That will create 162 new units.

If the economy tightens, Bowser is likely to face more of these decisions. The District previously rolled back affordability requirements on the Southwest Waterfront project, for instance, as that project’s developers were in search of financing during the last downturn.

So far she has held strong on affordability. When developer Don Peebles came to the administration looking for relief from a requirement that he build 61 affordable units as part of a deal to build high-end hotels and condos on D.C. land in Mount Vernon Square, he received a direct answer: No deal without all 61 units.

Image courtesy of Katherine Frey.

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