In Our Backyard: Responding to the Affordable Housing Crisis

Low- and moderate-income people across the country are facing a rental affordability crisis. TalkPoverty’s backyard in Washington, D.C. is no exception.

Over the past decade, low-income D.C. residents have been crushed under the burden of skyrocketing rents, stagnant incomes, and a loss of half of all low-cost rental units. The loss of affordable housing is counterproductive because preserving old units is less expensive than building new ones. Due to the lack of affordable housing, almost two-thirds of low-income households in D.C. pay 50% of their incomes toward rent, which is double the amount recommended by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Homelessness in D.C. is rising as a result of this crisis. The city’s total homeless population increased 13% since last year, and family homelessness has risen 50% since 2010. The rise of homelessness is expected to cost the District tens of millions of dollars—costs which could have been partially averted by a stronger commitment to preserving affordable housing.

But numbers alone can’t tell this story. They can’t illustrate the emotional harm homeless families have suffered while living in shelters with no privacy, few showers, and the lights on at night. They can’t show the frustration many employed homeless people feel when they work and work but still can’t afford the city’s high rents.

The rise in the homeless population was avoidable. D.C. already has an effective public financing tool at its disposal to preserve affordable units. The city’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) requires that the landlord give tenants the right to purchase the property before it is sold. This tool is supported by the unique D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) First Right Purchase Program, which provides low-income tenants with public financing so that they can exercise their TOPA rights and purchase their buildings. The program empowers low-income tenants because many cannot access private loans or afford private financing payments. While other communities may have tenant right to purchase laws, it is rare that tenants are provided public financing to exercise those rights.

When funded, the First Right Purchase Program is highly effective. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found that the program—funded largely by Community Development Block Grants and a Housing Production Trust Fund—has helped preserve nearly 1,400 units of affordable housing over the past decade. However, due to cuts in these funding sources, preservation fell from 292 units in 2008, to only 35 units in 2012, and 28 units in 2013. It is hardly a coincidence that homelessness spiked at a time when the city and the federal government dedicated few resources to preserving affordable housing.

Low-income residents of Columbia Heights—one of D.C.’s most diverse neighborhoods—are experiencing the lack of affordable housing firsthand. However, through TOPA, many are fighting back, allying with community-based organizations and mobilizing to protect and expand affordable housing in the area.


The Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development held a walking tour on “Keeping Columbia Heights Affordable.” The tour visited several sites in where affordable housing had been successfully preserved or built. Photo by Aimee Custis for Coalition for Smarter Growth.

At the St. Dennis Apartments, a management company tried to force out long-term residents so that the affordable units could be converted to lucrative luxury condos. The company bought out a number of long-term residents and intimidated others into moving out. However, one family of three refused to leave the building.  For a long time, the only sign of life in the St. Dennis building was the light in the family’s window.


A photo of the St. Dennis Apartments, which provides affordable housing for individuals living below 60% of the area median income. Residents successfully fended off efforts to convert the building into luxury condos.

In many other areas of the country, a low-income family would have few options to prevent the sale and conversion of their building. However, by working with the NHT Enterprise Preservation Corporation & National Housing Trust as well as the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, the family was able to form a tenant association, secure financing, and purchase the building the day before their TOPA rights expired. As a result, a valuable building was preserved as affordable housing.


Yesenia Rivera of the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) (left) and Ruth Chavez (right), who serves as Secretary of a tenant association for the 3115 Mt. Pleasant St. building, discuss their desire to use TOPA rights and the DC First Right Purchase Program to purchase and preserve the building as a cooperative for low-income residents. D.C. has a system where organizations like LEDC are contracted by the city to assist low-income tenants in organizing themselves. Photo by Aimee Custis for Coalition for Smarter Growth.

In D.C., we’ve seen that TOPA and an adequately funded First Right Purchase Program can effectively preserve affordable housing for low-income people. But due to Congressional gridlock, it is highly unlikely that there will be any additional federal funds for affordable housing programs. That makes it all the more critical that the D.C. government continue its recently strong commitment to funding its Housing Production Trust Fund.

The issue of a shortage in affordable housing is hardly limited to the nation’s capital.  Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan has said that, “We are in the midst of the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has known.” The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, supported by a well-funded First Right Purchase Program, provides a model for one way communities can respond to this crisis.


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Thumbnail photo courtesy of Talk Poverty.