One of the greatest impediments to easing the housing affordability crisis in evermore-expensive both-coast cities like Washington is the dominance of marketplace-hating and regulation-loving attitudes among political and affluent elites.
These influential constituencies mistakenly believe that more development mandates and regulations will somehow ease the accelerating economic exile of both middle-class and lower-income residents.
Worse, it prompts an unseemly melding of free-market opposition and classic NIMBY-intervention intent on code-worded concepts such as neighborhood character, historic preservation and allowable density. This was ironically evident in the testimonies of many while-also-bemoaning-gentrification at last month’s D.C. Council public hearing on proposed reforms to the city’s Comprehensive Plan guiding development, zoning and land use policies.
Sufficient availability to meet demand is the single factor determining whether housing is affordable at multiple economic levels. The more difficult, costly, and restrictive it is for the private sector to create new housing controls overall market affordability.
Merely allowing for the integrated development of a relatively small number of modest-sized multi-unit buildings in established well-to-do neighborhoods would generate much of the needed housing capacity and supplement housing growth in newly developing areas. It would also lessen economic segregation and improve access to the amenities of all types typical to them. The fierce opposition by a politically liberal yet “we-got-ours” landed gentry is the obstacle, as much here as it is in San Francisco.
The dilemma for urban-dominant Democrats in the nation’s most expensive cities experiencing the worst of these problems is that the party increasingly represents two separate and disparate ends of the economic spectrum – the wealthy and the poor. The party has proven increasingly inept at reconciling an expanding internal tension between the haves and have-nots among politically affiliated voters.
No matter how loudly shouted the demands of left-leaning activists, no massive new taxpayer funding for low-income housing production will realistically be allocated or prove sufficient to even marginally match the positive effect of making market-rate and work-force housing easier to build.
This is particularly true in places like D.C., where in-migration population growth is increasingly comprised of high-income and high-wealth new arrivals able to afford high-cost housing. An inadequate supply of market-rate housing sends shelter seekers down the price-chain to gobble-up housing that would otherwise be available for less.
In an intensely competitive housing market with demand exceeding availability, housing that once was and could be more affordable becomes pricier due to a lack of inventory. Rather than a housing market able to adequately accommodate the most people at a maximum range of price points, housing acquisition instead becomes a domino-dance of winners and losers.
That’s not to say that government doesn’t have a contributing role to play in easing the pressures causing a continuously worsening displacement in some of the largest urban areas benefiting from growing population pressures. Government, however, is not the real, or even primary, solution and offers only minor mitigation at best.
More important is that local governmental policies both promote ease of private-sector housing development and prevent citizen interventions from delaying or denying its creation.
D.C. has instituted a broad complement of policies and programs designed to make housing more accessible and affordable – exceeding other cities in both financial consideration and strategic sophistication. Yet, despite all that, the housing affordability problem grows worse.
Measured by recent data analyzed by authors of a respected national study, D.C. is among the very worst cities in the country for making housing more expensive and costing nearly twice the rate of a less-regulated market.
Treating developers like demons while imagining government as devil-slayers has become a popular political fantasy among left-leaning activists and political groups, and has regrettably become bible-and-verse for moderate-no-more Democrats.
Unless the political and regulatory focus is fundamentally shifted toward easing the opportunity path and incentives for private-sector development of new housing, the District will only continue extending a warm embrace to the wealthy and a cold-shoulder to those not.