September 14, 2019 at 1:49 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
More housing means more truthfulness

It is certainly no secret that D.C., and the entire Washington metropolitan area, ranks as one of the very most expensive places to live in the country. A comprehensive study released last week starkly underscores the need for a significantly increased housing supply throughout the region to meet both current and future demand.

This regional report, produced by public policy leaders and funded by a business community seeking workforce accommodation, indicates nearly 400,000 new units are required in the next 10 years. That’s fully a third more than previously estimated. In addition, due to existing cost-point deficiencies and expected employment growth in lower-wage sectors, three-quarters of all new housing units must be affordable for lower and middle-income residents.

It’s a hefty goal necessitating ambitious activity to achieve. While the path toward adequately addressing these realities is complex and multi-faceted, the first step is to clearly understand the source of how we get there.

An obstacle to meeting this growth-responsive need for additional housing is that both elected officials and policy advocates must stop misleading the public on who will actually build those units. 

The overwhelming majority of needed new housing will be created by the private sector. Yet that’s a fundamental truth overlooked in a nation’s federal core and disliked by believers in ministerial goddesses.

Implying, whether disingenuously or by inference, that government will directly create more than only a tiny portion of needed new housing units mistakenly inflates a regime’s role. It simply reinforces a common mythology and serves to infantilize citizens.

Any public official falsely proclaiming her-or-his jurisdiction will create this-or-that number of total future housing units isn’t helping. Deceptive “we’re going to build” sloganeering only reinforces false faith in the magical thinking of a dominant political zeitgeist within the home of hot air.

In the District, we’ve been able to remain marginally synchronized with the housing required by recent population increases due to private developers building tens of thousands of new units of housing over more than a decade. Criticized by complainers for producing primarily market-responsive higher-cost housing, those units have reduced the pressure on existing residential stock and resulted in preserving less expensive housing by eliminating competition for those units. Absent this contribution by marketplace developers, housing costs would be stratospheric and consumer competition exponentially intensified.

Local governments will have their hands full fixing and maintaining the crumbling infrastructure of dilapidated subsidized public housing resulting from years of neglect, requiring several billions of dollars in D.C. alone. District officials don’t have the money to cover even that expense, and increased financial commitments for preserving or producing a modest number of lower-income units in the coming fiscal year beginning next month rely on one-time funding not subsequently available. D.C. politicians are currently spending-beyond-revenues at unsustainable levels.

Given that local tax rates are already the worst in the region and most of the nation, there’s little opportunity for significant infusions of cash to do more.

While D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has proven a leader in both sheltering the homeless and innovatively investing in housing, government has alternate opportunities to encourage the creation of adequate housing targeting appropriate incomes. Yet it will take a rough hand and robust commitment to do so.

D.C. must reform zoning laws to allow greater housing density throughout the city, and without delay. That means no approval process handholding with objecting advisory neighborhood commissions or objectionable citizens groups. It means speeding-up construction permit processes and further reducing parking requirements. It requires incentivizing creation of affordable units through significant developer tax abatements and eliminating byzantine regulatory hurdles.

Elected officials must stop claiming advance credit for things they don’t actually do and instead do the things they can to bulldoze obstacles out of the way for the private sector. Otherwise what needs to get done won’t happen.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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