A new model for social housing in DC

Six people in a Zoom meeting with a timer on one screen.

Michael Starnes testifies at a Nov. 22 public hearing. Screenshot.

The D.C. Council is set to reintroduce a bill this coming session that could make the District a leader in social housing. 

Seven councilmembers including Janeese Lewis George, Anita Bonds, Brianne Nadeau and Robert White supported the bill in its initial introduction last council session. 

The Green New Deal for Housing Amendment Act of 2022 received a public hearing on Nov. 22 where 150 speakers registered. Most spoke in support of the bill. The legislation would create a new city office to oversee the development of mixed-income housing. 

Residents earning below the median family income, which in D.C. is about $129,000 for a family of four each year, according to the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, would reside in these new housing developments. 

One third of the housing units created by this bill would be set aside for people with incomes at half that level. Another third would be set aside for people making 30% of the area median income or about $28,000 each year. 

The remaining housing developments would be sold at market rates. Public hearing attendees spoke in favor of using the social housing model in the District while referencing similar initiatives in places as far away as Austria and in neighboring jurisdictions such as Montgomery County. 

In Vienna, Austria, municipal housing has existed in some form since 1920. In 2015, it began building more units because of popular demand. 

The municipal housing model requires no deposit, equity, commission or contractual fee, which drives down the cost, according to the Vienna website. Currently, about 500,000 people live in affordable housing units in Vienna. 

Michael Starnes attended the meeting with a Zoom background that featured an image of a housing project in Vienna. He was representing D.C. YIMBY, (short for: “Yes in my backyard) a local chapter of YIMBY Action that advocates for affordable housing. He supported the legislation but said that housing development plans could still be improved. 

“Austria’s social housing is dense, often with up to 10 stories with limited setbacks in parking,” Starnes said. “In comparison, over 60% of land in Washington, D.C., is reserved for exclusively single-family zoning. If we want to build housing at scale, we simply must alter exclusionary zoning, which de facto bans working class people from most parts of the city.” 

Thousands of miles away from Vienna, another locality has also begun implementing a similar housing policy. Montgomery County has just started to embrace a social housing model of its own. 

Montgomery County implemented a public-private housing model after approving a proposal in March 2021. It approved $50 million in bonds to the Housing Opportunities Commission to develop mixed-income housing. Hans Riemer, a former Montgomery County councilmember, helped to bring the proposal forward. 

“As the Washington region mobilizes to meet our future housing targets, this plan will be a strong contribution from Montgomery County,” Riemer said in a March 2021 press release. “I am confident this remarkable public-private partnership will become a national model.” 

Montgomery County, however, has a population of about 2,000 people per square mile, while Washington has a population of about 11,000 people per square mile, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Developing social housing in Washington where people are more densely populated, could present a different type of challenge. 

District residents who spoke at the hearing said that there could also be other personal benefits to the kind of mixed-income housing that would be brought forth with the Green New Deal. Laura Griffin, a resident of Ward 5, spoke in favor of it. 

“I moved to D.C. about a year and a half ago, and I love the city, but I also worry that by moving here I am displacing lower-income residents,” Griffin said. “This matters to me because I myself grew up housing insecure.” 

The hearing brought out the voices of people in support of the Green New Deal, however the bill still faces legislative hurdles. 

Now that this legislative session has ended, councilmembers would need to reintroduce it. The legislation can be reintroduced in the new council session which started on Jan. 3. Alterations to the bill, like those suggested during the hearing, could be made before that time. 

Lewis George signaled that she would consider reintroducing it when asking incoming councilmember Zachary Parker, who testified in his capacity as a representative of the D.C. Board of Education, if he would consider co-sponsoring the bill in the new session. 

Several speakers at the event were also invited to continue providing input as the legislation progresses, including Gianpaolo Baiocchi, a sociology professor at New York University. 

“There’s lots of conversation about this national problem, and someone’s going to take the lead and get us a very powerful example that inspires people,” Baiocchi said. “And I’m happy to be talking to the people that I think are going to get to it.”

Issues |Community|Development|Housing|Public Housing

Region |Montgomery County|Washington DC

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