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Affordable housing in D.C., according to DHCD Director Polly Donaldson

What to know about the past, present, and future of affordable housing in Washington, D.C.

In August 2015, a report from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies reported that almost half of the households in Washington, D.C. paid more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent, while almost 25 percent paid more than 50 percent.

In order to produce more affordable housing in the District, Mayor Muriel Bowser has committed over $100 million every year to the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), more than any city per capita in the country. The HPTF is a permanent, revolving fund that produces affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households.

Recently, the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor (ODCA) conducted its first-ever audit of the HPTF, finding that the DHCD does not properly manage the program. The audit looked over the 16 full years that the HPTF has been active, though with gaps in information. In the audit, it reported that the DHCD was not fully consistent in screening families or ensuring that developers kept their promises.

The DHCD published a response to the audit, noting that since its implementation, 12,000 affordable housing units have been produced or preserved. These units have thereby served approximately 30,000 residents in D.C.

Polly Donaldson, director of the DHCD, told Curbed DC, “The Housing Production Trust Fund was created in the ‘90s, but it was only really funded as of 2001. It’s a relatively young program ... There are some growing pains that come with the administration of a new program.”

To further speak on how affordable housing has grown in the District, Donaldson took the time to talk with Curbed DC. The interview is below with images of projects that have been backed by the DHCD and its programs.

When you began in January 2015 as the Director of the DHCD, what were your initial goals?

My goals were to address production and the resources needed, address preservation, and come up with a clear strategy and implementation plan. Then [I hoped to] help this agency evolve into one that would be able to fully implement the programs that it is responsible for and build the team to help make that happen.

I had the great fortune of also being Co-Chair of the Mayor’s transition committee related to housing issues, so I actually started right after election day, while I was still head of a non-profit housing association. The Mayor had made it clear she wanted investment in the principal funding source for the Housing Production Trust Fund, and she wanted to achieve the figure of $100 million a year as an investment by the city.

We didn’t have an actual strategy at that time. The Mayor asked me to put together a very short-lived strike force to address preservation, to set a goal, and to think through with stakeholders and members of the Council what our strategy should be and how we implement that.

Have your goals changed in any way?

I think there have been some additions. I think there is also an understanding that we are not solely involved in renter housing, but also homeownership and revitalizing neighborhoods.

Genesis is a Mi Casa-developed affordable housing community in Washington, D.C. with 27 apartments for seniors and young families transitioning out of foster care.
Photo via Mi Casa

In 2015, when you began, how would you describe D.C.’s affordable housing inventory?

There was definitely affordable housing being developed. The demand far exceeded the supply, and the supply had been diminished in the past 10 years because of covenants expiring.

My goal was to stem the tide on preservation in order to keep the units that we had, and I think we’ve accomplished that over the past two years. We have added over 3,100 affordable units [across all eight Wards].

When it comes to affordable housing, how does D.C. compare to cities like New York and San Francisco in terms of our demand and our pursuit of it?

We are one of about 10 high cost housing cities in the country. I think compared to New York and San Francisco, they’re probably ahead of us in terms of absolute costs. Also, New York is so much bigger.

Boston, San Francisco, and Denver are good equivalents for us in terms of population size. We’re now almost at 700,000 residents, and that has helped put a pressure on the rental market for sure.

We’re a little different because we’re not a state and we’re not a city that’s in a county. As we compare, we probably have the most expansive tool kit.

New York has more money because they’re bigger, but when it comes to San Francisco, Boston, and Denver, [we have many] tools, including the HPTF, Preservation Fund, and Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA).

Managed by WC Smith, The Norwood is a historic, cooperative building in Logan Circle that houses 84 affordable units.
Photo via WC Smith

Five years from now, where do you see D.C. in terms of affordable housing?

Five years from now, I think we’ll be showing our impact all throughout the city. I think that we have in place the tools to build affordable housing and to support it. I think that we have a really creative, innovative non-profit and for-profit development community that are working together in some instances.

The goal that I’ve been given by the Mayor was to develop 7,500 units between 2015 and 2018. Right now, we’ve completed 6,800, and I have another [Request for Proposals] to go this year, so I’ll probably have another 1,300 to 1,500 to go in the pipeline.

I think we’re looking pretty good, but I think we need to do more. That’s not enough.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.