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How much affordable housing does D.C. have? The city can’t say for sure

Officials want to find out using a comprehensive database

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Affordable housing—or the lack thereof—is one of the biggest issues facing D.C. as new residents move to the city and many longtime residents feel squeezed by rising housing costs. Recent studies have found that rents in D.C. have grown more quickly than those elsewhere, and, generally speaking, housing prices show few if any signs of decreasing.

Despite this, the District does not know exactly how many homes in D.C. are affordable. There is currently no single reliable source of data on existing affordable housing stock, according to officials charged with managing D.C.’s economic development and growth.

That’s why the District’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is soliciting advice from experts in technology and real estate on creating a comprehensive database for the city’s affordable housing—a kind of one-stop-shop that could help public and private organizations plan new projects. On Wednesday, DHCD announced that it had released a “request for information” for such a database, and responses are due on Sept. 11.

While the D.C. government and private entities track projects that have units designated for low- and moderate-income households, the data is scattered. “This makes it difficult for the public, industry and District government to quickly pull together an accurate picture of the size and composition of this stock, let alone of the people it is serving or the changes it is undergoing,” DHCD explains in its request. The agency’s goal is to tie all the data together.

Why? So officials can better answer “questions such as, how much affordable housing does the District have, where does the District need affordable housing, what type of affordable housing does the District need, where is affordable housing needed?” DHCD’s request says.

It’s unclear when this type of comprehensive system would be completed or how it would be built. But Yesim Sayin Taylor, an economist who directs the D.C. Policy Center—a local think-tank—and previously worked for D.C.’s chief financial officer, calls the effort admirable.

“It is really hard to figure out what housing units are affordable to whom,” says Taylor, “and current sources of information oftentimes overlap.” In an email to Curbed DC, she explains:

“Tax data tell us how many units have some sort of tax subsidy (11,374, including the 7,000 owned by DC) but this includes government owned projects, projects with some affordability covenant, projects that receive tax preferences because of the income of the residents (such as projects built with Low Income Housing Tax Credits), and possibly some more. They may be affordable but they are unlikely to be in the market. Then there are the rent-controlled units (about 79,000 units in nearly 4,900 buildings) but some of these have crept above affordability levels over time. Then there is the shadow rental market—single family homes or condominiums that are rented by their owners. There are a lot of them in DC, and not just in downtown, but especially in Ward 7 where a vibrant Section 8 industry dominates housing.”

But Taylor also notes that it is important for the District to be precise about its goal with a comprehensive database, which could take various forms. Tracking government projects would require a different level of capabilities than, say, tracking all the homes in D.C. that have any price or rent restrictions, or tracking all the available affordable units in real time.

The think-tank’s own research has found that of roughly 304,000 available housing units it assumed for a 2018 analysis, about 95,000 were “potentially” affordable to families of four. About 25,000 of those units were potentially affordable to families earning up to 80 percent of the area median income (AMI), currently $93,760 for a four-person household, and only a handful were potentially affordable to families earning up to 30 percent of the AMI, $35,160.

“It is a difficult exercise and requires a lot of assumptions,” Taylor points out.

DHCD says that those who want to respond to its solicitation must first register with the D.C. Office of Procurement.

This post has been updated with DHCD’s new deadline for responding to the solicitation.