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D.C. is one of the hardest U.S. cities in which to build affordable housing, report says

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The metro area ranks 52 out of 58 for ease of new development

The top of modern residential buildings with a crane in the background.
Residential buildings in the D.C. area

A 2019 study from the Arlington-based National Apartment Association (NAA) finds that the D.C. metro area has some of the highest barriers to multifamily housing construction in the U.S. Those barriers, including major construction costs, limited available land, and strained infrastructure like congested highways and crowded schools, contributed to D.C. ranking 52 out of the 58 metro areas studied in terms of the relative ease of developing new apartments.

“Washington is experiencing a boom with sustained demand for new multifamily in the top third of national metro, yet ranks near the bottom of major markets for barriers to new apartment development with an overall index of 1.27, similar to Baltimore and New York,” the report says. “Constructions costs are higher, land as a driver, while land supply itself is highly restrictive.” Regulatory restrictions and political complexities, ranging from zoning approvals to multiple layers of community review, also hinder new development, per NAA. The report is based on a national survey of private and nonprofit officials, plus other data.

A bar graph showing various indicators of difficulty constructing new apartments in the D.C. area, including construction costs, land availability, and affordable housing requirements.
Barriers to apartment construction in the D.C. metro area
National Apartment Association

“San Diego and San Francisco, followed by DC, Honolulu and Sacramento ranked highly for political structure complexity,” says the study. “In addition to local councils, managers and commissioners, both county and state governments may be active in influencing residential building activities and/or growth management in these local communities.” The District, for example, is a county, city, and state government all in one, but some development requires various federal approvals—and neighborhood commissions often have a say in the process.

The report’s authors note that the goal of their analysis was to identify differences in urban areas’ land management, not to judge whether specific policies are good or bad. They add that 41 percent of D.C. area residents face high rent burdens—meaning they were spending more than 35 percent of their household incomes on rent, as of 2017—and the city requires more than 106,000 new units of housing by 2030 to keep up with its increasing population.

Stats on barriers to and demand for apartment construction in the D.C. metro area next to a map of the area.
Barriers to apartment construction in the D.C. metro area
National Apartment Association

Mayor Muriel Bowser has benchmarked the creation of 36,000 new units in D.C. by 2025 as part of a hoped-for 240,000 new units in the region. The city has put $100 million annually into its main affordable housing fund over the past few years, but rising construction costs have restrained how far those dollars go and the number of units they are able to produce.

While the median rental household income in the D.C. area is $63,870, the income needed to pay the average rent is $68,000, a difference of more than $4,000 a year, according to NAA’s report. Rents continue to go up, especially near public transit, a recent RentHop study found.