Study Requested by McDuffie Shows Mid-City’s “RIA” Project Will Harm Families at Brookland Manor. So, Why Does McDuffie Still Support It?

By Morgan Artyukhina and Kevin Gustafson

A study of affordable family housing in the city by the DC government has yielded eye-opening, but ultimately unsurprising, results. As anyone who has paid attention to the housing situation in the District is aware, not only is there a vast shortage of family housing that’s affordable to those who need it, but also, the city’s plan to protect and expand affordable housing is completely failing. In many ways, this is yet another study telling residents what they already know: there is an affordable housing crisis in Washington, DC.

The study, published on Wednesday, was requested by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and performed by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) in conjunction with the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED) and the Urban Institute. McDuffie requested this study following his public support for one of the city’s largest proposed redevelopments, Mid-City’s “RIA” plan at Brookland Manor, which proposes to significantly reduce affordability in the community, and eliminate almost all affordable family units, including all 5, virtually all 4, and a significant reduction of 3 bedroom units. Despite claims by local politicians, here is no stated guarantee of affordability in any subsequent proposals that the developer has submitted post the Zoning process. 

The fact that Mid-City’s plan is backed not only by McDuffie, but also by the entire District City Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser, is deeply concerning considering the findings of this study, which indicates that “large households at the low end of the income spectrum are frequently severely housing cost-burdened and under-housed.” While most family units in the city are in Wards 3, 4, 5, and 8 (with the most in 4), three-quarters of all those units are owner-occupied (for sale) housing, not rentals, and three-quarters of the total are single-family houses instead of multifamily properties (rental apartments, condominiums, and cooperative housing). Basically, this means that most family housing is simply unattainable for most district residents, and all but inaccessible to those struggling to make ends meet.

The report additionally notes that “the heads of large households are more likely to be people of color, particularly in large renter households. Large households also typically are headed by younger householders and are more likely to have three generations living in them.” This fact is relevant to Brookland Manor, a historically Black neighborhood, where generations of Native Washingtonian families are targeted for displacement by Mid-City’s plan, which McDuffie supports. If Mid-City is successful in pushing families out of Brookland Manor, based on the results of this study, there will be nowhere else to go, as the study notes that 6,500 families need housing units with a rent below $750 per month, while there are only 4,000 such units in the entire city. Meanwhile, there is a boom of building of studio and one bedroom luxury apartments all over the city, catering to young professionals who may not yet need large living spaces, but who still pay exorbitant monthly rent.

Unfortunately, McDuffie, Mayor Bowser, and the entire District City Council have failed to support the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Resident Association’s demands, as listed on their website (bmbvassociation.org), which include the affordable housing needs of families in the community:

Ms. Minnie Elliott, president of the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association comments on Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie’s stance regarding the “RIA” development.

"The Preservation of the 535 units of affordable housing that currently exist on site at the current bedroom sizes and current subsidy levels; The right of tenants to remain on the property during the process of redevelopment (redevelopment in phases to prevent any displacement) i.e.: build first; The right for tenants to access employment opportunities through the rebuilding of our own community, which we have a fundamental right to be a part of."

Instead, lawmakers recently and unanimously moved to allocate up to $47 million in tax increment financing (TIF).

The report also notes that lawsuits against property owners and developers seeking to destroy affordable family housing - including those filed by Brookland Manor residents in 2016 and appealed in 2018 - have highlighted the plight of working families and their awareness about the effects of gentrification, and helped to drive the creation of the study itself.

“Cost-Burdened” Households & the Housing Crisis

As of April 2019, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has marked the city’s Area Median Income (AMI) at $121,300 for a household of four. HUD defines a cost-burdened household as one that spends more than 30% of its income on rent and utilities. That means that if a resident pays $36,400 or more in housing, or $3,032 per month, they are “Cost-burdened.” The total average for rent in the district is $2,131.

In fact, in 2017, only 12.7% of single-family houses or condominium sales in Washington, D.C., would have been affordable to a household making $88,000 a year, which is considered low-income. As of last year, the median annual income for black families was just $37,891.

Footage of rat holes at Brookland Manor. Submitted to LinkUp by a member of the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association. Residents have reported deteriorating conditions that are going unaddressed by developer MidCity Financial.

“A minimum wage worker would have to work 104 hours or have 2.6 full-time jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment in DC. To afford a one-bedroom apartment, a minimum wage worker would have to work 91 hours or have 2.3 full-time jobs,” Greater Greater Washington reported in January. DC’s minimum wage increased from $13.25 to $14 an hour on July 1, so these numbers are slightly off, but the situation remains the same. The inequality in access to housing is drastic. 

The Council’s Response to the Crisis

What is the city’s cure for this chronic need? The report states, “Mayor Muriel Bowser has announced a goal to produce 36,000 new units in the District by 2025." Many of these units will be completely unaffordable and impossible to access for working class D.C. residents. Meanwhile, the District’s Five Year Consolidated Plan in 2016 noted that a 40,000-household waitlist exists for public housing. Reports in subsequent years have maintained this number as their estimate, and the actual number is likely much higher. In other words, the Mayor's plan wouldn’t even fully address the existing housing shortage, to say nothing of the housing needs that will come in the next six years and beyond.

The report also recommends equalizing pricing by square foot between large and small units, but suggests doing so by providing more problematic subsidies to developers to encourage larger units for families - as if the massive influx in subsidies to developers so far has resulted in positive growth in affordable family housing.

These are solutions that fail to tackle the heart of the problem itself, which the report correctly identifies: “The lower rental revenue potential for large units, along with the high cost of land in the District, makes it relatively more difficult to finance and develop buildings with large units.” It’s not going to be developers who will build affordable housing - the city itself needs to step up and do the work. Rather than using public money to help private developers build unaffordable housing, the District should use public money to (a) immediately repair the dilapidated public housing stock, which has been allowed to fall into disrepair by both federal and local government, and (b) to build a robust social housing stock, as has been done in other places, to decommodify what should be a human right. 

With a budget reserve of more than $2.4 billion and hefty annual surplus, it’s unclear why the city council is unable to commit more than a “record” $138 million to solving one of the city’s most extensive crises, one that directly impacts tens of thousands of working families and has reverberations for most residents of the city. Given the budget surplus, this is not a matter of ability, it is a matter of political will, and the council thus far simply would rather line their own pockets (as we have seen with the corruption of Jack Evans) or the pockets of their developer friends and campaign contributors than help the residents of the city from whom they supposedly represent.

Frankly, so long as housing in the District is allowed to be governed by private market forces that are controlled by developers, it cannot and will not meet the needs of working people, even with incentives that work within that system. No incentive offered to developers by the city government could outweigh the incentive their profit motive. To think otherwise is naive. Only a new approach to housing that removes the essential use value of housing as a commodity and guarantees housing to everyone as a human right, can we ever dream of adequately addressing the problem in the capital of, and all around, the richest country in the world.

Yasmina Mrabet