Oct 19, 2022 - Politics
Town Talker

Washington region spins wheels on housing crisis

Illustration of a pattern of houses, most of them cut out with emptiness behind them.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

All over the Washington region this month, housing drama has roiled leaders and the public, from management failures to debates over single-family zoning.

Why it matters: The controversies are drawing new attention to the D.C. region's growing pains, and how its leaders are not acting fast enough to meet demand.

State of play: In the District, the D.C. Housing Authority, which manages public and subsidized housing, is in disarray, a federal report from HUD showed. Then the agency’s deputy director abruptly quit this week, the Washington City Paper reported.

  • The HUD report — which among other damning findings said that one in four public housing units in D.C. are vacant — lit a fire under council members to finally do something. On Tuesday, lawmakers took a first swing at reform, in part requiring its board members and executive director to receive training.
  • Remarkably, the report found that director Brenda Donald “has no experience in property development, property management or managing federal housing programs.” Donald wrote to council members before the vote that their legislation was “reactive and overly burdensome.”

In Montgomery County, the influential planning board imploded last week after a workplace conduct scandal.

  • Next week, the county council is poised to appoint temporary members and approve the landmark Thrive 2050 plan, which aims to increase housing density, especially around transit points.

Meanwhile, Arlington County is embroiled in a controversy over a proposal to allow for the construction of duplexes and apartments to be in single-family-home neighborhoods.

  • The county board will take up the proposal this fall, the Washington Post reported, amid fierce lobbying from both sides.

The big picture: These varied headlines highlight the challenges of building affordable and equitable housing that meets the demands of the region's growing tech and life sciences workforce.

“The crisis has been building for some time,” Robert McCartney, the former Washington Post metro columnist who now hosts a podcast on regional issues, tells me. He ironically welcomes some of the recent dramatic developments “in the sense that they are calling attention to the problem” that is “dry and complicated. … It’s not a sexy topic.”

By the numbers: The Washington region needs to build about 32,000 new housing units a year to meet demand by 2030, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

We ended the last year building about 20,000 to 22,000 units, says Hilary Chapman, the group’s housing program manager.

  • Some of the new work being undertaken — such as the Thrive 2050 plan for Montgomery County and the proposal to ease zoning in Arlington County — are steps in the right direction, she says.

Yes, but: Removing zoning limits in Arlington County won’t mean multi-family units will simply grow like trees. Observers and leaders assume developers will still find building luxury single-family homes to be more lucrative, even if given the option to construct denser buildings.

  • “This is not going to produce a huge number of new houses,” says Chapman.

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