You probably already know that the DMV is an expensive place to live and work — we’ve already talked about it several times this summer. But as much as there is to say about how affordability (or the lack thereof) impacts our day-to-day lives, it’s much harder to talk about potential solutions.

A report out Wednesday from the Urban Institute says the DMV’s affordability problem is fixable, with some creative governing and collaboration with private investors.

First, though, that report grapples with the state of affordability throughout the region, and how it’s expected to change over time.

Kojo will sit down with a team of researchers and practitioners to walk you through it.

Produced by Maura Currie


  • Gustavo Velasquez Director of the Urban Institute’s Washington-Area Research Initiative
  • Maya Brennan Senior Policy Associate at the Urban Institute
  • Michelle Winters Executive Director of the Alliance for Affordable Housing Solutions


  • 13:04:19

    KOJO NNAMDIBy now, you probably know that the D.C. region is an expensive place to live. We've talked about it a lot in the past few months, and listeners always have a lot to say about how this region's affordability crisis has affected your lives. But while we spend a lot of time talking about the problem of affordability, we don't seem to spend as much time on how we might fix that problem. A report out today from the Greater D.C. Urban Institute says our affordability problem is fixable, but it's also complicated. And a sustainable fix will require both public and private investments. Joining me in studio is Maya Brennan. Maya Brennan is Senior Policy Associate at the Urban Institute. Maya Brennan, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:04:56

    MAYA BRENNANThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:04:58

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Michelle Winters, Executive Director of The Alliance for Affordable Housing Solutions. Michelle Winters, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:05:04

    MICHELLE WINTERSIt's nice to be here.

  • 13:05:06

    NNAMDIAnd Gustavo Velasquez is the Director of The Urban Institute's Washington Area Research Initiative. Gustavo, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:05:13

    GUSTAVO VELASQUEZThanks for being here. Thank you.

  • 13:05:14

    NNAMDII'll start with you. We're going to spend most of this conversation talking about these recommendations in the report that I mentioned. But let's start at the beginning. What's the current state of housing need across the region?

  • 13:05:25

    VELASQUEZThank you, Kojo. It's great to be here with one of our authors of the report, Maya Brennan and Michelle, who was an advisor to this report. We went out and looked for many housing experts that would weigh in the direction of this report. So, thank you for Michelle's contributions and the contributions of many people out there. The purpose, Kojo, of this report wasn't to produce just another document that would state the problem. As you mentioned, there's a lot of conversation happening today about our housing affordability challenges. Our purpose was really to provide the evidence-based foundation for leaders to set targets, make commitments and take action. It's time for action now, if we want to avoid for this region to become even more problematic.

  • 13:06:21

    VELASQUEZWe hear the stories about other places, other regions like Seattle and San Francisco. And we have the opportunity to reverse course now, and make sure that we don't have this affordability crisis to get even worse. This is an inflection point, we believe, in our region to accelerate the liberation. And that is, by the way, underway. We are optimistic. There is a lot of deliberation happening. We've been, for example, working very closely with the Metropolitan Housing Council of Governments, because we know that they are advocating to set targets at the regional level across the income spectrum. And we hope that the next step is for individual jurisdictions in our region to set that...

  • 13:07:07

    NNAMDIWhat's the basis of the problem right now? Are there too many people, too few housing units, or both?

  • 13:07:13

    VELASQUEZI think both. I think that the problem is we don't have enough supply to meet today's demand for housing. Housing production has fallen short of past performance, leading to tighter markets, higher cost and transportation challenges as people seek to look for housing as far away as possible, because that's all they can afford. You know, we just saw, heard this report that D.C., the District region is the third-most congested region in the country. So, all of these is exacerbated by the problem of housing affordability. And this obviously affects businesses, also, in a big way. As a business, you need to retain talent. And one way to do it is having housing close to job centers. Having housing of different types and different affordability levels. So, what we're proposing here is make sure that we have targets set in for the next 10 years.

  • 13:08:09

    VELASQUEZAnd we're proposing menu of options, not just to produce more housing, but to preserve just as important to preserve since the gap is largest at the lowest level of the income spectrum, and to protect. So, we're looking at many of options, many of policy tools in District categories. Protect, produce and preserve.

  • 13:08:31

    NNAMDIMaya Brennan, are people living in housing that “goes with their income bracket?” Or are different income classes competing for the same housing?

  • 13:08:38

    BRENNANDifferent income classes are absolutely competing for the same housing. And this is part of the situation that we have in a city and a region where we don't actually have enough housing for all of the people here. So, when we think about housing that a person who is making $32,000 a year needs, they need housing that can rent at $800 a month or less, or that their cost would be $800 a month or less. There's not a lot of housing like that. And some of the housing that is affordable at $800 a month is being occupied by people who, if we were building more units that were in middle income areas, could actually -- they would maybe move out into a $1,300-a-month place instead of an $800 a month.

  • 13:09:23

    NNAMDIGustavo, some of this has to do with differences in local policies. Are some jurisdictions able to handle housing issues more effectively than others? And what is Dillon's Rule?

  • 13:09:34

    VELASQUEZWell, we are, in terms of the first point, yes, different jurisdictions are at different levels in funding, in the types of tools that they have at their disposal. Regulatory autonomy and regulatory authority, that's where Dillon's Rule comes into place, which is you need to have enabling legislation at the state level for local jurisdictions. Let's use the example of Northern Virginia, Dillon's table, where you need to have that legislation at the state level in order for jurisdictions like Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax to do more to move the needle in a direction of producing, preserving and protecting more housing.

  • 13:10:18

    NNAMDISo, there are local jurisdictions that fall under Dillon's Rule, and local jurisdictions that do not. Why do these differences matter when we look at the region overall?

  • 13:10:29

    VELASQUEZWell, because we need the regions to contemplate a wide range of options. And so all of these options have to be on the table. That's why our report is recommending, actually, to be most effective a set of just wealth, policy tools. And these jurisdictions need to assess what they have and what within their capacities funding realities. They can, you know, what they can implement more in order to, you know, achieve the targets necessary at the crossing comes back.

  • 13:11:02

    NNAMDIMichelle Winters, so how does something like Dillon's Rule affect zoning and how buildings are used?

  • 13:11:08

    WINTERSSure. So, the Dillon's Rule -- which it does apply to Virginia and Maryland, but a little bit differently in both of those states -- limits what local governments can do. One of the things that all states have done is given the right to do zoning and land use to the local governments. But there's a lot of other types of laws that they don't have the ability, that local governments don't have the ability to control. So, for instance, local taxation, for instance, is not something that local governments have full control over. They have to get, essentially, permission from the state. So, if Northern Virginia jurisdictions wanted to do something, say, in collaboration with other D.C. area jurisdictions and D.C. and Maryland, they would have to go ask for permission in Richmond to be able to do that. It's not just up to them. It's up to the state, what they can do.

  • 13:12:06

    NNAMDIMaya Brennan, the report refers to something called the Affordability Spectrum. Does affordable necessarily mean low income or rent control?

  • 13:12:15

    WINTERSNo, affordability is based on the income of a particular household and whether the rents or the monthly cost of ownership is affordable for that household's income. So, sometimes that requires a subsidy. Sometimes that happens to rent control. Sometimes that happens through natural methods of, you know, the housing has gotten a little bit older and the rents have come down, or other factors like that. But we think of affordability as being housing that consumes somewhere around 30 percent or less of a household's income.

  • 13:12:47

    NNAMDIAnd Michelle Winters, similarly, affordability is not just housing, right? Your work Alliance For Affordable Housing Solutions usually takes a more holistic view of affordability.

  • 13:12:58

    WINTERSSure. We're working, for instance, with -- also, a government institute who is involved in this -- Shared Prosperity Initiative with the Arlington Community Foundation, where we're looking at a number of different issues that impact the potential displacement and the forces of displacement for low income people in Arlington. And, for instance, childcare is one of those things. Childcare is extremely expensive. It's one of those things that's very place-specific, very much like housing. And so when you have childcare that's is expensive because, say, it's too expensive to open and run a childcare center, that's another type of policy issue where we need to have production and regulations. Even one of the issues that they have in common is parking. There's often too much parking required for housing.

  • 13:13:48

    WINTERSAnd that drives up the cost. Well, the same thing can be said for childcare centers. A parking space costs a lot of money to build.

  • 13:13:55

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break now. What do you see as the biggest challenges when it comes to affordability in your life? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:14:55

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about affordability housing prospects across the region in the wake of a report out today from the Greater D.C. Urban Institute. We're talking with one of the authors of that report, Gustavo Velasquez. He is the Director of the Urban Institute's Washington Area Research Initiative. Maya Brennan is a Senior Policy Associate at the Urban Institute. And Michelle Winters is the Executive Director of The Alliance For Affordable Housing Solutions. Gustavo, we got an e-mail from Jeffrey, who says, let's say we build all the housing your guests want, can we stop there? Will there ever be a time when we say, enough?

  • 13:15:28

    VELASQUEZWell, we are using, for example, there's a number in the report that we need to have 374,000 more rentals or for-sale homes needed to accommodate expected household growth between now and 2030. So, we, that's mostly, you know, new housing that needs to become available. It's just as important to preserve the affordability housing that we have. But so we are, you know, we are using estimates based on the forecast of the Metropolitan Council of Governments. They use, you know, a complicated system to forecast economic and population growth. So, we see that the pattern of growth kind of is consistent with what we've being seeing in the last few years. And that will continue. So, we are, yeah, we need a lot more housing. But it's, you know, consistent of the growth that we are experiencing.

  • 13:16:27

    VELASQUEZIt's not that we are contemplating any kind of fast growth in areas. It's just based on the reality of the patterns that we're seeing today.

  • 13:16:35

    NNAMDICaroline sent us an e-mail: I live in Arlington. There is no end to my frustration. Why are such a big majority of housing units here being built for those with high incomes or millionaires? Just don't issue them construction permits. Issue permits for affordable housing. Since Caroline is e-mailing us from Arlington, we can't seem to have a conversation about affordable housing without addressing the Amazonian elephant in the room. This report makes no mention of Amazon in Northern Virginia, and actually says the fastest growing type of household in coming years will have lower incomes. But Gustavo, are people overselling the impact of Amazon and the region housing market, especially in Arlington County?

  • 13:17:12

    VELASQUEZYou know, I remember when the news brought that Amazon was going to open their new headquarters here. There was a lot of, you know, frantic activity in social media about, you know, the thousands and thousands of new residents that will come to the region. The fact of the matter that people started realizing that Amazon already has a lot of employees in the region. And second, the growth will be gradual, right, not all of a sudden. So, we absolutely think that our estimates are consistent with what we will see in terms of growth. And, yes, there is always the chance that, you know, growth will kind of spike up. And then we need to build more. So, I'm not saying our estimates are conservative. But we again, they're just consistent with how we've been growing.

  • 13:18:00

    NNAMDIMichelle Winters, from your perspective in Arlington, how has Amazon's impending arrival shifted how people are thinking about affordable housing?

  • 13:18:06

    WINTERSIt's certainly brought a lot more attention to the issue, which is sort of the good side and the bad side of this. You know, we've been talking about affordable housing needs and even calling it a crisis for quite some time, locally and nationally. And when Amazon made the announcement, I think more people started to pay attention to the fact that it is an issue, that it's something that they were afraid was going to get worse because of Amazon coming here. And we're hoping that that translates into more demand by the people for action by all of the local governments and the state governments. And so that would be the positive side of this, is that if the greater attention could lead to more action. And, you know, as I think Gustavo mentioned earlier, we have done a lot of studies here in Arlington.

  • 13:19:02

    WINTERSWe know we love to study things. And we've studied things. We know what policies will work. We just have to have the courage to enact them.

  • 13:19:13

    NNAMDIAnd Amazon's actually been engaged with this issue already. Tell us about that.

  • 13:19:18

    WINTERSThey have been. So, we started engaging with Amazon early in the process. They reached out to, through the county and through the Chamber of Commerce in Arlington, to meet people locally at the very beginning of the year, before the deal was even approved. We met with them one on one and in groups. They reached out to me and wanted to learn more about affordable housing in Arlington. And so I helped introduce them to some other groups. We were very pleased to see that turned into an announcement earlier this summer, where they announced a matching gift program for many of those local nonprofits that work on housing for their employees. And they announced a $3 million dollar grant to the Arlington Community Foundation to work on affordable housing issues.

  • 13:20:06

    NNAMDIOn, now, to the telephones. Here's Sherry in North East D.C. Sherry, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 13:20:10

    SHERRYGood afternoon, and thank you for taking my call. I'm calling about the housing situation in the District of Columbia. Rents are just too high and out of control, and new housing is not being produced fast enough to bring down the cost of housing. A one bedroom apartment is average $2,500 a month, which the average working person cannot afford. There are a lot of unlicensed rooming houses across the city, and DCRA is not going to be able to find them all. But that situation exists because the housing costs are just out of control. The housing market is out of control, and the Council and the mayor need to do something to reduce the cost of housing. You know, they need to put a moratorium on rent increases and/or implement price controls, which, you know, those are drastic solutions, but the problem is drastic.

  • 13:20:57

    SHERRYAnd that's why you have a lot of people doing whatever they can to keep a roof over their heads. And that's why there are a lot of those unlicensed rooming houses, like we saw up on Kennedy Street so recently. Because of, you know, people doing...

  • 13:21:10

    NNAMDIBut Sherry, allow me to have Maya and Gustavo respond to that. And then later, I'll share with you the perspective of a landlord who sent us an e-mail. Maya?

  • 13:21:19

    BRENNANYeah. I think it's completely right, that as long as we have the housing crisis that we have, you face serious problems of unlicensed rooming houses and other situations like that. People need a place to live, and people need a reasonably priced place to live. And when that's not available, quality starts to go down. And people start being willing to rent whatever they can find, whatever they can afford, because they have to have a place to get near their work. Sometimes rent controls and rent regulations are a reasonable tool for doing that. They can also make it so that it's actually easy to be over income compared to what the rents are in that particular unit. So, I would push for us to do a lot more on subsidy to bring rents down and regulatory changes that you might be able to bring down what the natural rent needs to be of the property, and give rent control some serious thought. It's certainly worth a consideration. But make sure that you focus on the subsidies that make sure that we get folks in the incomes that really need it.

  • 13:22:28

    NNAMDISherry, thank you for your call. We got an e-mail from Sebastian, who says: if you're going to resolve the problem in D.C., you need to start making it easy and fair to put a unit on the market for landlords. The laws have become so tuned to giving tenants all the rights and making it impossible for small landlords. The result, empty units, says Sebastian. Gustavo?

  • 13:22:46

    VELASQUEZWell, yeah, that can be a problem. We've seen that problem happening a while in D.C. However, I think, you know, looking forward -- we're trying to kind of pivot to what the actions need to happen next. I...

  • 13:23:02

    NNAMDII'm glad mentioned that, because this report lists 12 policy tools that have a lot of potential. We obviously don't have time to go through all of them. But which do you think of as being either the most important, the most surprising, the most untraditional? Maya?

  • 13:23:20

    BRENNANYeah. Well, one of the most untraditional of them is land value taxation. So, there's a lot of policies that are regularly discussed about, you know, inclusionary zoning, or up zoning, trying to get more density, trying to reduce parking requirements. But sometimes we are not using the policy authority that we already have. So, in places that are already zoned for higher density, increasing the allowable density is not necessarily going to get people to change their mind about how many units to build there. But if they were taxed based on the value of the land that they're holding and how many units that land might accommodate, there becomes a financial incentive to actually increase density on that spot. So, that's one of the ideas that is -- one that is perhaps the most unusual of the report, I think.

  • 13:24:13

    NNAMDIAnd several of the recommendations this report makes, there's a big emphasis on preserving affordable housing and preventing displacement. So, here's Alfred in Oakton, Virginia. Alfred, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:24:24

    ALFREDI lived in an affordable dwelling unit in Fairfax, Virginia for about six years. And, at the time, it was a God send to get it. We were very lucky. I literally saw it on Craigslist and drove over and got very lucky to get in there. Two other couples tried to get in the next day. But after six years of living there and paying a very affordable rent of about $1,000 a month, the rent tripled. And I wasn't really given notice. I never really understood why. And I was lucky enough to be able, somebody passed away in a single-person home. So, it worked out. But I never understood why the rent changed.

  • 13:25:08

    NNAMDIWell, you raised a crucial aspect of this report. Maya Brennan, what does it mean to preserve affordable housing?

  • 13:25:13

    BRENNANYeah. So, all the units that exist in the District and in the region that are affordable for someone who can only pay $1,000 or $1,300 or less a month, we need to keep every one of those. Because building a new housing unit, building a new standalone single family home, a new multi-family building, it costs a lot more than just keeping what we have affordable. So, preservation, when we talk about it from a housing context, isn't about preserving historic buildings and structures and, you know, beautiful period architecture. It's about preserving the types of rent levels and affordability that housing has in the region. And we, at this point, are already well short of the amount of units that we need for the lowest income and lower income households in the area. We can't afford to lose anymore.

  • 13:26:10

    NNAMDIGustavo, a lot of these strategies being discussed here go hand-in-hand with preventing displacement. Right? What factors lead to people being forced out of a region?

  • 13:26:20

    VELASQUEZWell, we hope cost of housing creates enough pressures that gives the effect of both voluntary and involuntary displacement. Both of those types of displacements are problematic. 220,000 households with incomes below $75,000 a year that live in the District region, our researchers found that all those people are at risk of displacement due to the market pressures. Another almost 100,000 are in communities that may become vulnerable as the area grows. So, as population grows, as, you know, supply is tight, the prices continues to be higher. And that obviously is going to create the type of gentrification and ultimately displacement that we've seen in many communities. And let me just add, communities most effected, low income communities and communities where there have traditionally been people of color living there. So, that is a very grave problem.

  • 13:27:25

    NNAMDIMichelle Winters, we only have a couple minutes left. But you do a lot of practical work on the ground. Have you seen any of the policies we've talked about being recommended in this report be implemented? And if so, what do they look like?

  • 13:27:38

    WINTERSCertainly. So, I can mention reducing parking requirements, which is something that I personally worked on in Arlington a few years ago. It was a very exciting working group that we were on, a parking working group. And we basically recommended that the county within the Metro corridor areas require significantly less parking for all multi-family housing, and even less than that if it was affordable, based on the data that showed that people who have lower incomes own fewer cars, and that there were several instances of affordable properties that had an excess of parking. And so they had been required to build too much. So, parking is something that we have definitely worked on. We have also really expanded the ability to do accessory dwelling units in Arlington, both inside a home and in the backyard, in a cottage-type format. And that's something that's new.

  • 13:28:36

    NNAMDIThey're currently a source of controversy in Montgomery County, which we've had several discussions about. But we're almost out of time. Maya Brennan, the conclusion of this report seems to be that the DMV's housing problem is fixable in the foreseeable future. Is that correct?

  • 13:28:50

    BRENNANAbsolutely. If we get all of the region's leaders together, the business community, the philanthropic community, nonprofits and public sector from all over the region to work together on 10 year targets, this is fixable. There's no single policy fix for it. But we need a patchwork that all come together.

  • 13:29:07

    NNAMDIMaya Brennan is a Senior Policy Associate at the Urban Institute. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:11

    BRENNANThank you.

  • 13:29:12

    NNAMDIGustavo Velasquez is the Director of the Urban Institute's Washington Area Research Initiative. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:18

    VELASQUEZThanks, Kojo.

  • 13:29:19

    NNAMDIAnd Michelle Winters is the Executive Director of the Alliance For Affordable Housing Solutions. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:25

    WINTERSThank you.

  • 13:29:26

    NNAMDIThis conversation about affordability was produced by Maura Currie, and our update on the outbreak of vaping related lung illnesses was produced by Monna Kashfi. Coming up tomorrow, there is still no emergency room East of the river, and that is having life-and-death consequences for the residents of Ward 7 and Ward 8. Plus, are you ready for The REACH? The Kennedy Center's new expansion opens to the public this weekend. We'll find out what it's all about. It all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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