In 2016, Washington D.C.’s Housing Preservation Strike Force — which sounds like a superhero ensemble, but is actually an 18-person team made up of various affordable housing stakeholders — recommended that the city establish a Preservation Unit within city government. This week, that recommendation came one step closer to being realized when Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office announced the hiring of Ana Lopez Van Balen as the District’s first Affordable Housing Preservation Officer.
“When I established the Strike Force in 2015, its mandate was clear — develop an action plan that ensures the District does not lose any of its already existing affordable housing,” Bowser said in a statement. “Ana has a strong background in economic, housing, and community development, strategic planning, and engagement, and we know she will serve the residents of DC well.”
Lopez Van Balen will oversee a new unit which will have two main goals, Washington City Paper reports. The first, Gwen Cofield of the Department of Housing and Community Development told the paper, is “to identify opportunities to preserve affordable housing units.” That includes units that are already subsidized by the government and units that are naturally affordable.
The second is to set up a database that will help Lopez Van Balen work in cooperation with both the public and private sectors, allowing the city to “look at the landscape of affordable housing to see what’s vulnerable and see what stakeholders can do to make sure we preserve it,” Cofield told the paper.
The Strike Force was developed at a time when D.C.’s lower-cost units were dropping “precipitously,” Jen Kinney wrote for Next City in 2016.
“According to the D.C. Office of Planning, between 2009 and 2014, almost 9,500 rental units became unaffordable to households earning 60 percent or less of area median income,” she wrote. “During that same period, the overall number of rental units in the district increased by 30,000. That means even as housing production boomed, affordable units decreased by 11 percent.”
Last March, D.C.’s largest public funder of affordable housing was called out for poor management and uncollected loan repayments — but auditors said the issues were long-standing and declined to place the blame on Bowser.
“While there is more work to do, residents should be clear that under this administration, the fund continues to make great progress in creating more affordable housing options across all eight wards,” Kevin Harris, a spokesperson for the audit, said at the time.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.