Washington DC’s Affordable Housing Follows the Money

DC’s Mayor Fente has been winning friends among low-housing advocates with pledges to fund, build and preserve 14,000 affordable housing units over a four-year period. During the past years of pumped up real estate values, over 200 low to moderate income apartment buildings were flipped into condominiums, circumventing a city law to give tenants first right of refusal. The City’s regulatory agency allowed systematic abuse of residents by landlords to force them to move. Can affordable housing rebound during leaner revenue years, when pressure to convert from affordable rentals to condominiums is reduced?

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DC’s Mayor Fente has been winning friends among low-housing advocates with pledges to fund, build and preserve 14,000 affordable housing units over a four-year period. It is a little tricky to do the math on what is going to be built new when you lump together “build” and”preserve.” We do know that the “build new” category has been going up rapidly these past four years, however, at the same time over 1200 units of once affordable housing (over 200 buildings) have been converted to condominiums in DC over the past four years. Mayor Fenty can not be held responsible for what transpired before he took office in 2007, but problems are lingering.

The DC Housing Director, Leslie Steen resigned her position earlier this month in protest of being marginalized and overruled in her efforts to create a comprehensive approach to addressing the City’s need for affordable housing. Ms. Steen’s published comments, upon her resignation, assert that the City administration was “not taking a strategic approach” to the creation of affordable housing and mixed-income, diverse neighborhoods across the city. In response, the Office of Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, Neil Albert, replied that “There are more than 14,000 units of affordable housing in the District’s citywide pipeline and we are extremely focused on making sure it is delivered…”

Critics of Mayor Fenty’s approach to low-income housing might be inclined to say that Leslie Steen’s resignation as DC Housing Director says it all, but the Washington Post would beg to differ. Steen’s resignation has been bracketed by the Post’s special report on how apartment building owners in DC have forced out tenants in recent years to permit building conversions from affordable apartments into condominiums.

Well, we all know that intelligent minds can disagree (and the corrolary – idiots may disagree). However, the Post built their story on reams of collected data. And while both Steen and the DC Deputy Mayor may have valid positions with regard to the creation of affordable housing, the Post found that since 2004 building landlords in DC have vacated over 200 apartment buildings in order to circumvent a law that gives tenants right of first refusal, and avoids large fees for conversion.

The Washington Post compiled information from D.C. government files, a database of 128,000 housing code complaints, and property assessor’s records to identify and analyze the 201 apartment buildings that received “vacancy exemptions” since 2004. The exemptions allow landlords to convert to condominiums without a vote by tenants, as required under law, and without paying a 5 percent conversion fee charged by the city.

The reflection on DC Government is not good. The city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) overlooked bad conditions and code violations in many buildings, and then granted permission to the landlords to turn rent-controlled apartments into condominiums. There appears to have been no action against landlords who sent threatening letters to tenants to push them to leave their apartments, or who evicted tenants with false claims. Overall, the DCRA permitted a systematic process for emptying buildings that provided rent controlled and affordable housing by allowing them to fall into extreme disrepair, and for the landlords to abuse tenants to the point that they were compelled to move from their apartments. The landlords have sold more than 1,200 new condominiums, bringing in more than $320 million and avoiding $16 million in city fees.

Now that the bloom is off the rose of real estate in DC, condominium buildings in the pipeline are being converted to apartments. Few if any are for low income or rent controlled. While this may remove the driver for building conversion from affordable housing to condominium, the weakness of the DC DCRA in enforcing housing law, and protecting low income tenants from corrupt landlords remains a current concern. If DC lost some 1400 units of affordable house during the boon times, can the Fenty administration deliver the budget for affordable housing during an economic contraction? Steen’s job had been to coordinate the production of nearly 55,000 affordable housing units for low- and moderate-income residents. Robert H. Pohlman, executive director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, put it recently, “I don’t know of any plan per se to achieve that.”

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Tags: affordable housingwashington dcurban designreal estatebuilt environmentgovernance

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