In Berlin, first, in January, came an agreement from the city to buy housing stock from private landlords, something never tried before on such a large scale. Then came the call mentioned above to ban major landlords from holding very large numbers of apartments. And finally, renters’ associations and some officials in the city government are campaigning for the introduction of a five-year rent freeze, an idea that also enjoys popular support, but may still founder due to the legal limits of the city’s power.
Berlin Builds an Arsenal of Ideas to Stage a Housing Revolution: The proposals might seem radical—from banning huge corporate landlords to freezing rents for five years—but polls show the public is ready for something dramatic
By Seamus Ferguson,
As Berliners grow increasingly frustrated with rising rents, there’s a question making the rounds in local politics that could seriously shake things up: Should there be a limit to how much housing a landlord can own?Following months of intense debate (and some action), the German capital is considering whether landlords with more than 3,000 units should be barred from operating in the city. Opinion polls show a majority of Berliners favor such a move, and activists are about to start preparations for a referendum on the subject. If voted through, the plan could give citizens the power to make Berlin’s biggest landlords break up their portfolios, in the hope that this could prevent galloping rent rises and provide tenants with better service.The proposal is just one of several moves in a city that could be on the cusp of a housing revolution. Over the past few months, the German capital has been trying out several plans to keep housing affordable. In effect, these plans would transfer large sections of the city’s rental homes from private owners to the public sector.
First, in January, came an agreement from the city to buy housing stock from private landlords, something never tried before on such a large scale. Then came the call mentioned above to ban major landlords from holding very large numbers of apartments. And finally, renters’ associations and some officials in the city government are campaigning for the introduction of a five-year rent freeze, an idea that also enjoys popular support, but may still founder due to the legal limits of the city’s power.
Not all of this is sure a sure bet, but the trajectory is unmistakeable. For decades, the state has sold off much of its public housing. Now, Berlin seems to be deciding that its housing market is broken, and that the private sector alone will not fix it. In a city where the overwhelming majority of people don’t own the units they occupy—roughly 85 percent of Berlin’s housing stock is rented by tenants from a landlord—that fix will inevitably mean retooling the rental market.
A ban on mega-landlords
The movement began in earnest at the beginning of the year with a fight over apartments on one of East Berlin’s most famous avenues. That case has since snowballed into a wider campaign to rein in major landlord companies.
The spark came in autumn 2018, when rental tenants of 680 apartments on East Berlin’s Karl Marx Allee discovered that their homes were to be sold to a major rental company called Deutsche Wohnen. The street in question is a grand, mainly 1950s avenue built up with elaborately decorated Stalinist baroque tenements. It’s considered a highly desirable place to live, so many residents dreaded what was sure to come.
Deutsche Wohnen owns 110,000 apartments in Berlin, and has developed a reputation for raising rents sharply by finding loopholes in Germany’s fairly strict rental laws. In the meantime, the firm invests almost half as much as state housing companies do to keep its homes in good condition.
If the deal went through, many Karl Marx Allee residents feared they would be abruptly priced out of their homes. Tenants decided to fight, insisting that the city or borough should do something to stop the sale and ensure that their rents stayed within reasonable limits.
Remarkably, the city’s government has agreed. This month, Berlin’s senate said it would step in and buy three buildings, amounting to 316 apartments. Meanwhile, the local borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg would buy a fourth building containing 80 apartments, meaning the majority of flats for sale will be converted to public ownership.
The authorities could do this through an existing law that allows them a right of first refusal over buildings for sale in areas that are undergoing steep rent rises. The law hasn’t yet been applied on this scale, and even though the city and borough will ultimately recoup the costs from rent, the buyout will require an investment of up to €100 million.
That’s already a major investment—but why stop there? The overwhelming majority of units that Deutsche Wohnen owns today in Berlin used to be public housing, and were sold off by the state over the past few decades. As galloping rents make daily life increasingly difficult, many Berliners are starting to regret such a shift. Sure enough, Berlin Mayor Michael Müller promised last month to buy back 50,000 of Deutsche Wohnen’s units for the city, along lines not yet fully clarified. Renters’ associations want to extend this proposal to all landlords with more than 3,000 apartments in the city, a wish that led to their referendum plan.
Planning a referendum—let alone winning one—is a major process in its own right. Anyone seeking a city-wide vote in Berlin must get verifiable signatures in favor from at least 7 percent of the electorate (currently roughly 170,000 people) over a four-month period. This is a high bar, but it has been reached for housing issues in the past. In 2014, citizens voted in a referendum against the ceding of public parkland at the former Tempelhof Airport for (largely unaffordable) housing development.
The proposal to ban large-scale landlords appears to have widespread support. A recent poll found 44 percent of Berliners in favor, versus 39 percent against and 17 percent abstaining.The popularity of the idea, which has taken even its proposers by surprise, could well see the end of large-scale landlords controlling any of Berlin’s housing stock.
Boroughs take back control
It’s not just mega-landlords who are facing a challenge. Some Berlin boroughs have been buying buildings at risk of sharp rent hikes for a few years now, many of which belong to smaller companies and individuals.
The system used—called Vorverkaufsrecht or “pre-buying right”—works as follows. To prevent displacement of lower-income residents, German cities are allowed to place protection orders on neighborhoods where rents are rising at an unusually fast rate. These orders give local authorities the right to step in to buy any building within the order’s limits and convert them to public ownership, if the borough thinks a new landlord will greatly increase rents.
Buying every building at risk might prove expensive, but it isn’t always necessary. The borough can also agree to hold back from buying, provided the new landlord signs an agreement promising not to raise rents above inflation, or to sell individual flats on for owner-occupation, for the next 20 years.
The Berlin borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg is the most active in this process, having bought 15 buildings for the borough since 2016. It has also gotten landlords of a further 25 apartment buildings to sign agreements. District Councillor Florian Schmidt, who heads the borough’s Building and Planning Department, insists it isn’t an attack on all private ownership.
“There are certainly are good landlords around,” he told CityLab. “The problem is that when they die, their property is sold off to the highest bidder, who isn’t always the best bidder.”Schmidt’s vision—which depends on ongoing political support from the Green Party-led borough—is to push until half the district’s homes are under some form of public or community control. This is perfectly possible, he insists. Already since the policy began, the borough’s public housing stock has risen from 25 percent of all homes to 26.“Say we want to increase the number of publicly controlled apartments by 30,000 over the next 20 years,” he says. “If we buy half the buildings and [get contractual agreements] for the other half, that means we need money to buy 15,000, or 750 a year. We can do that. This year, we have already agreed to buy 460, and it’s only February.”This policy wouldn’t just increase the housing stock, it might also deter buyers. For Schmidt, this isn’t a fear—it’s a goal.“If we make life more difficult for private investors, it could have the effect of driving down the price,” he says. In the U.S., actively expressing a wish to drive down real estate prices would be sacrilege from any public official. In Berlin, it’s an attitude that has widespread approval.
A rental freeze
For many in Berlin, measures currently in play simply aren’t enough to stop displacement and living costs from galloping out of control. Accordingly, the Center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which governs Berlin in coalition, has proposed the most radical idea yet: In areas where rents are rising especially fast, the SPD wants to introduce what they call a “rental lid” that would ban any rent rises whatsoever, both for new and existing rental contracts, in the five years following its implementation.
The area chosen could potentially cover the entirety of Berlin, with exceptions made for new buildings in order to encourage fresh construction. The idea of a freeze is not just to keep rents manageable, but to give the city breathing space to pursue its policies of new housing construction, so that when the restrictions lift, they do so in a city with altogether more housing available.
The public mainly seems to like the idea. Indeed, it’s telling of the current atmosphere in Berlin that such a radical move has widespread popularity. In a recent poll, two thirds of respondents said they supported the move, a result that included majorities in favor among voters for Merkel’s center-right CDU party and the extreme-right AfD.That support may not count for much, however. According to an opinion given by the German Parliament’s Scientific Service, which provides apolitical guidance to parliamentarians, the introduction of a city-wide rent freeze does not lie within the power of Germany’s regions, and could only be approved by the national parliament.The limitations of the city’s power still don’t erase the significance of a desire for such a freeze. In one of Europe’s largest cities, voters are leaning in favor of scrapping major landlords, of stopping rent rises for five years, and of renationalizing real estate—and their representatives are increasingly backing up their wishes with action.
It may come slowly, but it seems likely that a total overhaul of how the Berlin housing market works is underway.
Feargus O’Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
For the past seven years, I’ve served as a commissioner for Portland Housing Authority in Maine. I signed up because I had a nagging question: I wanted to know why, in a city with a known housing shortage, our public housing agency was paying thousands of dollars a year to maintain a little-used parking lot in my neighborhood, instead of building more housing there.This is a situation common in many cities across the nation: public housing agencies are extremely rich in inner-city real estate, with modernist properties that left plenty of empty land in lawns and parking lots. But, as I quickly learned when I joined the PHA’s board, most public housing agencies are too preoccupied with other, more pressing problems to think about building new affordable homes.The typical public housing apartment is more than 50 years old and has more than $54,000 worth of deferred maintenance expenses, according to the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, a public housing trade organization. Congress regularly under-funds public housing’s operational subsidies and capital programs, and federal budget sequestration in 2013 squeezed local housing budgets even further. Periodic government shutdowns have added yet more uncertainty. During this winter’s shutdown, some agencies had to notify Section 8 tenants and landlords that their rental payments for the next month might not come.
Most public housing agencies simply haven’t had the time, the staff or the financial resources to think about replacing parking lots with new buildings—it’s been hard enough just to maintain the status quo. And yet, given the increasing uncertainty and volatility of federal finances, simply maintaining the status quo is an increasingly risky proposition.
HUD is offering public housing agencies one way out of these challenges through its new Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program (which CityLab has covered). RAD essentially cuts out the federal government’s interest in public housing, and lets local agencies take fuller control of their properties.
Compared to the bleak future of the federal housing programs, RAD offers an alluring alternative. RAD conversions allow agencies to leverage private investment in publicly-owned properties, and agencies are already using the program to make much-needed renovations to thousands of public housing apartments nationwide.
Still, RAD conversions can be disruptive to tenants, and by inviting private capital to invest in these properties, the program could, potentially, dilute the public’s ownership and ultimately make these buildings unaffordable to low-income tenants. To realize its potential and avoid its pitfalls, RAD absolutely requires more public oversight from local housing advocates and public housing commissioners.
Outside of the RAD program, some public housing agencies are hiring their own real estate development staff to leverage federal tax credits and compete with private-sector developers—with the crucial difference that the substantial developer fees for apartments built by public housing agencies can be re-invested in public housing, instead of paying dividends to private real estate investors.
That’s what the Portland Housing Authority ended up doing with that parking lot in my neighborhood. In 2017, after four years of planning and with financing from the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, we opened the doors to Bayside Anchor, a 45-unit apartment building built to the energy-efficient passive house standards. It was the first new apartment building our agency had constructed since the 1970s.
Seeing that building go up was extremely gratifying, but its effect on our agency and the city at large went far beyond the new housing it provides. In part because of that project’s success, the Portland Housing Authority has organized to hire two full-time staffers to work on a development pipeline with hundreds of potential new low- and middle-income apartments—including replacements for some of our agency’s most worn-down properties.
Like many private-sector developers, our agency found that in order to build new apartment buildings within an affordable housing budget, we needed the city to increase building height and density limits in its dated zoning laws. As a result, our agency has become a very effective advocate for better housing and land-use policies at City Hall.While a zoning change requested by a for-profit developer typically brings vocal concerns over gentrification, it’s harder for NIMBYs to criticize a public affordable housing developer’s zoning requests without laying bare their classist prejudices. To help legalize our agency’s plans, Portland’s City Council recently passed, with relatively little controversy, a comprehensive suite of zoning bonuses to benefit new affordable and mixed-income housing developments across the entire city.Serving on a public housing board admittedly isn’t for everyone—it’s a significant time commitment, with monthly meetings that can last several hours. HUD requires agency boards to have at least two representatives who are public housing tenants or Section 8 housing voucher recipients, but agencies still need to work harder to make it easier for time-strapped volunteers to serve.
Nevertheless, if you’re interested in the practical details of building a more welcoming and more egalitarian city, it’s hard to beat the experience of public housing board service. I’ve had the chance to meet more of my neighbors, welcome new families to our neighborhood, and see better, more inclusive land use policies become a priority in our city government. And, in the coming years, I’m looking forward to seeing our agency rebuild its neighborhoods into even better places that give more families the chance to find safe and stable housing in our city.
In order to overcome its challenges and realize its potential, though, public housing needs better public leadership and oversight. It especially needs volunteer board members who can press agencies to invest in revitalization instead of giving up, tearing down, or selling out.Public housing advocacy offers a powerful and relatively accessible platform from which anyone can make their city a better place. If you can spare the time to volunteer and put in the effort necessary to set the institution on a better course, the work will reward you with a refreshing sense of optimism for your city’s future.
Christian MilNeil has worked as an urban park ranger in Manhattan, as a backcountry hut caretaker in northern New Hampshire, and as the communications director for environmental nonprofits in Maine. He’s currently a freelancer based in Portland, Maine, and blogs at the Vigorous North.
If you’ve hung around the CityLab site, sat through a City Council meeting, or hobnobbed with a housing developer, you’ve probably run across the term “inclusionary zoning.” You might even think you know what it means. But wait, do you? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. Welcome to the pilot edition of “CityLab University,” a resource for understanding some of the most important concepts related to cities and urban policy. If you like this feature, have constructive feedback, or would like to see a similar explainer on other topics, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Inclusionary zoning is a policy that was first developed in the 1970s in response to exclusionary and often racially segregated “snob zoning.”
It’s a popular tool for getting the private market to subsidize affordable housing.
But critics, namely developers and some economists, say the policy reduces the overall supply of housing, thus raising prices.
Other anti-poverty critics say it’s a Band-Aid that doesn’t adequately address the housing needs of low-income people.
SUMMARY (key terms in bold)
In Washington, D.C.’s rapidly gentrifying Petworth neighborhood, the recently opened Fahrenheit building could easily be seen as a symbol of the area’s increasing unaffordability. Its bright red exterior and ground-floor craft cider house send a powerful signal about the price of the apartments above, which range from $2,400 to $2,745 for a two-bedroom unit. But all is not as it seems. Three of the Fahrenheit’s 31 units are available at below market rates as part of the District’s inclusionary zoning (IZ)program, which, in fiscal year 2016, offered two-bedroom apartments for an average rent of $1,636.
In D.C. and around the country, inclusionary zoning (also sometimes called “inclusionary housing”), is an increasingly popular way to produce affordable housing through the private market. And while these programs only produce enough units for a lucky few low- and moderate-income households, they remain one of the main tools cities have for maintaining neighborhood diversity, and keeping high-opportunity areas affordable.
For city governments, the big appeal of IZ is the fact that it often requires little or no public subsidy. But if the affordable units IZ produces feel “free” to governments, they are anything but for the developers who produce them. Therein lies the rub: How much affordable housing can cities demand from private developers without making new housing construction economically infeasible? And even if cities can find the IZ sweet spot, will such policies ever produce enough affordable housing to make a dent in the need?
A growing number of cities, counties, and even a couple of states have decided inclusionary zoning is worth it, even as they acknowledge that such policies are hardly a solution to the housing crisis. In one building in San Francisco, for instance, 6,580 households applied for 95 affordable units that were partially funded by IZ policies. (i.e., fewer than 1 in 60 got a unit)
But producing affordable housing is not IZ’s only goal. It was developed in the U.S. in the 1970s in response to the widespread trend of “exclusionary zoning” (also sometimes known as “snob zoning”), which includes zoning practices like mandating minimum lot sizes and other legal loopholes advocated by NIMBYs who seek to prevent the construction of affordable housing in their neighborhoods. In this way, IZ is a tool of desegregation, forcing wealthy people to live cheek-by-jowl with lower-income residents, and improving the latter’s prospects for upward mobility.
HOW IT WORKS
Inclusionary zoning requires or incentivizes private developers to designate a certain percentage of the units in a given project as below market rate (BMR)—cheaper than their value on the market, and often less than the price of producing them. (The large majority of IZ programs are mandatory—80 percent of them according to one study.) The proportion of BMR units a developer must build usually depends on the size of the project: In many cities, projects with fewer than ten units do not trigger IZ requirements, while projects with hundreds of units might have steeper requirements, proportionally, than a project with 50
What makes a unit “below market rate”?
The actual price of BMR units is usually determined based on the area median income (AMI).In some cases, a developer might be allowed to provide a greater number of middle-income units (for people earning 80 to 120 percent of the AMI), and a lower number of low-income units (for people earning less than 50 percent of the AMI), as the latter require a greater subsidy per unit. Because of this, IZ can be more effective for producing housing for middle-income households that are not served by other programs, like Section 8 vouchers, which are usually reserved for people earning less than 30 percent of AMI. Housing lotteries are generally held to determine who gets to occupy these affordable units.
How do IZ policies affect segregation?
IZ policies usually encourage developers to build their inclusionary units on site, which facilitates the class and race mixing that exclusionary zoning (i.e., segregation) prevented. (“Poor Doors”—or separate entryways reserved for lower-income residents—can be viewed as an attempt to retain a certain amount of segregation.) Developers might also have the option to build BMR units at another site, or contribute to an affordable housing fund, but these options are often more expensive. Whether inclusionary zoning policies have made a significant dent in overall housing segregation remains unclear—if only because these policies seldom generate neighborhood-changing numbers of units.
Why would developers volunteer to participate in inclusionary zoning?
In places where IZ is optional, it is often tied to density bonuses, meaning a developer can increase the size and unit count of its development beyond existing zoning, in exchange for producing affordable housing. Supporting and participating in IZ programs can also help developers strengthen community relations, and build good will, providing them greater leverage for future projects.
How popular are these policies?
According to the Grounded Solutions Network, inclusionary zoning laws existed in 886 jurisdictions at the end of 2016, in a total of 25 states and the District of Columbia. The large majority of these jurisdictions are in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California, which have statewide rules that mandate inclusionary zoning. Eleven percent of Americans live in jurisdictions with IZ policies, according to the Washington Post.
IZ also appears to be gaining traction: In a survey of 273 inclusionary zoning programs, 70 percent were created after the year 2000, and the momentum is still going. New York City passed IZ in 2016, Wisconsin is currently considering a bill, and IZ was a major component of SB 827, California’s failed but widely touted transit density bill. However, IZ remains controversial, generating scorn from economists and lawsuits from developers.
Washington, D.C.: The District’s current IZ program went into effect in 2009, and the first BMR units became available in 2011. It only applies to residential projects of 10 units or more, and requires that 8 to 10 percent of the project square footage (not unit count) be designated as BMR housing. In exchange for compliance with this policy, developers can receive up to a 20 percent increase in density over the set zoning. The price of the BMR units is set to 80 percent of the area median income for for sale units, and 60 percent AMI for rental units. As in other cities, the lottery process for qualifying for an affordable unit is a complicated one, so the city requires interested households to attend an “IZ Orientation” class. For renters of IZ units, the District requires households to sign one-year leases, and to certify each year that they remain below the designated income threshold. The District does not place income restrictions on owners of IZ units after the initial purchase, although it does require residents to prove that the unit is in fact their primary residence.
The program has been criticized as ineffectual from the start. In 2015, the Washington Postreported that the program had generated an average of just one affordable for-sale unit, and eight affordable apartments per year in its first six years of existence. The program has become more effective in recent years, however, generating 191 units in fiscal year 2016, making for a grand total of 402 over the program’s first nine years. (Developer lawsuits tied up the program in its early years.)
Applications for new housing permits have risen steadily in the years since D.C. initiated its IZ requirements, signaling that the policy has not had an adverse effect on the overall housing supply. Of course, it’s important to note that these years correspond with the economic recovery following the Great Recession, during which housing production and demand increased nationwide. As housing prices rose over that period, the IZ program has not been much help for the District’s poorest residents. About three quarters of the units generated in FY 2016 went to households making between 50 and 80 percent of the AMI. Still, the program has generated affordable units across a fairly wide swath of the city, as the map below shows. The conspicuous exception is the District’s far Northwest quadrant, which is primarily white and zoned for single-family homes.
Builders and developers: While builders and developers express a range of opinions on IZ, they are usually the primary opponents of these policies. Developers in Chicago and California recently filed lawsuits against their local IZ laws, claiming that they violate private property rights. “Penalizing homebuilders with more costs and mandates deters the creation of more housing, and raises the overall cost of market-rate homes,” said one of the lawyers representing the California Building Association in a press release. This is, essentially, the main argument against IZ.
Policy think tanks and economists: Rather than argue against inclusionary zoning per se, many policy think tanks and economists argue that inclusionary zoning has a perverse effect because it increases housing prices. It puts a damper on housing supply, they say, by increasing the cost of new market rate units. In a 2016 study, UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation estimated that Oakland’s new inclusionary zoning policy would lead to a 6 to 12 percent reduction in total unit production as compared to a scenario without IZ. Oakland’s policy would also reduce revenue from taxes and fees by between 6 to 19 percent, or about $9.2 to $27.7 million. It would, however, increase the proportion of below-market rate units being produced in the city from 4 percent to 11 percent. Other academic studies have come to similar conclusions.
But not all policy types agree: Another study, from the National Housing Conference’s Center for Housing Policy found that IZ policies “do not lead to significant declines in overall housing production or to increases in market-rate prices.” Other think tanks emphasize carefully calibrating the ratio of affordable to market-rate units mandated by IZ policies so they do not depress overall housing production.
Anti-poverty advocates:For those who live in these units, inclusionary zoning can provide an incredible socioeconomic uplift. But IZ policies are also criticized from the left due to their inability to generate substantial amounts of housing for very low-income people. One study found that only 2 percent of IZ programs target households making less than 50 percent of the AMI. And even those that do represent a tiny percentage of the need: Another study concluded that units produced via IZ represent just 0.1 percent of America’s housing stock. As the case of Washington, D.C., demonstrates, IZ is just one policy in a broad menu of options that cities have to deal with their affordable housing challenges.
The Terner Center’s housing development calculator lets you toggle different inputs (including inclusionary zoning requirements) to see how much market-rate housing really costs:
Another housing development calculator, from the Grounded Solutions Network, includes simulations for different levels of density, as well as options for rental and for sale housing, and various other inputs like inclusionary zoning.
The 82-page class action lawsuit, filed by Aristotle Theresa, brought grievances against the city for its alleged discriminatory policies favoring creatives and millennials at the expense of the city’s historically African American, low-income residents.
Theresa, a civil rights lawyer from nearby neighborhood Anacostia, is representing three individuals from Washington and over 20 members of the community group CARE. The lawsuit, filed on April 14, said that lawmakers and bureaus, including former mayors Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray, have championed discriminatory practices such as the Creative Action Agenda and the Creative Economy Strategy.
“These policy documents say outright, we are planning to alter land use in order to attract people who are of a certain age range, in order to attract people who are a certain profession,” Theresa said.
According to the DC Office of Planning website, the Creative Action Agenda was primarily a study that “examined ways to support creative employment and business opportunities” in D.C., while the Creative Economy Strategy under Gray sought to generate 100,000 additional jobs and $1 billion in new tax revenues by 2018.
However, Theresa’s lawsuit alleges that these policies are discriminatory on the basis of age, income and race, which goes against the DC Human Rights Act. Business necessity exemption does not justify unlawful discrimination, according to the act.
“We had to go to court to get [gentrification and displacement] acknowledged as something that should be considered, despite it being in statutes,” Theresa said. “And even when we did, there was still funny business.”
WASHINGTON, DC-DECEMBER 1: Vio at the Wharf seen from across Washington Channel on Ohio Drive S, Washington DC, Dec 1, 2017
Theresa’s clients worry that rising housing costs and gentrification will drive them out of their neighborhoods, as new luxury apartment buildings are being built in the city to attract the creative class, along with upscale developments such as the $2.5 billion construction of The Wharf. The lawsuit stated that around 39,000 black residents had been forced out of the city from 2000 to 2010, while the area gained 50,000 white residents.
In response, the District filed a motion to dismiss on June 25, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked a standing to sue and failed to raise a claim because they did not plausibly allege intentional discrimination.
The complaint “raised political questions more appropriate for elected officials rather than courts to address,” Robert Marus, Director of Communications of the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, said in an email.
In April, low-income black residents won a case against the DC Housing Authority, temporarily stopping the $400 million planned raze and redevelopment of Barry Farm, one of the city’s largest public housing complexes.
The DC Court of Appeals ruled that the DC Zoning Commission “did not fully address all contested issues as required by the zoning and redevelopment regulatory scheme,” including how gentrification would hurt the current residents of Barry Farm, and sent the plan back to square one.
WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 02: Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser attends a news conference May 2, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Del. Holmes Norton held a news conference to discuss ‘efforts to protect D.C.’s local laws during the FY2019 appropriations process, including gun safety, anti-discrimination, labor, marijuana and abortion.Ó (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
For Theresa, the city’s history with discriminatory zoning and housing practices has been a chronic problem he observed up close, having represented previous clients who opposed the city’s redevelopment projects.
“What I saw were patterns and practices of arbitrary decisions made by the zoning commission,” Theresa said. “I didn’t understand why none of the governmental systems were working like how they should.” He identified the root causes of gentrification as racial discrimination and civil rights violations, arguing that the lawsuit was better described as a pattern and practices complaint. “I would like some acknowledgement from the city that they have preferences for groups of people,” Theresa said. “All of these things represent thefts. They were taking from one community and giving to another.”
Jenna Wang I am a Forbes contributor writing about urban design, housing, hospitality, and how technology is disrupting the physical world around us.
Sen. Warren reintroduces affordable housing legislation, Katie Pyzyk, March 15, 2019
A group of 17 U.S. Senators and House members, led by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, reintroduced the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act to tackle the effects of the housing affordability crisis. It aims to reduce housing costs for renters and buyers, address the shortage of affordable homes and address the effects of decades of housing discrimination on people of color.
The bill would invest about $475 billion in federal programs over a 10-year period to preserve or create more than 3 million housing units for low- and middle-income families. That would also bring down rents 10% and create 1.5 million new jobs, according to an independent analysis from Moody’s Analytics. The bill would also change existing laws that protect discriminatory housing practices and lead to segregation.
This legislation was first introduced last September and accompanying legislation was introduced in December, but it did not advance prior to the new session of Congress. The latest version introduced in the new session of Congress reportedly builds on last fall’s bill.
The fact that this legislation was co-introduced by so many legislators from different parts of the country — including Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin — from both chambers of Congress indicates the magnitude of America’s housing affordability crisis and that it is no longer merely a problem for the country’s largest, most expensive cities.
“The cost of housing is squeezing American families in communities all across the country — rural, suburban, urban — whether they’re struggling to pay rent or trying to buy a home,” Warren said in a statement. “It’s time to stop nibbling around the edges and, instead, pass this big, bold proposal to solve our housing crisis and take the first steps to address the legacy of housing discrimination head on.”
The funding would primarily go toward creating, rehabilitating and preserving millions of housing units across the country over the course of a decade. But it also is believed that increasing the capacity of available units will lower housing prices.
In addition to addressing capacity and costs, the bill aims to fix some forms of housing inequity. The bill would provide assistance to people negatively affected by existing and previous federal housing practices dating back to the 1960s, when the federal government denied mortgage subsidies to black families. The measure also would help people whose wealth was destroyed by the housing crisis 10 years ago, which disproportionately affected people of color.
Such discriminatory practices hurt families’ short- and long-term wealth. But they can also lead to segregation within a community. Last year, city leaders and housing advocates gathered in Washington, DC to criticize some federal housing policies, saying the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should do more to fight segregation and uphold affordable housing.
Last year, an article in The Atlantic said Warren’s original bill was “ambitious” and had “no chance” of passing in the Republican-controlled Congress, but it could at least be seriously considered if Democrats regained control of at least one branch of Congress in the mid-term elections. Democrats did regain the House in November, increasing this bill’s potential to get farther than it did when it stalled last year.