Get ready to hear more about housing affordability in Ward 3 in the coming years. That’s in part because of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 2019 Housing Initiative, which set a goal of building 12,000 units of affordable housing in the District by 2025, and nearly 2,000 of them in the “Rock Creek West” planning area, which is essentially Ward 3 plus parts of Wards 1 and 4.Housing affordability has also been the life’s work of ANC 3F’s newest commissioner. David Cristeal was sworn into the long vacant ANC 3F01 seat in April. His background includes seven years as a community organizer in Chicago (“We fought for better public schools, safer neighborhoods, affordable housing, and even back then, to stop or at least slow gentrification”). For eleven years, he worked for a Wake County, North Carolina department that managed a homeless shelter and transitional housing as well as financing programs for first-time homebuyers and affordable housing developers (“A main lesson… was the link between affordable housing and human services, especially for the most vulnerable residents”).
Cristeal came to the DC area in 2004 to take a job with Arlington County’s Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development. He became its housing director in 2013 and worked to create the first Arlington Affordable Housing Plan and improve both zoning and finance tools to encourage affordable housing development. Now semi-retired and consulting part time for LSA Planning, Cristeal says he is excited to bring his experience to ANC 3F01 (and he is currently running, unopposed) for reelection). He agreed to answer our questions about housing affordability, the forms it takes, where we could see it in our neighborhood, and the art of reaching affordable housing goals. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.
David Cristeal: I believe cities can be great places to live, work, learn and play – for everyone. The best ones evolve and adapt to changing economic and demographic conditions. A housing supply, including affordable homes, needs to be a major part of this evolution. For the District to evolve equitably, affordable homes should be available in all wards, including high cost Ward 3.
A key lesson I learned in in Arlington is that it takes both land use/zoning and finance tools to incentivize affordable housing near transit centers/corridors at a scale that makes a difference (100 or 200 homes rather than 10 or 20 homes). And as with affordable housing positions across the country, the strength of relationships – with community advocates, with government officials and colleagues, developers and their teams of attorneys, architects, engineers and lenders – is a main key to success.
Working with ANC 3F and its committees, I hope to help make this an even better community. Mayor Bowser and her staff set an aggressive objective last year for almost 2,000 affordable homes [in Rock Creek West] by 2025, so let’s get to work and see what ANC 3F can contribute to this objective. It won’t be easy.
A great deal of income-restricted housing is for people earning less than 30 percent of median family income (MFI). But according to an Urban Institute study commissioned by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, housing for service workers (including teachers, police officers, firefighters) earning between 30 and 50 percent of MFI is also in great demand across the DC Metro area. How do you build such housing in such a high-end real estate market?
Cristeal: The short answer is twofold – first, land use and zoning has to support affordable units at scale (50-plus homes) and secondly, depending upon site acquisition or not, an affordable home development would need subsidies – public funds like the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTC) and tax incentives like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). That income band you list – 30 percent to 50 percent of the MFI is one of the hardest challenges in the affordable housing business, especially as you mention, in high cost cities like DC. To get the units produced, it’s solving a math problem. People earning those wages – roughly $25,000 to $60,000 per year – need rents from $600 to $1,600 per month, including utilities. The lower rents, at $600 per month, barely cover a property owner’s operating expenses, let alone the ability to support a private mortgage. The average cost to develop an affordable rental home ranges from $400,000 to $500,000 in high cost areas like DC. That is the role of the public subsidies – to make affordable homes viable over the life of the development (30-plus years).
Another challenge facing affordable housing a political one. Changes – like adding affordable housing to a community where there is little – are resisted by some. I think supporting affordable housing in Ward 3 is an opportunity for the people in the community that think globally, to act locally. Supporting affordable homes demonstrates the kind of community we want – one that is inclusive and diverse. I am confident that this community will support housing that is well designed, built and provides long-term affordability in rents or sale prices.
Does the UDC Van Ness campus provide opportunities for affordable housing at 30 to 50 percent MFI? How would that work?
Cristeal: UDC identified at least one location during their Campus Master Plan presentation in August that could accommodate housing at the 30 to 50 percent MFI/rents from $600 to $1,600/month would need both zoning and finance tools that the District controls. UDC providing the land at a discount would help. It could do this, through a long-term ground lease. The ground lease structure would allow UDC to continue to own the land. We need remember that UDC’s core “business” is education. They will need help to develop affordable housing – for their students, their faculty and staff, and others. DC is fortunate to have both for-profit and nonprofit developers who could successfully build affordable homes on the one or more sites.
A new housing model – multi-income housing – is coming to the foreground. Could you talk a bit about how financing would work for such a development?
Cristeal: Mixed-income housing has been accomplished across the country, mainly in high cost regions like DC. Perhaps it’s not as common because it is easier to develop homes that are either all-market rate or all affordable. A couple of examples are not far away. These include Somerset’s Portner Flats near the U-Street corridor and the Bozzuto-Wesley Housing Development Corporation’s Union on Queen in Arlington. The financing is a bit more complicated, but can be remedied by separating the market from affordable homes by a legal condominium structure (i.e. one building with two condominium components to accommodate separate financing structure; affordable housing developments typically have several government sources – loan funds, federal tax credits and more).
In Van Ness, which areas could realistically accommodate multi-family low-income housing?
Cristeal: There are six to eight sites along both sides of Connecticut Avenue, at or near Van Ness, that could accommodate additional housing. Two were mentioned during UDC’s Master Plan presentation: Building 44 and the tennis court area. The Office of Planning’s Future Land Use Map recommendation acknowledges these possibilities. See area #180 on the map – the striped area on both sides of Connecticut Avenue north of Van Ness Street.
How do we move beyond the anti-developer rhetoric to a more constructive conversation? What should we be focusing on?
Cristeal: Let’s start by recognizing that almost all of the homes we live in – single family homes and duplexes, apartments, coops and condominiums, were built by developers. We somehow convert them from “wonderful people who built our home” in the past tense to “all they (developers) care about is money and are a threat to us” as their proposals come for consideration. There are developers who build affordable homes and work with the community to deliver a quality product – a product that provides affordability to working people and adds value to the surrounding community. Most successful developers are willing to work with open-minded communities. The best ones recognize the long view – that for their development to be successful over 10, 20, 30 years and more, it has to be done right – built to last, to add value to the community.
I think we have to continue to demonstrate how affordable homes benefit the community. Affordable housing in high cost areas like Ward 3 allows lower and moderate wage people who work here the chance, with their families, to live here. They can walk or have a shorter car commute or take public transportation to their job. This closeness minimizes the chance that they cannot make it to work because they live so far away. Affordable housing could provide an entry point for our kids to live in when they leave the home. It can be a home for our children to purchase that doesn’t require a small fortune. And it can be a place for us to live when we cannot age in place where we currently live, but age in our community.
I look forward to the conversations about where and how affordable housing could be developed in ANC 3F!