Inclusionary zoning, to be sure, isn’t the only tool the District is looking at—nor do city leaders think that it will solve the problems of the lowest-income residents. To help those groups whose needs aren’t met by inclusionary zoning there’s the Housing Production Trust Fund, which provides funds to help efforts with affordable rentals specifically for those earning less than 30 percent of AMI. The 2017 budget allots $100 million to the fund. But a recent audit raises questions about whether or not the fund is in fact spending as it should on low-income residents, or producing as much housing for them, as reported or required. There’s also Section 8, interventions such as “rapid rehousing,” and last-ditch services such as shelters—though all of those programs have become severely strained as D.C.’s housing crisis deepens.
Whatever the cause, the pace of affordable housing creation is simply too slow. “We'll produce or preserve around a thousand affordable housing units a year in D.C.,” Zippel told me. “We have 50,000 low income people in D.C. who are severely burdened by housing costs.” The problem is not just creating new housing, but stemming losses as costs rise and landlords opt out of their subsidies in order to take advantage of the ballooning market rates, such as at the Museum Square apartments in Chinatown, where long-time residents have been fighting eviction after their landlord’s affordable housing contract expired.
Such situations could occur even more frequently in the future, that’s part of the reason that preserving the affordable housing that exists is such a major concern. “Preserving a unit that's already affordable is a lot cheaper than building a new unit,” says Elissa Silverman, a council member and part of the mayor’s housing preservation task force. “We're making a much bigger investment this year to maintain those affordable units and get the vacant units back online.”
Many critics of D.C.’s housing strategies lament the fact that the District has done little in the way of using existing buildings for the purposes of affordable housing, or ensuring that existing affordable units and buildings remain that way for as long as possible. On top of that, some have said that the District has been slow, if not irresponsible, when it comes to rehabbing vacant properties that are government owned.
The plans that the city has put in place—increased spending and a preservation task force, for example—are a start, Zippel says, but there are still some major concerns with whether or not the city is doing enough, and how much bureaucracy is inhibiting progress. The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which could allow residents of affordable units to purchase their building instead of facing eviction, is an option, but one that is not as widely used as it could be in order to maintain affordability. And there have been challenges for those who have tried to use it. District Opportunity to Purchase Act (DOPA) would in theory, allow the city to step in to purchase buildings like the 302-unit Museum Square building in Chinatown, which was being taken off of the affordable housing market in favor of the private market, and keep them as affordable units. DOPA, Silverman says, would be helpful in the case that a TOPA attempt failed. But despite being passed in 2009 the act remains unusable because of the lack of regulation surrounding it, she says.