A Region in Crisis: Time to Call the Question

Our struggles in the DMV certainly mirror larger national concerns; but we have our own set of circumstances that give us pause. The DC metro region, once the top performing metro for employment growth among the fifteen largest metros in the country, is now number 15 – dead last.

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Sequestration was a serious blow to the local economy

Sequestration has dealt a huge blow to our area, and we are scrambling to figure out how to diversify our economy to fill the void left by severe cutbacks in federal procurement contracts. Local governments are struggling to adjust to the new realities of this shrinking federal presence which has left millions of square feet of commercial office space significantly under-occupied or empty.

As a result, localities throughout the region have less tax revenue to address the growing needs for basic services. Even our regional transit system is in crisis – lacking a vision, adequate resources, and a culture of accountability – a crippled system with reduced ridership that is threatening the mobility and productivity of the region.

Crisis Presents Opportunity

This crisis presents an opportunity to rethink our future, and reset a course that includes new possibilities for our region. Which strategies will ensure the greatest chance for regional resiliency and success? What are our most important assets? How do we compare with other regions that compete for our jobs and our workforce?

Housing Affordability is a Quality of Life Issue

The cost of housing in the metro DC region has been identified as a significant threat to our economic well-being. High housing costs challenge our ability to attract and retain our greatest asset – a skilled, talented, diverse workforce.  Recent studies from GMU’s Center for Regional Analysis and the Urban Institute and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments tell the story of our housing crisis, and the numbers are staggering.

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Our region will need approximately 119,000 new units to close the supply gap by 2023

If you consider the future housing needs of our workforce, along with the current shortage of affordable housing for low and moderate income households, it is estimated that the region will need approximately 119,000 new units to close the supply gap by 2023. And that number assumes that the current stock of 88,000 subsidized units will be rehabilitated and preserved.

Rents are at historically high levels and the supply of housing that’s affordable has decreased dramatically. See what’s happened in just one jurisdiction alone – City of Alexandria’s loss of market affordable units.

Between 2011 and 2023, our region is expected to add 149,000 low income households earning less than $67,000 for a family of four, and almost half of these households will earn less than $33,000. These are members of our workforce, and they are part of the engine that keeps our economy firing on all cylinders.

High housing costs squeeze the resources of teachers and others.

High housing costs squeeze the resources of teachers and others.

They work in the hospitality and tourism industry, in our healthcare and educational institutions. They are employed by retail businesses, financial institutions and occupational trades such as auto mechanics and plumbers. If housing is unaffordable, workers will either commute long distances from outside our metro area or spend the majority of their paycheck on rent.  Neither option is sustainable in the long run.

Recently business leaders have called for regional summits to discuss issues of aging infrastructure, the reliability of our transit system, diversification of our economy, and housing affordability with the goal of engaging all stakeholders – elected officials, civic leaders, and members of the business and philanthropic community – to be part of the solution.

It’s Time to Call the Question

We know how to solve our housing challenges, but we lack the political will to take them on. Housing IS critical infrastructure, and to address our growing affordability crisis, the following steps should be considered:

  • Identify a dedicated public source of revenue that can be used to leverage the private investments needed to preserve and expand the region’s supply of affordable housing;
  • Increase density near transit nodes or activity centers. Recent studies tell us that the public’s preference for more walkable, mixed-use, compact development with access to services and amenities is growing. We need earnest, open-minded conversations about regional growth, the role of density, and the impact that good design and placemaking can play in the development process;
  • Plan for and develop mixed income communities. Inclusionary zoning promotes a diversity of incomes, but we also need policies in place that build community wealth for long-time residents in poorer, gentrifying neighborhoods (especially in the District and our inner suburbs).

Perhaps we need to think of ourselves as a region in transition. Our traditional land use and transportation planning practices have created growth patterns that are often inequitable and unsustainable. Do we have the vision and the leadership to address our challenges with 21st century solutions? It’s clear that the status quo is not working, and we know what needs to be done. Are we willing to overcome jurisdictional boundaries and come together to make our region a leader again?