Regional Housing Success Comes With Challenges

This week, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) Board voted to adopt regional housing targets to expand housing supply in activity centers through 2030, with at least 75 percent of new housing affordable for low and middle income households.

First and foremost, this is a huge accomplishment that should be celebrated. We acknowledge and thank the leadership and staff at COG, working collaboratively over the past year with the Directors of Planning and Housing in the participating jurisdictions. Looking at the region’s capacity to absorb the amount of housing needed to meet projected job growth; locating that development in Activity Centers; and recognizing the exploding affordability crisis in our region by targeting 75% of the new production as affordable, this effort provided the evidence-based framework needed for getting to YES at the COG Board level.

When the DMV agrees to move forward on such a significant regional challenge, it is a laudable accomplishment. Acting regionally in metro DC is not easy, but the discussion at the COG Board reiterated that we are all in this together. We were encouraged by the many elected officials across the region who agreed to stand shoulder to shoulder as they lean into housing.

There will be challenges translating this action at the local level. Land use and zoning policies, use of density, and the entitlement process will impact how this plan is implemented. But a growing anti-development sentiment across the region is looming as a considerable hurdle as well. We have seen firsthand how this kind of coordinated, financed effort can virtually shut down production of multiple housing proposals.

As advocates engage in the community process to support housing development that serves low and moderate income families, there are a few things to consider when encountering neighborhood opposition:

Approach those who oppose a proposal with a ‘listen to learn, rather than listen to reply’ mindset. Be respectful and acknowledge those concerns being raised that are legitimate while countering those based on social or racial prejudices or wrong information.

Realize that housing advocates may not be the best messengers at a public hearing. We agree that housing affordability is a key element for successful, vibrant, sustainable communities, so enlist partners who align with those goals. Advocates for responsible environmental stewardship, better educational outcomes for our school children, or individual well-being based upon social determinants of health – housing being a significant one – highlight the interconnection between housing and health, education, transportation, and sustainable land use practices. Encourage small and medium-sized business owners and local chambers of commerce to underscore the connection between recruiting and retaining a workforce in a high-cost area, and the imperative for housing options that are affordable to a range of incomes.

Finally, don’t fall into the trap of winning the battle but losing the war by engaging in a point-counter-point discussion. You might chalk up a few wins, but the objective should, at the very least, be to minimize opposition. If the conversation allows, ask opponents to be part of the solution. We have seen this approach change a few hearts and minds, and even, on occasion, enlist new advocates. Ultimately our goal is to engage with local jurisdictions to achieve these ambitious targets, so that desperately needed housing that is safe, decent and affordable is available to the tens of thousands of families in our region who are struggling to make ends meet.