An Insider’s View on DC’s Affordable Housing Market

MidCity Vice President & General Counsel Madi Ford shares insights on the challenges of building communities for the low- and middle-income residents and also discusses the company’s strategy to address the metro’s affordable housing shortage.

Madi Ford, Vice President & General Counsel, MidCity. Image courtesy of MidCity

Supported by the rapid addition of high-paying jobs and strong population growth, Washington, D.C., is a magnet for white-collar workers. This, in return, has generated strong demand for Class A rentals throughout the metro and, simultaneously, put more pressure on low- and middle-income households.

MidCity, a family-owned company, recently became the first developer to be awarded opportunity zone funding in the District. In an interview with Multi-Housing News, Vice President & General Counsel Madi Ford shared her insights on the current state of the affordable housing market in the metro and the impact of opportunity zones in the area. Ford also revealed details about her company’s largest project: the redevelopment of the Brookland Manor community in the northeast quadrant of the metro into RIA, a 20-acre mixed-use destination.

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How would you describe the affordable housing market in the D.C. area nowadays?

Ford: Affordability is really at the forefront of conversations about housing in D.C. and across the region. A recent Metropolitan Council of Governments report found that, due to strong economic growth, by 2030 the D.C. region could experience a housing shortage of 75,000 available units—exacerbating an already challenging affordability situation.

Rendering of RIA. Image courtesy of MidCity

What are the main factors that led to the situation you just described?

Ford: Housing is a complex issue, but one of the major factors in D.C. over the past several years has been our strong economic growth that encourages people to relocate here for greater opportunities for themselves and their families. The Metropolitan Council of Governments expects our region to add approximately 425,000 new jobs between 2020 and 2030, but only 245,000 new housing units. That shortage affects affordability long term.

Additionally, restrictions on density, especially near mass transit, NIMBY-ism, the cottage industry of planned-unit developments appeals, uncertainty regarding timing in the permitting process and skyrocketing development costs all constrict supply in the District. The housing shortage is clear evidence of artificial constraints on supply negatively impacting those who are most housing vulnerable.

Which areas of the metro are most affordable?

Ford: While there are pockets of affordability across the city, communities east of the river in Wards 7 and 8 have the highest concentration of dedicated affordable units. There’s also a large amount in the upper northeast such as Brookland and Rhode Island Avenue. We need to ensure that all Wards support inclusivity and encourage the development of housing, including affordable housing options.  

Are there any changes in the current local legislation that should be made in order to encourage the construction of more affordable housing units?

Ford: Our area’s government leaders should be recognized for taking important steps to address affordability. Mayor Bowser’s administration, for example, has invested more than $500 million into the Housing Production Trust Fund and set a goal of creating 36,000 new homes— including 12,000 affordable units—by 2025. Further, proposed changes to D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan could help smooth the process for building more units.

Still, there are additional steps we could take, including addressing restrictive zoning policies and the continued disruption of the public approval process by outsider activist groups. We would also like to see D.C. expand affordable housing subsidies, such as the D.C. Housing Choice voucher program, and expand the income caps to include more D.C. residents in the flexible individual subsidy program.

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Tell us more details about your largest affordable housing project currently underway in the metro.

Ford: Every project at MidCity includes affordable housing. My grandfather, Eugene Ford Sr., constructed more than 15,000 units of affordable housing in his career and today we invest more than $1 million a year providing supportive services at our affordable housing projects in this region.

Our largest affordable housing project is the redevelopment of the Brookland Manor Apartments and Brentwood Village Shopping Center sites into a new, mixed-income community called RIA. We’ve owned Brookland Manor for over 40 years and our vision for this 20-acre site is to have 1,760 households on site in new apartments, townhomes and a senior living facility, as well as a revitalized town center, new retailers and restaurants, including a grocer and lush public spaces.

Rendering of RIA. Image courtesy of MidCity

Rendering of RIA. Image courtesy of MidCity

A major part of that vision is our commitment to affordability and to the residents living at Brookland Manor today. We have voluntarily retained all of the project-based Section 8 housing currently on site, which is today assisting 373 very-low-income families who make between zero and 30 percent of the area’s median income. We are providing all Brookland Manor residents— regardless of subsidy type—the opportunity to stay in the community and we are even paying for on-site relocation costs. Our commitment to affordability at RIA represents more than 22 percent of total units, the majority of which at the maximum income of 30 percent of AMI, as opposed to 10 percent at 50 percent of AMI through the Inclusionary Zoning program. Additionally, the RIA development will continue to provide residents and the community with services including workforce training, educational opportunities such as our long-term partnership with Academy of Hope, on-site case managers, supplemental food assistance, and more.

What’s the impact of opportunity zones in the metro? 

Ford: The Opportunity Zones program is an important tool that has helped drive more capital into economically distressed areas to help spur economic development and build new housing, including affordable units. Both our RIA project and another adjacent project at 1400 Montana Ave. NE are leveraging opportunity funds to support the development. The 1400 Montana Ave. project has 108 units, including 11 affordable units, will deliver in the summer of 2021 and is likely to be one of the first projects to deliver under the Opportunity Zone program in D.C.

How did affordable housing projects change over the past few years? 

Ford: I think something we’ve seen over the past few years has been a shift in focus from simply building housing units and complexes to creating a connected community that can support residents more holistically through amenities and social impact. We’ve also seen a shift towards more mixed-income, mixed-use projects that provide residents with not only housing, but access to grocery, retail and transportation opportunities. We believe mixed-income, mixed-use communities can ultimately provide greater opportunities for economic mobility.

How do you expect the affordable housing market in Washington, D.C., to evolve in the near future?

Ford: Without a doubt, the issue of affordability will remain a key concern for policymakers, developers and residents for years to come. Fortunately, we’ve already seen leaders in our area take major steps to encourage the development of more affordable units. I expect that the development community will respond to that call-to-action. I hope that we all can find innovative ways to partner across the private and public sectors to create and sustain housing that gives everyone in our city and region the opportunity to thrive.

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