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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Silliman
April 16, 2018

On February 23, Mayor Muriel Bowser ceremonially declared Washington, D.C. has reached 700,000 residents. D.C. had a population of 693,972 as of the most recent official US Census on July 1, 2017. The city is adding a net gain of about 800 residents a month either through birth or immigration (about equal parts domestic and international). A recent population trends report by the Office of Planning shows that between the years of 2000 and 2015 D.C. added 100,000 people – and the growth is not done yet.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) is projecting D.C. proper will surpass one million residents by 2045. While this is only a projection and one that has received some criticism lately, the growth D.C. and many other urban areas around the country continue to experience is putting pressure on governments and communities to meet the housing need. Housing affordability is the number one issue facing D.C. residents. While this pressure is at every level of the housing market, it disproportionately affects D.C.’s most vulnerable residents, pushing those that cannot afford to live in high-rise glass boxes on the Wharf or Georgetown single-family homes to the suburbs.

Photo Credit: Destination DC

Some think our cities are too full. Residents complain about the growing pains of construction next door and car traffic in the suburbs. Because of these inconveniences, some residents try to block new developments and changes to the comprehensive plan that would encourage more density. However, as was recently pointed out on Greater Greater Washington, “shouting ‘go back where you came from’ at prospective residents, or halting construction of new houses, won’t stop greater Washington’s population growth.” The reality is our cities will continue to grow, and it is up to its public officials to plan this growth to be inclusive and smart.

Growth is not good or bad, but it is inevitable – the good news is, D.C. can handle more people. According to this US Census Bureau chart, D.C. held more people than current levels from about 1940 to 1975, reaching a population peak of 900,000 in 1943 and 1946. A new report from D.C. Policy Center concludes that building more apartments in Northwest and investing in more amenities in Southwest and Northeast would help solve D.C.’s affordable housing shortage. A WAMU writeup of the report explained:

“A wide-ranging analysis of the city’s housing supply, the report released Tuesday morning shows that the dominance of single-family homes in amenities-rich neighborhoods, coupled with a lack of amenities in denser neighborhoods, is putting D.C.’s housing market in a pressure cooker. Addressing those key issues could increase housing supply and drive down prices, opening the city to a wider range of incomes, says the study’s author, economist Yesim Sayin Taylor.”

D.C. does not have a max capacity. When people say D.C. is full, what they should be saying is that supply is not keeping up with demand. The city is failing to meet the housing demand and failing to meet the basic moral responsibility of protecting its citizens. It would also be wrong to assume the resources needed to meet these demands are unattainable or would require an unattractive style of development. A person experiencing homelessness costs the city considerable resources in homeless services, hospitalizations and the justice system which can offset providing housing for that same person.

When it comes to density, a lot of people assume that means developers coming in and building ugly high-rise condo buildings. However, you can walk around any neighborhood in D.C. and find vacant rowhouses. Empty parking spaces and garages are overgrown with weeds behind houses filled with carless millennials. The lack of affordable housing does not correlate with lack of space; there are many methods that D.C. could use to encourage occupancy rates and land usage. These methods can include lifting restrictive zoning on lot sizes allowing for subdividing, allowing single family homes to add accessory dwelling units, better using city resources (like D.C.’s Vacant to Vibrant program) to encourage private fine grain infill affordable developments, or implementing a land value tax that links property taxes with land usage. The city must meet the housing demand by leveraging every possible resource and method. A D.C. of one million people does not have to mean displacement.


Author: Michael Silliman holds a Master’s in Public Administration from George Mason University and during the day works as a Program Manager at ICMA (International City/County Management Association). He studies and writes on the topics of civil society, community development and third-party governance. You can reach Michael at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @michaelsilliman

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