Credit: D.C. Office of Planning

Get our free newsletter

As cranes continue to dot the skyline, there’s new reason to be optimistic that D.C. will get more desperately needed affordable housing units over the next few years.

That’s because the District’s Zoning Commission voted last week to strengthen the city’s “inclusionary zoning” program, which gives developers more leeway to construct buildings that are denser than what’s typically permitted—in exchange for providing below-market-rate units. If the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser approve it, the change would produce upwards of 2,600 affordable units over the next five to 10 years, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) and the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

As of now, inclusionary zoning requires new residential buildings to set aside units for households making 80 percent or below the area median income, or $1,600 for a one-bedroom rental. The Zoning Commission approved changing that threshold to 60 percent of AMI, or $1,100 for a one-bedroom rental (equivalent to a three-person family bringing in $59,000 a year). The groups contend that current zoning standards haven’t sufficiently benefitted low- and middle-income residents, many of whom are “severely rent burdened” and spend more than half of their income on housing costs.

“No one tool can completely solve our affordable housing crisis,” says Claire Zippel, a housing policy analyst at DCFPI. “We’re going to need to keep revisiting our housing programs. That said, I think this [change] will put a big dent in the need [for more affordable housing], especially in terms of increasing economic diversity in high-opportunity neighborhoods with access to transit and jobs.”

Zippel adds that when the District initially adopted inclusionary zoning about 10 years ago, the local housing market wasn’t as hot, and it was the first time policymakers were designing such a program here. She says its administration hasn’t discouraged developers from building in D.C., with residential construction now at its highest level in 25 years. The Department of Housing and Community Development runs a lottery system that matches eligible households with IZ units, Zippel explains, but only 10 to 15 percent of the units created so far through the IZ program have been affordable to households making at or less than 50 percent of AMI.

If finalized, the new changes would not be retroactive, because developments already built or in the pipeline were planned in a different regulatory environment. The D.C. Council last year unanimously passed a “sense of the Council” resolution in support of amending the IZ program. Meanwhile, Mayor Muriel Bowser has made it a priority to maintain affordable housing, in part by investing $100 million in the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund in each of her first two budgets.

“Going forward, preservation [of affordable housing] is going to be the key,” Zippel says, citing a “strike force” Bowser launched to study the issue. “It’s so much harder to reproduce affordable housing that’s been lost than it is to preserve what already exists.”

The commission’s vote follows advocates filing a petition to the body last January. It remains open for public review until 30 days after coming down.