July 2, 2008

Responsibility Gaps and Loopholes

Why is it so hard to create more affordable housing in DC?

When it comes to affordable housing, DC has a lot going for it. We have some of the strictest tenants rights laws in the country. We have a number of resources available at the level of local government that, typically, would be tied up by state government restrictions. We have a number of independent non-profits set up to teach people about their rights, and defend them when those rights are infringed. And yet housing for low-income residents remains a problem of unimaginably complex proportions. How could that possibly be?

It would be easy to say that a tag-team of affluent, apathetic residents and greedy condo developers keep flying from perch to perch in the city, tricking Section 8 residents into vacating their apartments in the name of beautification. Even now I don't think that mindset is entirely misguided, though perhaps too simple.

I think, however, it would be more accurate to blame the loophole that allows developers to take away public housing in the first place. If an apartment complex is vacant for a certain period of time, the landlord can sell the land to someone else, and that new person can build anything they want. The law was set up this way to encourage the landowners who were sitting on empty properties to give up their land to people who wanted to bring in more residents and businesses.

The strict landlord/tenant laws we have state that the residents of Section 8 have first right to purchase if the person who owns the land wants to create market-rate apartments. Residents have the power, therefore, to stop a deal that would be to the detriment of the overall community. Landlords circumvent this law by using a number of different tactics to evict residents so that their complex is vacant. Then they sit on the building until it hits the period of time the law requires, and sell it off.

There have been a number of articles detailing this process, and yet the bit of legal language that allows this situation to happen hasn't been closed. At that point, I don't think anyone can, in good conscience, put all or even most of the blame on affluent residents or developers that are in the business of sniffing out a profit. If a government system, elected to serve in the best interest of the people, knows that one of their policies is leading to the evaporation of housing set up for a section of the population, and they do absolutely nothing to address the law they have that facilitates the process, the outcomes that directly follow from the offending loophole are wholly and absolutely the responsibility of that government.

Something tells me that the reason it's so hard to create more affordable housing in DC is because the DC government doesn't want it bad enough.

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