Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

A small apartment complex in DC that is being turned into luxury apartments. Picture of the author.

Editor’s note: This topic was written in response to an article of opinion published October 14, 2021

One of the most important facts about housing available is this: If there are not enough homes in a place many people want to live, more affluent buyers and tenants outbid less affluent to existing units.

In our region, where many people hope to live in accessible neighborhoods with mixed use, places that provide these things are expensive and are gradually becoming more expensive over time.

Unfortunately, this fact often overwhelms other considerations such as the size or age of a building. While it is true that new construction and high-rise buildings are inherently expensive and generally cheaper than older, smaller apartments, the huge number of converted homes in our region shows an indisputable truth: that rising prices cannot be controlled by preventing new construction.

Whether you are talking about detached houses as in the tweet, or apartments as in the picture at the top of this article, nowhere in the region is immune.

Both construction and non-construction are causing prices to rise

Thus, the fundamental dilemma for affordable but increasingly desirable neighborhoods like Langley Park is that both “building more” and “preserving what is,” result in rising prices and displacing existing residents.

In theory, this can be prevented through rent control combined with restrictions on who can access rent controlled units. Together, these strategies can nicely preserve existing affordable housing.

Except it doesn’t really work either.

If the basic problem is that there are not enough homes in desirable places, the use of rent control means that affordable housing is a lottery where a few lucky winners get a good solution, but the problem gets worse for everyone else, including the next generation of children, immigrants arriving next year, etc.

This does not mean that rent control is pointless. It can redirect who wins and who loses a home, to be ruled by something other than who is richest. That may be a good thing, but it is not in itself a solution to the fundamental problem of not having enough homes, especially as the non-affluent population continues to grow.

One solution might be to try to make gentrifying neighborhoods less desirable places to live so fewer people will move there. But punishing the less affluent by purposefully making their neighborhoods terrible is hardly a reasonable solution, especially when better solutions are found.

The only way to avoid displacement is to build enough elsewhere

The basic solution is to identify the thing that is actually scarce — in this case housing in mixed-use neighborhoods associated with fast transit — and supply enough of that thing so that it is no longer scarce.

Lacking enough such homes, gentrification and displacement will only accelerate into the existing units in Langley Park and beyond. If politicians choose to preserve Langley Park’s buildings without legalizing enough new housing, the people who suffer the most will not be developers or wealthy buyers, but rather be residents who find themselves outbid from existing apartments, as well as people in pt. affordable neighborhoods that are next on the road to the gentrification wave, like Adelphi, Hillandale and Avondale.

That being said, if the government makes it easy to remodel existing apartments at affordable prices but protects more affluent detached houses close by, as proposed in Langley Park, which unnecessarily destroys affordable housing and displaces vulnerable people in the opposite direction. It is also inefficient to redevelop only places that are already dense, while preserving those that are not if the goal is more density.

Proposals for changes to Langley Park’s zoning will only affect existing commercial and apartment properties. Image by M-NCPPC.

To address this, governments must become willing to legalize more housing in more affluent places, e.g. Bethesda or Brookland or College Park, as well as among blocks of single-family homes surrounding Langley Park and other mixed-use neighborhoods.

It is, of course, politically challenging. But the longer our leaders avoid doing so, the worse the problem becomes for places in the expanding path of gentrification, whether they themselves are opsonized or not.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in Trinidad, DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post. Dan blogs to express personal views and does not participate in GGWash’s political approval decisions.

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