Meeting the Washington Region’s Future Housing Needs: A Framework for Regional Deliberations

Report by Margery Austin Turner, Leah Hendey, Maya Brennan, Peter Tatian, Kathryn Reynolds
September 4, 2019

Urban–Greater DC   (Washington, D.C.)

The Washington region faces serious housing challenges that undermine many residents’ well-being. Constrained housing supply, coupled with regional growth, pushes up rents and prices for existing housing. These pressures cause especially steep housing cost increases and displacement in some communities that have historically been home to people with low and moderate incomes and people of color.

The arrival of new businesses, jobs, and residents could intensify today’s housing challenges, unless the region’s leaders come together to address them. Absent a substantial increase in the supply of housing, more households competing for an already constrained stock of units will further increase prices and rents and exacerbate displacement pressures.

Inaction on housing affordability challenges could ultimately undermine the region’s future economic growth and prosperity. Housing challenges like these can undermine worker productivity, make it harder for companies to attract and retain employees, and discourage companies from locating in the area. Recent job and population trends suggest that housing constraints and affordability challenges may already be slowing employment growth and causing people to leave the Washington region.

Government, business, nonprofit, and philanthropic leaders can join together on shared 10-year targets, committing to evidence-based actions to achieve a healthy housing market and ensuring that the region’s housing market supports economic prosperity and serves all its residents. Such targets would do the following:

  • Shrink the existing affordability gap. Today, the number of low-cost housing units falls short of household needs by 264,000.
  • Boost housing production to keep pace with growth. At the economic growth rate projected by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the region needs 374,000 more housing units by 2030; faster growth would require more.
  • Align more housing units with expected household needs and resources. The region needs at least 40 percent more middle-cost housing units to match expected needs.


Meeting these targets requires local governments across the region to strengthen or expand existing policies and adopt new strategies to advance three key objectives. First, they need to make targeted investments that preserve existing affordable low-income housing units. Second, they should make it easier and more attractive for the private sector to produce more housing at different affordability levels, especially in the middle-cost range. And third, they should protect both renters and homebuyers from discrimination and involuntary displacement.

There is no silver bullet solution to these challenges. Every jurisdiction should pursue a portfolio of policies and investments tailored to its needs and capacities. Local governments can draw upon tools that deploy their regulatory authorities, their funding resources, and their leadership and convening capacities. Analysis of the estimated contribution of all available policy tools highlights 12 with high potential for the Washington region. Expanding or strengthening these tools in the jurisdictions where they already exist, and implementing where they do not, should be a priority.

The region’s philanthropic and business leaders also have critical roles to play. These leaders can prioritize future-focused, region-wide perspectives, promote strategic planning and goal-setting, build public understanding and support, and monitor progress. Their capacities for convening and thought leadership could help create an enduring, cross-sector commitment to addressing the region’s current and future housing challenges.

Publisher Info:

Washington, DC: Urban Institute.