ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Washington, D.C., has one of the highest costs of living in the nation, and nearly 1-in-5 people here lives at or below the poverty line. Not surprisingly, many low-income people have trouble buying affordable housing. As Rebecca Sheir of member station WAMU tells us, the trouble is not a lack of housing. It's too much red tape.
REBECCA SHEIR, BYLINE: Buwa Binitie is showing me around Justice Park Apartments, an affordable housing development he just opened in D.C.'s Columbia Heights neighborhood. We begin in the lobby.
BUWA BINITIE: We can't afford the sexy lobbies that most market-rate units have. But I think we've done a very good job giving you that flair.
SHEIR: The developer has also done a very good job getting tenants.
BINITIE: For this property that you and I are sitting in right now, we have a thousand people waitlist. This building leased up in two weeks.
SHEIR: The key word here is leased. Justice Park is a rental building. But at one of Binitie's for-sale properties?
BINITIE: The affordable units were selling for $171,000. And the market-rate units were selling for $230,000. All the market-rate units sold in two months. But it's taken me 11 months to dispose of 11 affordable dwelling units.
SHEIR: Binitie blames the hold-up on the hoops prospective buyers must jump through. The first trick, says National Low Income Housing Coalition President Sheila Crowley, is proving your income is low enough to qualify for affordable housing, yet high enough to get a mortgage. In D.C., you must make below 80 percent of the area median income. That's about $107,000 for a family of four.
SHEILA CROWLEY: Part of it is this square-peg-into-a-round-hole thing that we try to do in housing. And that's a conundrum.
SHEIR: Crowley says this conundrum exists nationwide, and in D.C., it's compounded by more requirements. Prospective buyers of affordable housing must also attend home-buying training. And if they want to get a district loan, they must navigate the labyrinth of city government.
MARILYN PHILLIPS: People can get frustrated with all the hoops you have to jump through.
SHEIR: Marilyn Phillips just bought her very first condo. Manna, an affordable housing organization, walked her through the process.
PHILLIPS: All of the information they want to gather from you - it can make you feel like, why do you need all this information?
SHEIR: The 58-year-old has been fighting breast cancer for years, and now she can finally save money.
PHILLIPS: I pay most of my Social Security disability check to my landlord now. I pay $900 a month. My mortgage at this new place is only $224 a month.
SHEIR: Sarah Scruggs works for Manna and says the bureaucracy surrounding affordable homeownership is well-intentioned.
SARAH SCRUGGS: The D.C. government and the federal government want to make sure that the subsidies that they're providing are going to people that actually need them.
SHEIR: But what happens is many low-income individuals decide to just keep renting or scrape their pennies together for a market-rate unit...
SARAH SCRUGGS: ...Because they don't have to deal with the paperwork required to buy an affordable dwelling unit and they don't have to deal with the restrictions.
SHEIR: Like the one in D.C. that limits maximum resale price and makes homeowners wait anywhere from five to 20 years before they sell. D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development director Michael Kelly says he understands how unwieldy the process can be.
MICHAEL KELLY: Unfortunately with all government programs there are bureaucracies and provisions that go with that. We're doing everything we can to streamline that effort.
SHEIR: The current mayor has vowed to build 10,000 affordable units by the year 2020. He hopes his successor will continue toward that goal. But under the current system, it could be a while before every unit has an owner to call it home sweet home. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Sheir in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.