A setback for housing in the District
Our city and region must strive to be a great place for people of many ages, incomes and backgrounds — including, as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) often says, those who have been here five generations or five minutes.
More than 1,300 people who want to make their homes along D.C.’s North Capitol Street will have to wait years more. And 400 people may never have the chance to live in the Brookland neighborhood after a pair of court decisions last year.
Rising demand for walkable places near jobs, Metro and suburban town centers has meant rising prices, threatening the ability of even affluent families to find a good place to live. Our most vulnerable residents face even steeper hurdles as cheaper rental housing disappears under market pressures.
That is why a coalition of organizations — from tenants’ groups and faith groups to nonprofit and for-profit developers — united in asking the D.C. government to plan effectively for housing current and future residents as it revises the D.C. Comprehensive Plan.
The challenges of providing needed housing and the need to fix the Comprehensive Plan have become even greater with recent court decisions sending back for further hearings two significant development projects: 901 Monroe Street and the McMillan sand filtration site.
Both developments had exhaustive community input, public hearings, multiple votes at the D.C. Zoning Commission and significant compromises with neighbors, plus, for McMillan, a lengthy historic-preservation process and multiple votes at the D.C. Council. Now the court decisions have delayed them by years at best, indefinitely at worst.
Both projects would add to the District’s stock of below-market-rate affordable housing. McMillan also would create medical office space, a grocery store, more shops and a park.
The two decisions represented a U-turn in D.C. jurisprudence. The courts had previously been more deferential to the D.C. Zoning Commission, a hybrid federallocal body that makes the final decision on many large development projects. And these reversals may not be the last: Responding to the unexpected victories in these two cases, opponents have begun appealing approved developments across the city.
Nobody but the judges involved can say for sure why they changed their attitudes toward new housing, but one passage in the McMillan case is instructive: The judges seized on opponents’ fears of gentrification, despite this not being at issue at the zoning hearings. Presumably they, like most Washingtonians, have read plenty in the news about the real human toll of rising rents and housing prices.
But make no mistake: Not building a building doesn’t help a low-income person find a place to live. Nobody has ever found a home because a court kept a vacant lot vacant. Only new mixed-income housing, preserving existing affordable housing, protecting tenants and policies that create jobs can alleviate displacement.
That is why a group of more than 20 organizations and businesses started meeting last year to find areas of agreement around these thorny issues. Some were for-profit developers such as JBG and EYA; others were advocates for tenants who have tangled with for-profit developers, such as the Latino Economic Development Center. The coalition included affordable-housing advocates, faith groups and policy analysts.
These groups haven’t always agreed on policy issues. But all could agree, quite simply, that to be truly inclusive, the District needs more housing, more affordable housing and targeted support for communities affected by the District’s changes. They agree that a building unbuilt helps no one and support finding policies that help all.
They came together to ask for changes to the Comprehensive Plan, a massive document that guides the District’s growth and change, particularly around development. Despite its physical heft, though, the document is full of holes. The D.C. Court of Appeals judges focused on inconsistency in the Comprehensive Plan when remanding the 901 Monroe and McMillan cases.
Indeed, the Comprehensive Plan is itself a problem: It says everything and thus nothing. It says the District should be more inclusive, needs more housing and should pursue infill development, especially near Metro stations. But it also says neighborhoods should be “protected” against change, with maps that don’t reflect the policy priorities in the rest of the plan. It bobs and weaves and hedges in an effort to please everyone so that anyone can find arguments to support or oppose any project in its pages.
If the District is to grow inclusively, it must clarify the priorities in the Comprehensive Plan. The coalition, working as DCHousingPriorities.org, has negotiated 10 principles, including “meet the housing demand,” “equitably distribute housing,” “include families” and “preserve existing affordable housing.”
We hope more residents and organizations will join in and D.C. officials will commit to a Comprehensive Plan that puts these principles first so that new housing could be created, affordable housing could be preserved, judges could be unconfused and the vision of an inclusive D.C. could be achieved.
The proposed development of the McMillan sand filtration site.