A set­back for hous­ing in the District

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer is founder and pres­i­dent of Greater Greater Wash­ing­ton.

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.

PERKINS EAST­MAN

The pro­posed de­vel­op­ment of the McMil­lan sand fil­tra­tion site.

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