How D.C. can grow inclusively
“Growing inclusively means that individuals and families are not confined to particular economic and geographic boundaries but are able to make important choices — choices about where they live, how and where they earn a living, how they get around the city, and where their children go to school. Growing inclusively also means that every resident can make these choices — regardless of whether they have lived here for generations or moved here last week, and regardless of their race, income, or age.”
What a great statement. That’s an official “vision” from the District’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2006. D.C. leaders committed to this goal more than a decade ago, and the need is even more acute today as the economy has boomed, held on through a huge recession and boomed again. Those booms haven’t benefited everyone, but they should.
The D.C. government is now amending the Comp Plan. I’ve been working with a coalition of organizations to read, analyze and suggest changes to the plan. There are some great ideas in its more than 600 pages but a lot is missing or woefully out of date.
In 2005, the 50-year trend of the District losing population was already turning around, and planners at the time forecast 630,000 residents by 2015. Instead, there were 672,228. The plan forecast the population to hit 698,000 by 2025; we’re almost there already.
This matters because in 2005, home prices rising out of reach wasn’t the big problem; there was a lot of vacant property in most wards of the city. Attracting people to the District was still a challenge. Now, growing numbers of neighborhoods are out of reach to even middle-class residents with well-paying jobs, let alone those with lower incomes. Our challenge is continuing to welcome everyone while protecting those already here, who have lived for decades in their homes and fear being displaced.
The Comprehensive Plan talks little of displacement. In fact, whether existing residents will be displaced isn’t even a factor the D.C. Zoning Commission can consider in its reviews of many projects. That’s wrong, and we need to right it in the Comp Plan. The Comp Plan certainly talks about affordable housing but doesn’t afford it nearly the weight it needs in the District of 2017.
One significant part of the solution is to add enough housing to meet the demand. If there are too few homes, then it’s like a game of musical chairs where some people can outbid others for the chairs. As Seattle activist Sara Maxana explains, “When housing choices are limited, the wealthy always win.”
However, let me be clear: Simply adding more housing at the market rate will absolutely not solve every problem on its own.
The District needs housing for young families making $60,000 to $90,000. It needs housing for families making $30,000 to $50,000, well above minimum wage but considered “very low income” by Department of Housing and Urban Development standards. These are our teachers, firefighters, child-care professionals and transit operators. We also need housing for those making $20,000, $10,000 and less. These are the people who serve you lunch, take out the trash and check out your purchases at the grocery store. They should all be able to afford to live here. Reports from the George Mason University School of Public Policy, Enterprise Community Partners and the Greater Washington Housing Leaders Group estimate the magnitude of need at each price point; we need the will, the creativity and the investments to meet it.
Building more hosuing is part of the answer, but it alone will not meet the need because new construction is expensive and slow even in the absence of regulatory barriers, and there are plenty of those. No new housing unit can be as low-cost as an existing, older building. Preserving the affordable housing that’s already here means that the people and families who live there can remain a part of the community. This must be a priority in our fiscal and land-use policies.
Every neighborhood must be a part of the solution. We can engage neighborhoods in a conversation about the best way to create and preserve needed housing, market-rate and below-market affordable, because “put it in someone else’s neighborhood” is not an ethical or practical answer. For too long, this has been the practice of some of our wealthiest neighborhoods, including my own, and the Comp Plan has allowed and even facilitated this. Just as it was right to put a homeless shelter in every ward, so must our housing needs for other groups be a shared commitment across the city (and region).
More overall homes. More affordable homes. Preserving existing affordable homes. Protections against displacement. These are not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, they can all reinforce each other with the right land-use policies. By global standards and even U.S. ones, the District is not that heavily populated. There’s room for all, both the newcomer and the fifth-generation resident. Together, we can make room.