DC Grassroots Decry Planning Code Revision

Empower DC Priorities Lower 50% Needs Come First

According to Empower DC, a Washington, D.C. city-wide coalition of local grassroots citizen organizations, the proposed changes to the DC Comprehensive Plan underway is a developers’ brainchild. The revision will intensify redevelopment and gentrification not only in urban neighborhoods but existing residential neighborhoods, such as in Anacostia. They are doing so by demanding reclassification of zoning considerations, shortening or eliminating public appeals, and even increasing “affordable-class” housing to up to 120% MFI (mean family income).

In Washington D.C. every major urban neighborhood is undergoing gentrification. These are the projects which were approved years ago, whether planned unit developments, upgrades, or in-place demolishment/rebuild. In every neighborhood the pattern is the same: older buildings, especially apartment buildings are being shorn of their former residents, business tenants, and staff, and replaced with agents whose only interest is to see that the building is positioned for redevelopment by eliminating rent control.

The sterile streets of DC leave nothing to chance

The sterile streets of DC leave nothing to chance (photo by AGN)

Over the last twenty years, more than 40,000 blacks and other DC natives have moved away from their home, often leaving Washington, D.C. for the more inexpensive suburbs (at least for now) of nearby Maryland, such as in Prince George’s County. The figure is likely much higher after the Census 2020, and when including all other low-income residents.

The solution ought to be relatively simple if the DC Council really cares about its black residents, according to Eric Sheptock, a local homeless activist. To paraphrase what Sheptock suggests in his open remarks to the DC Housing Authority, DC already has all the data it needs on the demographics of income and housing status to determine how many residents have incomes of less than $40k, which are unsafely or marginally housed, and address the numbers directly by mandating housing affordability for all those people immediately.

However that would be too easy for a Council that situates itself in the arena of “more studies needed” and playing tit-for-tat with the demands of affordable housing advocates. As a matter of fact, since the amendment process began four years ago, Mayor Bowser has made it clear that she will continue to support gentrification. Specific measures she supports include stopping resident-led appeals of Zoning decisions; allowing greater density in development; and equivocating affordable housing with public housing

The measures Mayor Bowser supports during her second term also counter her first term platform promising to end homelessness by connecting people to affordable housing more quickly. During her second term does Mayor Bowser want to be remembered as a politician who broke her promises, allowing rents and homelessness to rise?

Our priorities are to stop that displacement of black and brown residents. We want to make sure that the plan requires the development of housing for the lowest incomes. We can’t just say ‘affordable housing.’ We have to be specific about who needs the housing. We need to build housing for incomes at 30% of the median family income (MFI) and below. We have 30% of DC renters that cannot afford more than $900 in rent. —Empower DC, Parisa Norouzi

The pattern of development clearly favors DC as a “new playground for the rich.” In these sterile neighborhoods, private security and dog-walkers form to aggressively profile and shame anyone who looks different. Everyone plays a role in enforcing income-based apartheid and uprooting traditional neighborhood cultures which are welcoming and people-oriented. Behind the lavish display is often a lot of hidden tension and stress, perhaps stemming from fear of discovery, such as the kind of scandals uncovered by DistrictDig.

Here are the arguments and demands as framed by Empower DC for desired actionable elements as tied to a critical checklist for what should be addressed and asked with each and every permit application, and more importantly, with respect to the prime motivations behind the revision of the Comprehensive Plan:

1- Will changes to the Comp Plan prevent the displacement of residents?

2- Will changes to the Comp Plan meaningfully advance racial equity?

3- Will changes to the Comp Plan prioritize building housing for DC’s lowest income residents (30%AMI and below)?

4- Will changes to the Comp Plan enhance the public’s ability to shape the development decisions that impact their communities?

5- Will changes to the Comp Plan promote non-market driven strategies to achieve affordable housing?

6- Will changes to the Comp Plan create a pathway for community-led equitable development that improves economic conditions for the communities most immediately at risk of displacement?

The gist of the questions is will the amended Comprehensive Plan advance housing justice principles that truly help the neediest residents including those who are staying in shelters? The answer is a resounding “NO.” The revisions fail to focus on the needs for the extremely low income (0-30% AMI) and the very low income (30-50% AMI). The revisions disproportionately affect black and brown residents because their MFI is below $42,000 per year. Instead of mandating more supportive housing, the Comprehensive Plan will allow developers to fast-track replacing public housing stock with fair market apartment buildings and a mix of 50-120% MFI units. Most very low income public housing residents will eventually become unhoused by the new targets. Even an offer of preserving black representation through inclusionary clauses in the revised Comp Plan does little to address the underlying exacerbation of what is primarily an income-based problem that will punish DC’s people of color, the elderly, and the disabled, especially in the aftermath of Covid-19.

Eric Sheptock describes his dilemma in his open interview at his YouTube channel. He states that he works in a minimum wage job with occasional overtime pay but he remains at the Creative Center for Nonviolence (CCNV), a homeless shelter, because he cannot afford an apartment. His income is above the $25,000 limit for qualifying for subsidized housing or vouchers. He says that the gap in coverage for qualifying for subsidized housing is similar to what many other Latino and African-Americans face who earn between $25,000 to $40,000. He believes and advocates that all these low-income workers qualify for supportive housing (paying 30% of what is earned). Or better yet that the selling rates for apartments are capped and detached from the AMI system, which came into effect in 2011. Right now, those who work in blue-collar jobs in DC must often live in cheaper housing in Maryland.

One thing in addition to what Sheptock mentions is that the housing rules in D.C. are also inflexible about the number of occupants allowed. It is easier to allow a pet to stay with a resident than an immediate family member. The culture of these luxury apartment complexes militates against an informal congeniality and genuinely supportive community; staff workers are not unionized; renters have no rights to organize; and most of the newer buildings (built after 1975) do not have rent control.

Empower DC assiduously examined the entire proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Plan and made numerous suggestions and raised many issues with the Planning Department which is quite impressive, considering that the citizen reviewers are all volunteers. The coalitions asks for mandating community-led partnerships so that when public housing is renovated, any proposal includes 1-for-1 replacement with subsidized units; using stronger not weaker language to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable D.C. residents; and promoting consideration for extremely low income D.C. residents’ racial and financial equity. For instance, the D.C. government is awarding hefty redevelopment contracts for the public housing communities of Greenleaf, Brookland Manor, and Park Morton, yet the residents there have no say on what is proposed nor on how renovation will take place.

An observation on how the underprivileged in cities are generally regarded by staff is that this is almost standard modus operandi, as if the less they are told about upcoming construction, the better. Even asking questions, they are given a minimal amount of information; and generally the same may be said in non-subsidized apartment buildings as well. For instance, one former building this reporter lived in never bothered telling residents when they would be repainting the corridor—which they did several times. Only owning one’s home can one actually determine the scope of work, who is hired, and how the work will be done—although an opposite problem arises which is the need to apply for permits and having outside inspectors come in to inspect. The Comp Plan, available to view at plandc.dc.gov, should also acknowledge the efforts of groups such as Empower DC, in helping to shape its final form.

The amended Comprehensive Plan has received a First Approval Vote, however, two votes will be necessary. Although many of the rephrasings suggested by the citizens coalition are incorporated, especially for Racial Equity planning, the bottom line still is that as a whole, the status quo will now favor more land use waivers. Approval hastens the ongoing, aggressive development trend: harmful in potential to trivialize the importance placed on permits and reviews. Supportive housing for the very low-income is reduced to mere considerations. There are no tools included in the amendment, besides the Racial Equity analysis, to mandate displacement-prevention of people from their homes. More than ever before now, more rent control apartment buildings can be quickly demolished.

“What we are looking for is where the rubber meets the road. And so these changes do not prohibit displacement nor do they require measures to limit displacement or to create new tools to prevent displacement. Preventing displacement is encouraged but not required, so this is not a change in the status quo.” —- Empower DC, Chris Williams

Empower DC has long been involved in the struggle to save public housing, preserve rent control buildings, work with tenants to develop financial equity plans for affordable buy-ins, and organize collective leadership. Considering the serious setbacks which the nation’s capital has underwent due to the pandemic, it is a sobering reminder that disaster capitalists are forever scheming for profit, never concerned about who they have made homeless or turned into refugees. The people must continue to encourage officials to honor the committment that Washington, D.C. is, first and foremost, a human-rights city. According to the U.N. Charter, of course that includes the right of all people to live in decent affordable housing.

Top image Presentation, Empower DC