Testimony: Support for bills voiding exclusionary covenants (B25-480, 482, 481)

December 4, 2023

Hon. Phil Mendelson, Chair
District of Columbia Council
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20004

RE: Support for: 

B25-0480 – Addressing Legacies of Housing Segregation in Chevy Chase Amendment Act of 2023
B25-0482 – Releasing Restrictive Covenants in Deeds Act of 2023
B25-0481 – Addressing Legacies of Housing Segregation in Rock Creek West Amendment Act of 2023

Dear Chair Mendelson:

Please accept these comments on behalf of the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG), the leading non-profit organization in the D.C. region advocating for walkable, bikeable, inclusive, transit-oriented communities as the most sustainable and equitable way for the DC region to grow and provide opportunities for all. 

We wish to express our support for B25-480, B25-482, and B25-481. We commend Councilmember Frumin and the other co-sponsors for bringing this legislation forward. This legislation advances the immediate goal of clearing obstacles to adding approximately 100 units of affordable housing for households earning 30-80 percent median family income to the Chevy Chase library site. Our affordable housing goals for the site is part of a shared statement with Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) and Ward3Vision. 

These three bills will address the legacy of housing segregation that currently threatens Ward 3 affordable housing opportunities and the problem of antiquated exclusionary covenant language that should be voided so as to not confuse implementation and the legal force of modern planning and zoning laws. These bills also affirm that the District disavows and voids the racist and classist intent of outdated covenant restrictions found on property deeds in Chevy Chase and Ward 3. 

Regarding B25-480 – Addressing Legacies of Housing Segregation in Chevy Chase, this bill will remove more than a century-old language which bars apartment buildings on land owned by the District and which is currently used for a library and community center. The 1909 deed restriction on apartments was a common legal practice in the 20th Century to keep lower-income people—disproportionately Black and other people of color—out of affluent, mostly white neighborhoods. The covenant on this, and other properties, were devised by the Chevy Chase Land Company, which was co-founded by avowed segregationist Senator Francis Newlands who sought to preserve Chevy Chase for white, affluent people.

The Chevy Chase Small Area Plan has designated the library site for the addition of affordable housing, along with new public facilities. However, an old deed restriction bars apartment houses constrains plans to achieve this. The covenant language predates modern zoning laws. Thus this bill is necessary to bring the site up to date and disentangle it from potential litigation based on a conflict between the old restriction and current zoning regulations. 

We support this legislation as necessary because the Chevy Chase library site has the potential to provide the only dedicated affordable homes in the area. Multifamily housing is the logical, flexible housing form that is likely to make the most of the site and fit in with the public uses for the site. Thus removing any question about the enforceability of the covenant is important to reduce the number of impediments affordable housing on this site faces. 

We note that covenants for affordable housing are critically important to preserving affordability and ensuring that successive households will also have the benefit of homes they can afford in otherwise out of reach neighborhoods. The B25-482 states that: 

“Prohibited restriction” means a prohibition, restriction, covenant… on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, or discrimination on other status or condition in violation of Section 221 of the Human Rights Act of 1977,”.

We understand this provision to mean that a “prohibited restriction” does not include the use of covenants such as an Inclusionary Zoning  or public land disposition affordability covenant, or similar covenants, to preserve affordability for income-eligible households.

Chevy Chase and Ward 3 lag behind the rest of the District in the number of dedicated affordable homes. The area also lags in progress towards the housing equity goal established in the Comprehensive Plan update of 2021. Reducing barriers by removing legal ambiguity is an important and necessary step to making it easier to build affordable apartments in Chevy Chase (B25-480) and in Ward 3/Rock Creek West Planning Area (B25-481). 

Affordable housing faces many barriers in Chevy Chase and Ward 3. Opponents to new housing and affordable housing have thwarted many housing opportunities in the past, and discouraged builders from proposing new homes. We are hopeful that the voiding of antiquated exclusionary covenants will help clear the way for new affordable homes in this affluent community. These bills advance racial equity by removing exclusionary land use restrictions intended to sustain segregation and exclude people of color. 

Thank you for your consideration. 

Cheryl Cort

Policy Director
Coalition for Smarter Growth