D.C. Council passes weakened affordable housing law; tempers flare before election

Election-year politics roiled the D.C. Council’s final meeting before voters go to the polls, as city lawmakers on Tuesday passed a watered-down measure to increase affordable housing and sparks flew over new taxi rules and a plan to ticket residents who fail to clear snow from sidewalks.

With seven of the 13 council seats on the ballot next week, pro-business and liberal factions of the council sparred over a bill that would require 30 percent of the housing created on public land to be set aside for residents with low-to-moderate incomes.

The District owns hundreds of parcels, including several near Metro stations that have been handed over to developers in recent years. Many have produced luxury housing. Sometimes the District has exacted affordable housing in return, but other times it has not. The full terms of many deals have rarely been made public, leaving unknown whether the District got the best value for property over a period of years when the city’s stock of affordable housing was plummeting.

A bill by D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D), who is running for reelection in Ward 5, would have required the city’s independent chief financial officer to verify that the city had properly assessed properties eyed for land deals and that developments slated to include housing designate at least 30 percent as affordable.

Business groups and the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) had worked to scuttle the bill, saying it could impede all development and tie the hands of future District leaders.

On Tuesday, McDuffie overcame an effort to delay a vote on the measure until after next week’s election, saying he thought that the bill might die if council members were not held accountable at the ballot box. But to win consensus, McDuffie and affordable­housing advocates reluctantly accepted measures introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and backed by Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4), who had co-introduced the legislation. Advocates had lobbied against the changes, saying the provisions would weaken the bill.

One of those made the chief financial officer’s ruling advisory only. Another gave the next mayor and council leeway to consider other factors instead of only housing, such as whether the city could get a return in the form of another public benefit, such as “a library, fire station . . . or stadium.”

“Quite frankly, I have reservations, but I am willing to take the steps to get this done,” McDuffie said. “It’s not a panacea . . . but it’s a tool to make sure we are creating housing for people who make a lot of money and for people who do not make a whole lot of money.”

Advocates for low-income residents said they were disappointed with the changes, but overall, they praised the measure as an important step forward. Even an advisory opinion by the chief financial officer would be the first time the District would be required to give an outside party access to data on the disposition of public land. Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said it was also important that the bill would make it District policy to first seek affordable housing whenever the development of public land is at issue.

Whether the bill will be signed by Gray, however, is unclear.

In a letter to the council Tuesday before the vote, Gray urged lawmakers to not approve the measure because it could “slow the pace of economic development and lessen the value of District property, which will lead to less affordable housing, not more.”

At a heated breakfast meeting between council members before Tuesday’s vote, Mendelson said he sought the changes to the bill because he did not think that the council or mayor should give the chief financial officer “veto authority” over land deals.

But McDuffie most fiercely fought an effort by council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) to push the vote until after the election.

“Let’s not put it off until a time when people think it’s not a priority any more . . .. People will be less inclined to support something like this in three weeks,” McDuffie said to Evans.

“Why? Why?” Evans shot back, “Because of the election — is that what you’re saying?”

Also Tuesday, over the honking of hundreds of cabdrivers outside, the council gave final approval to a plan to loosely regulate app-based driver services, such as UberX and Lyft.

Cabdrivers objected fiercely to the legislation, staging three protests in recent months. They had said that allowing the services to operate outside the same rules and regulations as D.C. taxis would put traditional taxi drivers at a competitive disadvantage.

The measure requires drivers who dispatch through app-based systems to have insurance, complete background checks, inspect vehicles annually and submit 1 percent of receipts to the city.

The council resisted pressure to add more restrictions, such as marking the cars, sending drivers’ fingerprints to the FBI and setting minimum fares. Most council members agreed that the city has a greater responsibility to safety when customers enter cabs on the street without prior arrangement.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) fought unsuccessfully for nearly an hour to delay the measure, saying he feared that “Uber will someday run all of the taxis . . . and decide whatever fares they please.”

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who authored the measure, and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said an antiquated taxi system was the problem.

“We’re here only because of a failed taxicab regulatory system,” Wells said. “We should modernize and not put new burdens on either side of this.”

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who is running uncontested in her ward, also narrowly won an almost year-long fight to institute a system of escalating warnings and tickets for residents and businesses that repeatedly fail to clear sidewalks after a snowstorm.

“I know the physical therapists are happy,” Cheh said of slick sidewalks that can cause broken bones and sprains, “but we are going to have bad weather, and we need to do something.”

In a rare turn, Bowser was on the losing side of that 7-to-6 vote. “We could be giving tickets to our senior citizens” who are unable to shovel sidewalks, she said.

“What I would rather see is the government focusing on a volunteer army to get out and clear the sidewalks,” she said, echoing a call by council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large). Bonds, who is also on the ballot next week, said Tuesday that she wanted the District to use snowstorms as a chance to provide temporary jobs for some of the city’s poorest, unemployed residents.

The council also addressed a flurry of appointments by Gray in his final months in office.

Members unanimously confirmed Daniel W. Lucas, 51, to be the next inspector general, replacing Charles J. Willoughby, who retired in May. Lucas is deputy inspector general for the Naval Sea Systems Command, a $30 billion-a-year agency that builds, buys and maintains naval ships and equipment.

The council, however, rejected the confirmation of Judith F. Terra as chairwoman of the Commission on Arts and Humanities.

Read the original article here.