D.C.’s Plan For Future Growth Fails Low-Income Residents, Activists Say

Nearly 300 people signed up to testify before the D.C. Council Tuesday on what might sound like an obscure subject: the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

More than just a turgid government document, the plan is a roadmap for the District’s future development. It establishes the city’s guiding principles over the next 20 years for land use, economic development, environmental protection, transportation and beyond. But as officials prepare to update the roadmap for the first time in seven years, some activists and nonprofit groups worry the process is steering the city toward a less equitable future.

The Office of Planning has proposed a slew of updates to the plan’s framework — the guiding document that sets the tone for the rest of the plan — and most haven’t attracted much controversy. But at a hearing at the Wilson Building on March 20, two points in particular had witnesses fired up: They said the plan doesn’t make a sincere commitment to preserving and building more affordable housing, and that it makes it much harder for residents to appeal development they believe could worsen gentrification.

“The agencies and the city are not really working to make sure that the displacement crisis is addressed,” said Empower DC Executive Director Parisa Norouzi outside the hearing. “Are we building exclusive communities for wealthier single people? Yes, we are. Is that what we should be doing, given evidence of the need that exists in the city? No.”

In its proposed updates, the Office of Planning mentions affordability multiple times. For example, one new passage reads, “The degree to which the District’s family-sized housing stock can be retained or expanded, and remain affordable is … critical.” But many say the updates fall short of a real pledge to keep low-income people in their homes.

Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, says the District could mitigate displacement by investing more in the D.C. Local Rent Supplement Program and Housing Production Trust Fund (although a recent audit alleges the fund is seriously mismanaged). But above all, she says, the city must build more places for people to live.

“We need more housing to keep up with demand,” Cort said Monday, “so we can hold down rising prices that are caused by not having enough supply.”

That’s where groups like Empower DC and the Coalition for Smarter Growth diverge. Affordable-housing advocates have chosen to battle gentrification by stopping development in its tracks, a strategy critics dismiss as short-sighted. Activist Chris Otten, who heads the group D.C. for Reasonable Development, has been particularly successful at appealing projects in federal court, miring developers in red tape for months. In some cases, he’s managed to block development altogether, successfully arguing that certain projects violate the Comprehensive Plan. One legal dispute with an Adams Morgan hotel developer didn’t stop the hotel from being built, but it won a group of residents, led by Otten, a $2 million settlement.

Norouzi says taking developers to court is the most effective way to put power back in the public’s hands. “The reason why people are appealing is because nobody’s looking out for the residents,” she said.

The string of legal challenges has struck fear into the hearts of developers, but it hasn’t stopped development altogether. Now some builders are choosing to circumvent the public process — called Planned Unit Development — that makes them vulnerable to appeals. The move is creating unintended consequences, observers say.

The city relies on the PUD process to extract better community amenities from developers, such as more affordable units than are legally required. D.C. Planning Director Eric Shaw has said that PUDs produced 2,530 affordable units in FY 2017, 19 percent of all new apartments built that year.

The last thing housing advocates should want, says David Alpert of nonprofit Greater Greater Washington, is to prevent residents from striking better deals with developers.

“The recent court decisions, some of them call into question whether any community benefits agreement can be negotiated, agreed to, and then enforced without someone simply bringing a lawsuit and trying to overturn the entire thing,” Alpert said.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Alpert criticized activists’ tactics as “filibustering,” and voiced his support for a proposed update to the Comprehensive Plan that would protect the Planned Unit Development process from being hijacked.

“A few people can delay or halt even something which has had robust community input and support,” Alpert said at the hearing. “Is a land-use system, where no matter the community support, anything can be filibustered, really good government?”

But while witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing didn’t agree on how D.C. government should control skyrocketing housing prices, they concurred that the city is in the midst of an affordability crisis that the Comprehensive Plan must address. That idea found support among Council members who spoke before the hearing.

“The Comprehensive Plan has potential to impact the cost of housing, incomes and other things that could lead to displacement,” said Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie, “and government has a responsibility to minimize displacement at all costs.”

The Council took no decisive action Tuesday, and lawmakers expect to negotiate changes to the planning document in the coming months.

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