Though the District may not top any lists for population size, it boasts one of the largest municipal budgets in the country. But many residents know that the gains of the city’s boom are not being distributed evenly.

As waves of young professionals flock to the city, many of its longtime residents are left struggling against swelling rents, making affordable housing a hot-button topic. This year proves to be no different, as affordable housing has taken center stage during this budget cycle.

As city officials prepare to update the city’s Comprehensive Plan for the first time in seven years, residents and affordable housing advocates have fear the District is moving toward being less equitable, and a recent audit of the city’s largest source of affordable housing revealed sobering facts about the program’s effectiveness.

“The Comprehensive Plan, as the city’s chief planning document, needs to be clear that the production of housing is a current, urgent priority, and further that the need is especially great for affordable housing,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

The initial changes being made are within the framework element portion of the plan, found within the first 60 pages of the 1,000-page document, that guides how tall or dense new construction in the city can be.

Nearly 300 residents signed up to testify at last week’s Council hearing regarding the plan, which functions as the city government roadmap for future development over the next 20 years. The plan establishes the guiding principles for the future of the District’s land use, economic development, transportation and more.

In recent years, housing activists have used the plan to block development projects through court appeals.

Known as Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), developers offer the addition of more affordable housing units than required in exchange for taller, denser developments. The projects undergo Zoning Commission approval, but many projects have been tossed in D.C. Court of Appeals after rulings that they were inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.

Now, opponents of the changes say the amendments would give too much flexibility to developers and limit the ability of citizens to challenge Zoning Commission decisions in court.

“The Zoning Commission has the authority to interpret the plan, and has a record of interpreting the plan to enable the dramatic development that continues to take place in D.C.,” said Renee L. Bowser, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Ward 4. “The characterization that the court of appeals has a record of overturning development and PUDs is factually false.”

Bowser said that between 2000 and 2012, there were 28 zoning decision challenges bought forward in appeals courts and 68 challenges between 2013 and 2018, and the first time in 20 years a court overturned a zoning decision was in 2016.

“The developers response to these rare community challenges and even rarer successes is to say, ‘let’s get the mayor and the Office of Planning to change Comprehensive Plan to effectively eliminate or render feudal any challenges to bid development plans in the future,’” she said.

Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) slammed the plan for lacking measures to produce and preserve affordable housing.

“Displacement, gentrification and the affordable housing and family housing are barely mentioned in the draft [of the Comprehensive Plan’s] framework element,” White said. “As I see it the proposed changes opens doors to denser, higher commercial development in neighborhoods without ensuring that there will be adequate affordability in the tradeoff or uniformity.

“We have not met out mandated affordable housing goals or truly invested in affordable housing,” he said, referring to a recent audit of the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund.

The D.C. Auditor’s report found chronic mismanagement of funding for the city’s leading producer of affordable housing, and that the trust fund failed to meet statutory requirements that dictate how much of its dollars go toward producing housing for extremely-low-income residents, as 60 percent of the affordable housing units created by the fund are currently designated for residents who earn between $56,000 and $88,000 annually.

The audit also revealed that the fund only produced about 10,000 units of affordable housing in the past 15 years.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, who is running for re-election in November, presented a more optimistic view of progress the city has made in creating more affordable housing.

“The audit went back to 2001,” Bowser said. “I have been mayor since 2015.”

She said her office has made changes to the fund to make it more efficient.

“The systems have become more efficient and we can double the number of affordable housing units” over the next five years, Bowser said, adding that consistent investments in the fund will double its 5,000-unit production rate, the level when she first took office.

In her $14.4 billion 2019 budget proposal, Bowser proposed to continue her three-year $100 million investment into the fund, as well as a second-time $10 million contribution toward the Housing Preservation Fund to preserve existing affordable housing, $10 million increase to the city’s home purchase assistance program and funding the Neighborhood Prosperity Fund to provide grant funding to commercial projects in areas with high unemployment rates.

The Council has taken no decisive action on the matter, and the city’s lawmakers are expected to negotiate changes to the plan in the coming months.

Tatyana Hopkins – Washington Informer Contributing Writer

Tatyana Hopkins has always wanted to make the world a better place. Growing up she knew she wanted to be a journalist. To her there were too many issues in the world to pick a career that would force her...

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