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Amendments to Comprehensive Plan Elicit Unease on Racial Equity

The D.C. Council’s recent vote to forward the District’s Comprehensive Plan in the legislative process has some uneasy despite Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s amendments to address concerns about gentrification and racial inequity.

On April 20, the council in a Committee of the Whole meeting supported amendments to the plan put forth by Mendelson on a 11-0 vote, with Council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) voting present.

Mendelson said his proposal “puts special focus on increasing housing and racial equity.”

“Indeed, the revised plan will substantially increase opportunities for new housing in all eight wards of the city,” the chairman said. “It requires the Zoning Commission and other agencies to develop a racial equity lens for evaluating all actions including zoning cases.”

The more than 1,000-page plan — created in 2006 — serves as the District’s blueprint for growth and development. It goes through a revision process involving the mayor and the council about every five years.

According to leaders of social justice organizations, the amendments offered in April 2020 by the mayor and Mendelson fail to deliver for Black and Brown residents.

Empower DC’s Parisa Norouzi says the plan doesn’t deal specifically with gentrification or displacement and others agree with her.

The Council’s Office of Racial Equity (CORE), led by Director Brian McClure, released a Racial Equity Impact Assessment (REIA) of Mendelson’s amendments on April 19 and said it doesn’t go far enough to address racial disparities in housing in the District.

Evaluating the Amendments

In the 54-page REIA, Mendelson’s amendments received praise for “making impactful and significant changes to the Comprehensive Plan” and “these changes elevate racial equity as a public policy priority and state that decisions must use a racial equity lens” and “these changes do advance racial equity”. However, the assessment said the amendments “is not enough to disrupt the status quo of deep racial inequities in the District of Columbia.”

“The Comprehensive Plan, as introduced, fails to address racism, an ongoing public health crisis in the District,” the assessment said. “As introduced, it appears that racial equity was neither a guiding principle in the preparation of the Comprehensive Plan, not was it an explicit goal for the Plan’s policies, actions, implementation guidance or evaluation. These process failures laid the groundwork for the deficiencies in policy: proposals are ahistorical, solutions are not proportionate to racial inequities, and directives are concerningly weak or vague.”

In a statement obtained by the Informer, McClure said his office used a rigorous methodology in doing the assessment and found the review fruitful.

“While CORE’s final assessment does not represent our opinion of whether the bill should proceed, we hope it fosters dialogue on the [proposed amendments] and is used to move forward a more racially equitable administration of the plan by residents, the Zoning Commission, executive agencies and the council,” he said.

Reaction to Amendments

Norouzi said language about affordable housing must point out how construction of new units will stop displacement.

“There has to be a requirement — not just to implement as many strategies as possible,” she said at a virtual meeting on April 19. “Otherwise, we’re not addressing the ongoing displacement of low-income people, public housing residents in particular.”

During the committee meeting, Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said the city’s elected leaders need to be more proactive in seeing that racial equity in housing occurs.

“When we recognize a Comp Plan may at best maintain the status quo of racial inequity, I think it needs to be clear that to do more it’s going to be up to the mayor and the council for us to make policy decisions, make budget decisions, and to fund programs needed to address this inequity,” Allen said. “The Comp Plan by itself is not going to do that.”

The Next Step

Mendelson said the council will hold its first reading on the plan on May 4. The chairman said people should temper their expectations about the plan and what it does.

“Everyone should realize that while lengthy, this bill is nothing more than a plan,” Mendelson said. “It guides. It directs. But it does not actually implement. So, of course much more must be done to disrupt the status quo of racial inequity. But the emphasis on housing production, and affordable housing, and the new priority of using a racial equity lens — that will make a difference.”

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