Community

Comprehensive Plan Discussion Centers on Affordable Family Housing

A collaborative research project by the Bowser administration, a local nonprofit and well-known think tank has confirmed the concerns of displaced D.C. families and sheds light on the struggles of those seeking affordable housing within the confines of an increasingly expensive city.

The report, “An Assessment of the Need for Large Units in the District of Columbia,” shows that District-based family housing — defined as apartments and houses with three or more bedrooms — has been unevenly distributed across the city.

Within the past few years, most of those dwellings have been concentrated in the expensive, westernmost parts of the city, while low-income families searching for spacious, affordable units have been confined to the east.

The findings, indicative of what the Obama administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development called a violation of the Fair Housing Act, caused Councilman Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) to sound an alarm amid the finalization of the District Comprehensive Plan.

“The current economic climate in the District is not producing enough family-sized affordable housing units,” McDuffie, chair of the D.C. Council Committee on Business and Economic Development, said on June 25, shortly after the release of the study, conducted by the Urban Institute, Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

“As the council is in the midst of its work to update the District’s Comprehensive Plan, we must use this study and other data as tools to address the lack of all sizes of affordable housing, including family-sized units, and to promote racial equity, social justice, and economic inclusion for all residents of the District,” the council member added.

Since the conclusion of the 2020 budget debate, the council and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s attention has pivoted toward the urban planning document. In her recent appeal to the council to finalize the D.C Comprehensive Plan, Bowser revealed her desire for 36,000 new housing units by 2025, a third of which would be designated as affordable.

The D.C. Comprehensive Plan, introduced in 2006 and amended in 2011, guides the growth and development of the District over a 20-year period in land use, economic development, housing, environmental protections, and transportation, and other areas.

Two years ago, the Bowser administration collected more than 3,000 proposed amendments to the document. Last year, a D.C. Council hearing on the plan attracted more than 300 public witnesses. The D.C. Office of Planning, which executes the plan, also collected survey data in May.

Last month, Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) announced July 9 as a deadline to mark up the introduction of the D.C. Comprehensive Plan. The second and final vote on changes to the Comprehensive Plan, as a result, would most likely take place in the fall, upon the council’s return from summer recess.

Increasing property values, rent and taxes have been implicated as key causes of the removal of more than 135,000 families from more than 200 District neighborhoods since the turn of the century. The Office of Planning released a map that showed a dearth of affordable housing in the more affluent parts of the District, including Wards 2 and 3, through a combination of restrictive zoning, historic preservation rules, and lawsuits from neighbors.

D.C.-based zoning attorney Aristotle Theresa predicted a continuation of the status quo, even with the implementation of changes to the District Comprehensive Plan, because of what he described as the D.C. Zoning Commission’s prioritization of developers and highly educated newcomers.

“The Office of Planning has been writing a bunch of regulations that strip all protections we use and makes it easier for developers to do what they want to do,” said Theresa, the principal attorney of Stoop Law, based in Anacostia.

In 2017, Theresa issued a lawsuit against the Bowser, Gray and Fenty administrations in their alleged efforts to push longtime D.C. families out of the city through rapid construction of expensive single-bedroom dwellings, of greater use to single transplants.

Last year, the D.C. Housing Authority and D.C. government filed a motion to dismiss Theresa’s case.

“The rest of the country is going in the opposite direction,” Theresa said, adding that the Zoning Commission holds significant power in the distribution of affordable housing.

“In Minneapolis, Minnesota they’re requiring multi-family housing in single family neighborhoods. In New York they have proposed legislation to assess the racial impact of large scale development projects,” he said. “In D.C., they’re stripping protections from residents, going the opposite direction. Normally, if a law is written through the D.C. Council, people hear about it. But the Zoning Commission is accepting these new regulations that the Office of Planning is proposing using little-known-about procedures.”

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