We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about housing with candidates for DC Council at-large. See all of the discussions here.

Left to right: John Settles, Nate Bennett-Fleming, Pedro Rubio. Images from the candidate websites.

Many informed, engaged DC voters are still unfamiliar with many of the candidates running for DC Council at-large. It’s a citywide race which affects everyone, but isn’t as high-profile as the mayor’s race nor as local as a ward race. Let’s get to know the at-large candidates.

I asked candidates John Settles, Nate Bennett-Fleming, and Pedro Rubio where, and how, DC could build the 41,000-105,000 housing units that projections show we need over 20 years, and meet the needs of residents of all income levels who are having trouble affording places to live that meet their needs.

John Settles

Settles’ background is in housing, so it’s no surprise that he can talk very knowledgeably about our housing issues. He emphasized the importance of planning ahead, and wants to see the city think about housing affordability for a wide range of people, from our lowest-income residents to the middle class that also feels

We really have a crisis in planning at the city level.  I think we are very reactive vs. proactive.  We wait until problems become a crisis and then we try to throw money or put band aids on them rather than dealing with holistic solutions. For instance ... if you look right now, the city just had to pay $25 million to buy land for a park in NoMA because the planning wasn’t done and we didn’t think about the need for a park and green space.  And when we started planning NoMA 12-15 years ago that same plot of land was probably $250,000.  So we’ve now wasted 24 million because of lack of planning.

It’s the same with housing affordability. We didn’t do a good job of land banking. During the downturn properties were very cheap. The city could have been acquiring properties, and those properties could then have been put back on the market for purchase across the spectrum.

One thing I want to highlight: I say “housing affordability”; most people hear “affordable housing.” The reason I’ve changed the definition is by federal standards affordable housing means 80% of Area Median Income or below.  But now we have a middle class housing crisis.  We have middle class families that can’t afford to live in the city.  We have young professionals who are paying $1,500 to rent a bedroom with 3 or 4 other individuals. 

None of these are sustainable. And what it means is, if we don’t quickly address this problem we’re going to lose people to the suburbs.  And just like we’re now seeing surpluses because of increases in the population, we could fall back with decreases in population and not have money to invest in important areas. ...

We have to provide incentives to bring what I call the four S’s.  To create a livable, walkable neighborhood you have to have Safety (people need to feel safe); you have to have Schools, Services and Shopping. Because if there is nothing to walk to it’s really not a livable, walkable neighborhood.  But if we can provide incentives to bring those services that will also help to meet the demand.

Nate Bennett-Fleming

Bennett-Fleming would like to see a lot of it go to less developed neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. To the question of whether and how we should build 41,000 units, he said, “I think we have to aim for that mark. It sounds a bit ambitious, but ... I believe low aim, not failure, is the true sin.”

Where would we put this? We have to focus on the less dense areas of our city, particularly the areas where I live east of the river. I was born east of the river,  and I think this is a place where we could focus on a lot of growth in our less dense areas. Part of the problem we have in DC is we have an artificial cap on our supply demand which is one of the reasons behind the high cost for rent.

What artificial caps, I asked? Bennett-Flaming cited the height limit, but also transitioned to talking about jobs before coming back to the zoning rewrite.

The housing is so market-driven so it’s so difficult for the government to completely change the problem, but there are a lot of things we can do with our zoning rewrite to make sure our zoning rewrite is optimal for the level of housing that we have to bring into the city in the coming years to meet the demand, so I’m looking forward to not only participating in the zoning rewrite but also reading the zoning rewrite to make sure it’s optimal for the aforementioned.

However, he also is nervous about adding too much growth in existing built-up areas. He said,

In Ward 1, a lot of people are worried about building houses on top of houses. I think that’s a good idea in general, but we have to have some limits so that it doesn’t go too far. So maybe you can only do that for 1 level of your house or we cap it at 2 levels, to make sure we do maintain the qualities of our neighborhoods, that neighborhoods that are already dense do not ... I think we need to focus on the less dense areas of the city that are the low hanging fruit before we start building houses on top of houses.

Put people in east of the river neighborhoods also are concerned about a lot of development. Wouldn’t there be opposition to building in the “less dense areas” of the city? Bennett-Fleming said that his background east of the river and citywide will help him work with people to find solutions. He then pivoted to talk about including arts and encouraging entrepreneurship.

Pedro Rubio

Rubio cited the DC Zoning Update, which he supports, as the best opportunity to add new housing and accommodate more residents. As a Latino, he talked a lot in this segment and other parts of our interview about how to improve conditions for Latinos and immigrant groups, groups which often get lost in the political discourse in a city that’s about half-black and half-white.

I love the fact that people want to live in DC. As a native I’ve always been prideful of DC. ... I try to force people to stay here; I say, “Stay here! Build a family!” ... Yes, DC is growing at a faster rate. The one thing we lack is affordable housing…

The new revisions for the zoning laws offers that possibility, like with ADUs, making housing more affordable for individuals. It helps young parents who are trying to get started and save up for housing. It helps young professionals who are just moving into the city. It helps the working class. It helps Latinos and immigrants.

In the last decade, DC has grown. It’s been amazing. Latinos have doubled in size. Asians have grown. Ethiopians have grown. ... A lot of immigrants, when they come to DC, they take low skilled jobs. They work in restaurants. they work in construction. And they manage to live in a city that doesn’t really offer affordable units. Having the revisions to the zoning will benefit them a lot more and will benefit a lot of people.

You can get a good idea of the candidates’ views from the quotes above, but the fact is that another big difference among these candidates is simply in the way each chooses to talk about issues, their personality and style. It’s worth watching at least the first few minutes, if not more, of these interviews to get a personal sense for all three.

What do you think of the at-large candidates and their views on housing?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.