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 is the first of 2 posts on discussions about housing with candidates for mayor. See all of the posts here.
Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.
“We’ve been a city of 800,000 before, and we’re going to be a city of 800,000 again,” said Muriel Bowser. “Keep in mind, the city’s population at one time was 800,000 people,” said Jack Evans. “The city used to have 800,000 people, but we have only 640,000 today,” said Andy Shallal.
When talking about growth and development, multiple candidates for mayor brought up this number. In many cases, they were citing it as evidence that there must be plenty of room in the city to add 200,000 new people. How can there not — there used to be!
But the city looked very different in 1950. Families were much larger. A lot of row houses had become boarding houses during World War II. Homeowners lived in one room and rented the rest out to unrelated people. Americans got married younger and had children younger. In short, our existing houses that have one or two empty nesters or a young couple with one child today might have held 5 or even 8 people 60 years ago.
What would our candidates for mayor do about it? Mayor Gray talked about “air rights.” Evans and Bowser both pointed to less developed areas of the city; Evans highlighted Shaw, where we were speaking, as a corridor ripe for new housing and retail. He talked about his experience pushing for the Whole Foods, then Fresh Fields, to come into Logan Circle; during the first meeting, Fresh Fields representatives wouldn’t even step out of the car, while today that is “the largest-grossing Whole Foods in the chain on a per-square-foot basis.”
Bowser referred to her efforts building support for development at places like Walter Reed. She would like to see DC more proactively plan for the housing we need, through citywide and small area plans. She promised to make sure that the Comprehensive Plan, which is up for revision again soon, finds room in the city to grow back to 800,000. That’s important, because according to the Office of Planning, even building everything to the limits in the Comp Plan won’t be enough for our housing needs after 10-20 years.
Where exactly the housing might go, Bowser was less clear. She also proudly defended her efforts to remove a floor from a proposed building at the Takoma Metro, saying that there needs to be a participatory process to make sure residents are comfortable with a new development. But, I asked, doesn’t that mean that every project will get a little smaller, lose a floor, and so on, I asked? Will that prevent us from building enough housing in the aggregate?
She wasn’t concerned. “There are going to be some very smart people to make sure [the new residents] will have a place to live.” And later, “The thing I know where there is a lot of demand is that the units will be created. In markets where people are looking for housing, and it’s profitable for them to create housing, they will.”
Tommy Wells criticized most of the thinking on this issue as being very “linear” and “two-dimensional,” saying that as our needs change, many people will use space differently. More younger residents are willing to move into smaller spaces because instead of needing to own or rent all the space they’ll use, people are “using the collective of shared space that they all pay for together,” such as common rooms in buildings and public places like parks in the city.
Meanwhile, he said, offices are also using less space as fewer employees have their own offices, employees spend more time working at home, and people use common areas. Therefore, he said that people at one of the downtown business improvement districts think that some office space can become housing.
Andy Shallal is worried about the trend toward building smaller units. “I think those types of developments [are] overdone throughout the city,” he said. “They’re temporary housing, because when people get married, have a child, they can’t really live in those small spaces. I’m just worried about this rush to build these small units, cookie cutter units, is going to make the city less desirable for families that want to live in larger homes.”
Wells has an idea to deal with that:
I’ve been working with another architecture firm and a major developer to do what I call “flex buildings.” With a flex building you can build small apartments, but as your life changes you can aggregate, so if you have a small child or your life changes in another way, you can add above or below or to the side, instead of bldg a fixed infrastructure with 3-bedrooms, 2-bedrooms and 1-bedrooms. That’s an old way of thinking. The future of cities like ours is an adaptable way of thinking, not a linear use of space.
Another way to add flexibility is to let people rent out their basements or garages, as has been proposed in the DC Zoning Update. Shallal said, “I think we have to have some flexibility in those types of zoning laws. … These homes are empty nesters now with one or two people living in a 3-4 story townhouse. For those people who are becoming elderly, maybe they want to have a little income and stay in their home. … I think it’s a great way to keep people who have lived here a long time to be able to stay in the home they’ve lived in … rather than building another high-rise of apartments that are overpriced and end up requiring lots of parking.”
Bowser isn’t on board. She opposes the Accessory Dwelling Unit recommendation in the DC zoning update, though she tried to couch her opposition as minor and generally praised the zoning update. “I think that having our zoning codes not be reviewed in a comprehensive way for 50 years … I think that they spent a lot of time on a lot of different issues. I think at the end of the day I have only 4 areas I wanted them to … that’s pretty remarkable for a 5 yr process. I think they have looked at all of the concerns.”
What she didn’t say is that the “only 4 areas” of concern are essentially the major policy recommendations of the zoning update, such as accessory apartments, corner stores, and parking.
Bowser also reiterated her opposition to any changes in the height limit.
I think the Congress should focus on things that we’ve asked for, and we’ve asked for budget autonomy. I think Congress should focus on how we unhinge our city from the federal government’s budget. We’re not a federal agency, we’re a city. We collect our own taxes and we should be able to spend our own revenues. …
You’ve got to wonder why they are focusing on something that nobody in the city has said — even including the development community, the government, the councilmembers said — that we need or want and the things we do need and have asked for have been totally ignored. You’ve got to wonder about the motive, don’t you?
Mayor Gray, meanwhile, defended his administration’s efforts to change the federal Height Act.
What I think wasn’t entirely clear was that we weren’t proposing a particular change or a specific change in the height limits. What we were proposing was that the District have more control over setting the height limits, which would still give the people of the city a chance, through the Comprehensive Plan, through zoning, through legislation, a chance to be able to address, specifically, proposed height changes.
It was not that we would go out on Rhode Island Avenue and say we were going to have buildings that would be 37 fett tall. It was to say, just like we say with budget autonomy, shouldn’t we have greater control over our city, especially areas outside the L’Enfant city? So we’ve sort of stopped at this stage, and we’re working now to try to make sure people are clear about what it that we were proposing. But it wasn’t that Building X was not going to become 14 stories higher than what it was.
In fact, Gray became the most energetic and animated just after we’d turned off the cameras, when perhaps he was more relaxed. He told stories about how he’d contacted DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson when Mendelson introduced his resolution against the height limit. It’s a home rule issue, not about the heights, he’d tried to convince Mendelson, an argument which didn’t go anywhere to Gray’s evident frustration.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at what the candidates said about public land and subsidized housing. Meanwhile, you can watch the entire exchange on housing with each candidate.