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 second of 2 posts on discussions about housing with candidates for mayor. See all of the interviews here.
Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.
Mayor Gray has pledged to spend $100 million a year on affordable housing, and recently also agreed to devote half the city’s surplus to affordable housing once the rainy day fund gets paid down. What does that money get for DC residents, and is it enough?
Gray touted 47 affordable housing projects that are underway, all across the city, which he said can “buy down” the cost of housing, particularly rental housing. Will those 47 projects make a real dent in our housing problem? He said,
I think it’s a significant dent in the housing need in the city, but I think hopefully we’ll set a tone in terms of the culture, to say that we’ve got to have economically diverse housing in the city. The commitment in the housing plan I put together is that we would either create or preserve 10,000 units by 2020.
We already have reached the point where over 2,000 units have been created or are under construction, and the pace is picking up. 10,000 is not going to solve the problem. It is a huge down payment, a huge investment.
I think, too, as opportunities become available in the city with additional resources, I want to continue to invest in housing.
Tommy Wells argued that the government has not made it enough of a priority, especially in public land deals from the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.
We have large tracts of land, from the McMillan Reservoir to Walter Reed to Reservation 13 to Poplar Point. If we start with the idea that our city needs affordable housing, then instead of looking at which developer can make money on this and then add on affordable housing — affordable housing on those tracts and those developments have been the secondary priority.
Wells specifically mentioned that DC has not built independent living facilities for seniors. He also suggested DC find more “creative” ways to use buildings, like the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library downtown.
We have real estate on top of MLK Library. The Mies [van der Rohe] bldg was built for 5 stories. The structure is there. That is one of the most desirable places to live in the country. It’s also one of the most expensive. If we thought of that as being the possibility of affordable housing for seniors, the place where — I can’t think of a better place to live as a senior. You’re on top of a library, you have services, medical services, the Y nearby…
He also accused the government of not being “smart” enough with its investments to ensure there is affordable housing in areas that will soon become more desirable. “We need to be land banking today on every route we’re planning for the streetcar,” he said. “We know the land value is going to go up. We need to be land banking along the streetcar lines so that we don’t come back and say, ‘Oh gosh, now this is so expensive, we need more cash out of the Housing Production Trust Fund in order to have less housing than we would have had if we had been smart to begin with.”
Both Wells and Bowser talked about the problems of preserving affordable housing as well as creating more, and said that even DC’s current investment will only do so much. Bowser said,
$100 million will get us little. If we do it for 10 years we’ll get 10,000 new units. Our waiting list for public housing closed at 70,000 people. That already demonstrates a gap. We could spend a billion dollars and still have 10,000 people who are still in need of an affordable unit. An affordable housing strategy can’t just be about creating units. It has to be about preserving and investing in the units we have.
Bowser also pointed the finger at the Gray administration, which she said has slowed development projects on public land to a “trickle.”
When I first got on the council, we were approving city-initiated projects every month. Now it’s a trickle of projects that come out of the Deputy Mayor’s office. It’s a trickle coming out of DHCD. And there’s just not enough urgency around the creation of [affordable housing] units, and we need to get more.
More than that, we see projects getting canceled and rolled back. I can’t tell you the concern over the Deputy Mayor’s office canceling the Park Morton project, or Lincoln Heights. So I can tell you there’s interest in developing housing in DC.
Do we have to incentivize it in some parts of the city, yes. Do we have to have some government involvement, absolutely. But I haven’t seen at this point anybody saying that I don’t want to build anything in DC.
Jack Evans claimed credit for the Housing Production Trust Fund existing in the first place. “Everyone you talk to is going to take credit for that, but the bottom line is, it was a piece of legislation that had been in existence that Mayor Williams, myself, and Councilmember Fenty decided to put in place and fund.”
Evans also talked about his efforts to extend rent control, and to provide tax breaks for homeowners.
I championed the tax cap that started out at 25%, went down to 10%, and I’m looking to see if we can even lower it further so that people in the city, all across the city, who own homes won’t find themselves in the situation where their property taxes are driving them out. And on the senior level, again I have a bill that moved out of my committee, that if you’re a senior citizen and you earn less than 60,000, are 75 years old and lived in your house for 15 years, you don’t have to pay property taxes at all. ...
Last night I was over at Thomas house, a senior building, and many of the residents there were talking to me about how they have homes and how helpful this will to be for them to stay in their home instead of going into a retirement home.
Evans mentioned that residents of east of the river neighborhoods say they don’t want all the affordable housing over there, but spread throughout the city. He said he wants to put that housing everywhere. When I asked how some would go in Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, he said it should happen when there is new construction involving public land, but didn’t specify further where that public land might be.
Bowser also brought up this concern from east of the river. She cited Inclusionary Zoning as a way to get affordable housing elsewhere, and seemed confident that initial “kinks” could be worked out.
Andy Shallal would go further and increase the amount of housing DC requires under inclusionary zoning. IZ “asks something from developers that receive so much. We need to ask for much more, much higher percentages.” Similarly for public property, he said, “We have to be mindful of how we use that public property, and not just give it away willy nilly, to make this city a pawnshop for developers.”
Watch the complete housing discussions with the candidates: