The District of Columbia is about to start an ambitious project to renovate the Martin Luther King Jr. Library downtown. Affordable housing, primarily for seniors, should be a primary element of that vision.


Concept rendering of the library. Image from DC Public Libraries.




One key feature of the MLK Library renovation plan is that it will add up to three floors to the building, a historic landmark designed by Mies van der Rohe that is the downtown mainstay of the DC Public Library system. This provides a rare opportunity to consider how we can best use a public asset to benefit the downtown community and the District as a whole.

DC is confronting an affordable housing crisis that not only threatens the quality of life and stability of the people facing skyrocketing housing costs and diminished supply, but also undermines the diversity of our community. When seniors are priced out of the city, we lose the very people who created the fabric of our communities across generations. Protecting elder citizens’ ability to remain in the District is an essential public value.

All public projects involving DC government-owned real estate should make new affordable housing a priority, but none more than the MLK Library. First, it is an ideal location for seniors to live. Residents there would have access to a hub of cultural activity below as well as a broad public transportation network in a vibrant downtown neighborhood. There is no affordable housing within ten blocks of the library site, and certainly no other opportunity for elder citizens on fixed incomes to live in that area.

Equally as important, the infusion of seniors into this community will bring their knowledge, experience, and the time — afforded by their retirement — to the activities and culture of the library itself and the entire neighborhood. These residents will be able to participate formally as docents, tutors, and volunteers in the library and nearby historic and cultural sites. Informally, they will contribute as community members who have chosen their homes for proximity to programs, events, and the everyday amenities we all want and need: goods, services and transportation.

The architecture team of Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson, which won the competition to renovate the library, has stressed the need to “celebrate MLK’s renowned Miesian architecture while embracing Washington, DC’s contemporary culture and changing needs.” Our seniors are central to our culture, and their housing is central to our changing needs.

By taking a creative and fresh look at the District’s assets, we can meet our commercial, financial, and cultural goals while also achieving the diversity that creates interesting, lively, and diverse communities. Real estate accounts for about one third of the cost of housing development. By leveraging the city’s unique real estate assets — like new floors atop the MLK Library — we can replenish some of the affordable housing we are rapidly losing amid high demand and rising costs.

The library’s renovation will cost up to $250 million, with the DC government contributing at least $100 million. We will never have a better chance to create affordable housing downtown at a cost our city can afford. Let’s make sure we seize this opportunity to continue building a vibrant city for our long-term residents who have given our community so much, and who have so much more to offer.