Image by AgnosticPreachersKid licensed under Creative Commons.

The progressive group DC for Democracy (DC4D) wants to create more affordable housing. That’s great. But a recent recommendation from the group would actually have the effect of reducing it.

DC is currently revising its Comprehensive Plan, and many groups are weighing in. At its May meeting, DC4D passed a resolution with some recommendations for the Comp Plan. I agree with a lot of the policies and ideas DC4D endorses, but this resolution has one problematic part. The resolution says:

To assure that quality DC housing is affordable for every resident, DC for Democracy resolves that the organization should encourage the DC Office of Planning and DC Council to adopt the following policies into its Comprehensive Plan revisions currently pending:

1. include in the Comprehensive Plan language that makes clear that the Zoning Commission must follow the allowed density limits in the Comprehensive Plan when considering any Planned Unit Development;

2. approve Planned Unit Development (PUD) applications for redeveloping affordable properties only when developers preserve or replace the same number and size of any affordable units being redeveloped;

3. require developers to prepare and complete detailed tenant relocation plans, before the sale or lease of any units that have been taken out of the affordable housing market for redevelopment, with adherence to the relocation plans being a condition precedent to obtaining a Certificate of Occupancy from DCRA.

Preserve affordable housing and protect tenants? Yeah!

I also support finding ways to preserve and replace affordable housing during a redevelopment and having tenant relocation plans. So do a lot of groups. Greater Greater Washington has been working with a large coalition of groups, including tenants' groups, affordable housing advocates, developers, social justice groups, and others, on the Comp Plan. Many support similar goals to what DC4D lists here. (That coalition has not reviewed this blog post, which is just reflecting my opinion and not speaking for any other organizations.)

Among the ten principles in our coalition statement is this one:

Preserve existing affordable housing. When redevelopment occurs on properties with housing made affordable through subsidy, covenant, or rent control, the District, Zoning Commission, and neighborhoods should work with landowners to create redevelopment plans that preserve such units or replace any lost ones with similar units either on-site or nearby. These entities should provide the necessary density and/or potential funding to ensure it is financially feasible to reinvest in the property with no net loss of affordable units.

Without new housing, none of this is possible

Here's the thing. There's a lot of decrepit housing which is "affordable" because it's in bad shape. It would be great to get some capital to fix it up. But to get financing for such a project, a developer has to show that the project would offer a return on investment at least as good as real estate investments all over the country.

That’s possible if the redevelopment can include more homes on the same land, some of which could be rented or sold at higher rates. In other words, it requires some more density.

Right now, the law lets property owners redevelop properties without doing anything about renters who currently live in lower-cost homes on that site. One could change the law to limit or prohibit redevelopment, but then people will still just refurbish old housing into more expensive new housing and people would still be displaced.

The coalition supported adding new requirements to achieve similar aims to DC4D, but also "provid[ing] the necessary density and/or potential funding to ensure it is financially feasible to reinvest in the property with no net loss of affordable units."

Unfortunately, DC4D's first statement could make that impossible. Here it is again:

1. include in the Comprehensive Plan language that makes clear that the Zoning Commission must follow the allowed density limits in the Comprehensive Plan when considering any Planned Unit Development.

This statement is actually tautological - The Comprehensive Plan should say that you have to follow the Comprehensive Plan? Of course.

Image by David Whitehead.

A lot of people are misreading the Comprehensive Plan

But what DC4D actually seems to be talking about is the Comprehensive Plan’s maps.

In short, the plan contains two maps which describe the Comp Plan’s policies for land use; land is marked in various colors for things like moderate density residential, high density commercial, etc. In several recent cases, the DC Zoning Commission has approved a new building that’s larger than what’s usually allowed in that color-coded area.

The Zoning Commission has this power under DC law and the Comp Plan. DC zoning laws provide for a specific kind of development review, called a Planned Unit Development, which can exceed the regular zoning.

The Comp Plan even says this is okay in section 226(c), which is part of a list of rules about how to interpret the maps:

It should be noted that the granting of density bonuses (for example, through Planned Unit Developments) may result in heights that exceed the ranges cited here.

End of story. The Comp Plan makes it clear that PUDs can exceed what the maps say.

Unfortunately, a lot of people look at the maps and not the accompanying text. That might include judges at the DC Court of Appeals, which overturned an approval for a mixed-use development in Brookland on the grounds that it didn’t match the maps. (Legal scholars can debate if that’s exactly what they said in a dense legal opinion, but they didn’t mention 226(c) in the decisions.)

All we are proposing here is to ensure that 226(c) is followed: that PUDs can allow bigger buildings than what the map says, in exchange for community benefits, as they could before. In many past cases, the Zoning Commission allowed larger buildings through a PUD and the court upheld that decision (such as the Hine school on Capitol Hill).

Now, that standard seems to have been thrown out the window. That’s bad not just if you want to see more housing overall, but also if you (like DC4D) want to see more affordable housing and support for tenants. Because if PUDs don’t function anymore, people can still redevelop buildings with more costly apartments and condos, only then there won’t be very much affordable housing and no protection for existing tenants.

We’ve been attacked based on this misconception

The Committee of 100, a planning and historic preservation group in DC that generally opposes new buildings, has been attacking Greater Greater Washington and our efforts around the DC Comprehensive Plan. The group has written letters and more recently a white paper criticizing the work of the coalition.

It’s fine to disagree with our ideas and have a debate, but C100 is misrepresenting our work. We’d like to set the record straight, and created our own white paper explaining this issue in more detail.

But simply, we don’t want to “overturn” the Comp Plan; we want to make it function properly, so that we can get the goals that we, DC4D, and even many developers want to see for DC: more housing, more affordable housing, and protection against displacement.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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 here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.