Image by Matt Mechtley licensed under Creative Commons.

The DC Comprehensive Plan, a planning document that affects development decisions today and during next few decades, doesn’t do enough to encourage and direct growth in an inclusive way. We have worked with a diverse group of organizations to draft a set of amendments that we think make the Comp Plan a stronger, better guide for the city’s growth.

In short, we want more homes to meet the housing demand, more affordable homes, and protections against displacement.

We’ve spent over nine months analyzing parts of the Comp Plan and getting input from broad mix of stakeholders, including for- and non-profit developers, affordable housing and tenant advocates, faith-based and community based groups, and policy organizations. In January, we released a statement of principles all of these groups contributed to, and since then we’ve been developing a package of amendments that we think address these 10 principles. You can read the full package here, which we just submitted to the Office of Planning.

What is the Comprehensive Plan, and why should I care?

The Comprehensive Plan lays out policy goals and statements on everything from housing and arts to culture and sewage. Inside each chapter are guidelines, goals, and recommendations that spell out a vision for what DC is supposed to look like in the coming decades. The first Comprehensive Plan was adopted back in 1985. In 2006, DC re-wrote the plan, and now the Office of Planning is undergoing a public process to amend the document.

The plan is not zoning nor prescriptive, but is supposed to guide everyday decisions and policy for the city as it grows. It is full of fairly general priorities and policies (that are sometimes contradictory) and it’s the job of District agencies to interpret and implement those goals.

No other agency uses the Comp Plan as much as the Zoning Commission. It interprets the policies and maps in the Comp Plan and executes those decisions in zoning cases.

A good Comp Plan can guide a changing city’s growth in positive ways. A bad Comp Plan can misdirect or mismanage growth, or try to freeze the city in amber and hamper agencies or laws that could address our region’s growth.

The Comp Plan’s vision is a good one, but we think it falls short of achieving that vision

The first chapter of the Comp Plan starts off with an inspiring statement:

“Growing inclusively means that individuals and families are not confined to particular economic and geographic boundaries but are able to make important choices—choices about where they live, how and where they earn a living, how they get around the city, and where their children go to school. Growing inclusively also means that every resident can make these choices—regardless of whether they have lived here for generations or moved here last week, and regardless of their race, income, or age.” — A Vision for Growing An Inclusive City, 2004, from the Introduction of the Comprehensive Plan

This would be great, if only the Comp Plan would follow through on this promise in all of it’s 600 pages! Unfortunately, we find that too much of the Comp Plan doesn’t support this vision.

Image by Mr.TinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

The Comp Plan needs to take both growth and inclusivity seriously

The District is growing, housing is more expensive, and the city can do more. Inclusive growth, taken seriously, is going to demand change from our old systems and patterns. Inclusive growth demands a bolder Comprehensive Plan, not one that defends the status quo.

In the amendments the working group has proposed, we’ve combined two pillars of addressing DC’s housing needs – increasing supply, especially where it is currently difficult/impossible to increase, and preservation, especially for the most vulnerable housing types.

To start, the Comp Plan needs to responsibly plan for the demand to live here that will continue to burgeon. In a city with limited land, this means using our land in a way that preserves the special qualities of our city while including people of all incomes who want to come and who want to stay. The changes proposed aim to make the Comp Plan live up to its goals of planning for the growth the District needs and correct exclusionary elements that help some neighborhoods push all change onto other communities.

Inclusive growth also demands that we preserve and create homes for individuals and families of all incomes, including those of very low incomes, the “missing middle,” and more; this is perhaps the greatest housing and land-use challenge of our time. The market on its own under current zoning strictures will not meet the needs of all households, particularly low-income households, and the Comp Plan needs to enable both private and public resources to meet those needs.

The Comp Plan has also been too weak in its protections of vulnerable populations in the District, and as more and more growth and redevelopment occurs in the city our land-use agencies and policies need to protect the rights of current residents who want to continue to live here, no matter their income. Inclusive growth means taking seriously the call to preserve the existing affordable homes in the District, something which the Comp Plan has not done effectively in the last 10 years. We hope the changes we’ve proposed rectify this: reprioritizing the creation and preservation of affordable housing, and strengthening protections of lower-income tenants.

What’s next

The Office of Planning will spend the summer reviewing our amendments along with thousands of others submitted by individuals and groups across the city. In the fall, it plans to release its official amendments to the Comp Plan, and in early 2018 the DC Council will begin to review the changes and vote on a final version.

There has been a groundswell of advocacy and organizing around the Comp Plan this year, and we hope that energy continues to push for a better, stronger document. DC will continue to grow, and we need clearer and bolder guidelines for that growth in order to meet the demand, and allow people of many incomes the chance to stay here and thrive.

Help out by tweeting this package to the Office of Planning, and if you're a representative of an organization send a letter of support for the amendment package!

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.