Residents with yellow stickers and white pins pack the hearing room. Image by the author.

Over an epic 13-plus-hour Comprehensive Plan hearing Tuesday night (and into Wednesday morning), a great many of the 274 people who had signed up to testify before the DC Council — on all sides of the issues — spoke about the need for building homes, including affordable ones, and protecting residents against displacement. But the hearing also laid bare a fundamental disagreement: What's more important: Creating needed housing or “protecting neighborhood character?”

Members of the Greater Greater Washington community talked about the importance of housing for people of all incomes. And so did anti-development activists like members of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and activists who've been fighting development of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, the 25-acre vacant and decommissioned water plant on North Capitol Street.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman (at-large) pointed to the pro-housing advocates, who were sporting yellow “Support Housing: Market Rate and Affordable” stickers, and opponents, who were wearing red and white “Stop the Comprehensive Scam” buttons. She noted that both groups were saying many of the same things.

Both types of flair were at the witness table for the third panel, which included Barbara Kahlow of the West End Citizens Association; Sara Green, a Takoma neighborhood activist and opponent of proposed development at the Metro station; GGWash Housing Program Organizer David Whitehead; and me. Silverman asked, “Where do you disagree in the Comprehensive Plan about where we should approach affordable housing?”

Green first listed affordable housing for people making 30-50 percent of AMI and family-sized housing, which are actually not areas the two groups disagree — they're two of our ten priorities. She went on,

I absolutely want to see a rethink of this issue [proposed in the Office of Planning's amendments] that we can plop a lot more affordable housing in industrial zones.

But more to the point, I would like to see a real emphasis on stability. On maintaining the character of a community. I happen to live in a neighborhood that was extraordinarily stable, a historic district, and is under great pressure form inappropriate large-sized development.

Silverman challenged Green's premise. “You live near a Metro, you talked about people having equal access to good schools, I think you have Takoma Education Campus, Whittier, which are becoming higher performing schools. I imagine the argument of the yellow stickers is, why shouldn't we put more density and more housing in your neighborhood?”

Green replied, “You can, but what is being proposed is way out of proportion. It is way of out proportion to single-family homes that are across the street.”

This is the crux of it. Insufficient affordability wasn't the issue. Inclusiveness wasn't the issue. Size was (and the proposed Takoma building is not that big).

Would you support a big building with a lot of affordable housing?

Later, Robert White (at-large) put a finer point on the question (after joking that Green and Whitehead had excellent color-based names but shouldn't run for DC Council). He asked hypothetically, “If there's a plot of land in the District, in the neighborhood where you live, and we could build 1,000 units and 600 of them could be affordable — really affordable, would either of you oppose it?”

“No,” David Whitehead immediately replied.

Green was not so definitive. “It depends on what the surrounding neighborhood looks like,” she said. “There's a lot of space in the District of Columbia to put affordable housing that is within character of its neighborhoods.”

White pressed the issue. “Just for clarity: For the white stickers, neighborhood character is first priority and building of affordable housing is second priority?”

“The reality is that if our primary goal is [affordable housing] or if our primary goal is neighborhood character,” White continued, “or if those goals are equal, there would be times where they conflict. Do we want the Comprehensive Plan to work out where they conflict? Should we set a priority between affordable housing and neighborhood character?”

That is what our coalition is asking for, said Whitehead: to clarify affordable housing as the highest priority.

We aren't NIMBYs, we just don't want eight-unit apartment buildings next to single-family houses

Green disputed the notion that affordable housing has to conflict with neighborhood character:

I don't think there's a real choice. With all due respect, I think you're setting up a situation where people who want stable neighborhoods are really left looking like NIMBYs and we really aren't. I'll give the example in Takoma.

We have housing along the Metro station tracks … on Spring Place. It's actually 50-60 percent AMI. Our community had absolutely no objection whatsoever. It's almost 100 percent [affordable]. There is very little market rate. What we were concerned about was having that building look like it belonged, look like the character of the neighborhood. That's what our concern was.

Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1) followed up: “What is right-sized housing for a neighborhood like yours?”

Green said, “It means you don't want a 60- or 70-foot building close to or across the street from, or in some cases 30 or 40 feet from, something that's 30 or 40 feet tall. You don't want something that's twice as big. We just had a case on Willow Street where they're going to put an eight-unit apartment building and it will be five feet from the neighboring single family house.”

“Did you say eight units?” asked Nadeau. “Maybe my perspective is different, because in Ward 1 we have all kinds of housing next to one another and so to me, eight units next to a single-family house doesn't feel like such an imposition.”

Where does the affordable housing go?

I've talked to a number of activists who often oppose development. I think most genuinely want to see the city meet its housing needs and provide affordable housing, and it sounded like Green does too.

However, I think many have an underlying assumption that there's plenty of space to put all the housing we need in some undefined location. But where is it?

Green is opposed to an OP proposal in this Comp Plan to encourage more in industrial zones. Many of the same people who testified were opposed to allowing accessory apartments in the basements and garages of single-family houses in the 2009-2016 zoning update.

Empty sand-based water filtration plants could be an option, but a lawsuit has stopped that.

Nadeau asked, “I got a chance to glance at your written testimony and you said aloud too that we shouldn't put affordable housing in industrial zones, but it should be near good schools, etc. But you also have concerns about changes to low density areas. I'm just concerned, where are you going to build the affordable housing?”

In response, Kahlow criticized the fact that Inclusionary Zoning does not apply downtown. My understanding is this is because part of the IZ “deal” is to add density in exchange for affordable housing requirements, but there was no density to add downtown. Would Kahlow, Green, and others support increasing the federal height limit?

“It's easy to say we need more housing but not in these places,” said Nadeau, “But if we really look at it, there really isn't anywhere that shouldn't be getting it.”

“Neighborhood character” isn't what the social justice groups are worried about

In the hearing room, I was sitting next to a young woman wearing one of the white “Stop the Comprehensive Scam” pins. She asked me, “When Elissa Silverman talked about the white stickers, she doesn't mean this, does she?” pointing to her pin.

She does, I explained.

“But 'neighborhood stability' isn't what Empower has been talking about.” She was a volunteer motivated to turn out by messages from Empower DC, a group advocating for needs of the lowest-income DC residents.

I'm a little confused too, I told her. Because while I don't agree with some of the methods, I understand Empower and other groups are trying to advocate for the needs of the lowest income residents in the way they think best. Preserving “neighborhood character” is not what I hear from them.

When I hear “neighborhood character,” I hear exclusion and segregation. “Neighborhood character” has been the rallying cry for keeping black and brown people out of neighborhoods just as it has been for buildings.

Both the Committee of 100 folks and the Empower folks talk about wanting community input in decisions. However, community power is very different when you're talking about a community whose wishes have been run roughshod over for years and who have little voice in their future, versus an affluent community well-armed to keep lower-income residents out through zoning advocacy, historic preservation, and lawsuits.

That's part of the reason why, according to this map from the DC Auditor, there is only one building of affordable housing being created or preserved with Housing Production Trust Fund money west of Rock Creek Park and only one other (I think the West End Fire Station, which was delayed by a lawsuit also) west of 16th Street in the L'Enfant city.

This is what "neighborhood character" looks like. Image by Office of the DC Auditor.

Let's make a plan

One reason we keep having this debate is that the Office of Planning has not really elaborated on the issue. Groups like Empower and Greater Greater Washington agree that just allowing more market-rate housing will not solve the affordable housing problem, and the city lacks a good plan to solve it.

In the absence of that, should we allow development which won't solve the problem on its own, or block it? I believe shutting down growth will make it even worse, like what's happening in San Francisco. But we really need a plan.

Where will the 300,000 more people expected to come to DC go? Where will affordable housing go and how can it be created? What about for people in the lowest income brackets of under 30 percent AMI and 30-50 percent AMI? Can we draw a picture of a DC with everybody in it? What does that picture look like?

At the hearing, we argued this point. That resonated with Chairman Phil Mendelson, who referred to our point when questioning planning director Eric Shaw.

Greater Greater Washington offered a criticism that housing is our greatest need and the plan doesn't specify how we're going to get more specificity. I think that's a fair argument, that the plan should show the path for the city getting more units, more affordable units, to meet the demand. … The Comprehensive Plan should show the plan for getting more housing.

Shaw said, in essence, that OP will address this in the forthcoming Housing Element of the Comp Plan, which along with all of the other chapters will be released at some still-indeterminate date in the future.

We've asked that OP lay the groundwork in the Framework. The Framework sets the context for the city's growth; it should clearly describe the loss of affordable housing and the need for the future, for both affordable and market-rate housing, along with a commitment to meet that need in later chapters.

We look forward to working with OP and the council to help get to such a plan.

Correction: The initial version of this post said Kahlow was opposed to accessory apartments in the zoning update. Kahlow says she was not. The mention of her position has been removed.