Image by Sophat Soeung used with permission.

Last Tuesday the DC Council held a hearing on the Comprehensive Plan, and it was pretty epic. More than 275 people signed up to testify and the hearing lasted well into the morning of the next day. What was also epic was the fact that over 50 urbanists from across the city showed up to testify, many staying late into the night.

Perhaps even more encouraging was the fact that more than half of these folks had never testified in front of the DC Council before! Here are some of the highlights from a few of those first-time-testifiers, voices we hear too little of in our council chambers.

Dirk Bokeloh lives on H Street in Ward 6, and waited it out until after midnight to share his story and hopes for his neighborhood:

H street has changed tremendously just over the past three years we’ve lived here, and I recognize that [my wife and I] are contributing to this change. We love our neighborhood, and much of what attracted us to this area (aside from proximity to Union Station) is the vibrancy and diversity of H street corridor and we want much of what makes it an exciting place to live to stay that way.

We have however also seen the benefits of increased density and development. Recently, we moved from one of the brand new apartment buildings to an older building. The building we moved in to has had to significantly reduce its rent to stay competitive which helped us save about 25 percent on rent compared to our previous unit.

This city has changed a lot in the almost decade I’ve lived here, but through all that change it has retained the character that drew me here in the first place. Our city will continue to grow and attract people who want to be a part of what makes this such a dynamic and exciting place to live, work, and play. We cannot and should not stop them from coming, we need to plan for and prepare for this influx and do the utmost to ensure that the people who made this city great can stay here, and that we have the capacity to welcome those who want to contribute by building more housing, affordable housing, and find creative ways to prevent displacing all who already reside here.

Bob Ward waited a few hours longer to ensure that urbanist voices were heard even from places like Cleveland Park:

Neighborhoods like mine in the Rock Creek West area have enjoyed aggressive protection from growth over the past 30 years through zoning, preservation, through aggressive and well financed activism. As a result, this part of the city, which is highly desired by new residents, has seen spiraling home prices, a thinning of diversity, and very little growth.

...I also ask for your support for the proposed changes in Sections 205.5-9, which identify that displacement results when housing supply does not keep up with demand. And nowhere is that more true than in Rock Creek West. Over the 10-year period from 2006 to 2015, Rock Creek West contributed just 3 percent in the increase of DC’s housing supply and a paltry 0.6 percent in the affordable housing supply. DC has grown, and will continue to grow. When new housing is blocked in places where people want to live, like in Ward 3, home buyers and renters will look elsewhere, and they have. We should acknowledge that the walls of privilege around places like Cleveland Park contribute to displacement elsewhere in the city. We need policies the encourage equitable growth.

A growing city that protects wealthy enclaves and forces growth to other parts of the city is inequitable. We will have opportunities – I hope – to debate specific policies and map amendments in the months ahead. But these changes that I’ve cited are good start and, at least for me, send a signal that code words like stability, conservation, neighborhood character, when used in defense of the privileged, should be scrutinized that they are not just smokescreens for inequity.

Susan Kimmel, resident of Tenleytown in Ward 3, also appealed that every part of the District, including her part of town, take on the challenge of a growing city:

Is DC going to remain a truly inclusive city or are we going to price out all but the wealthiest of residents? Are we going to see the problems now faced by San Francisco where constraints on the supply of housing have inflicted tremendous stress on the entire Bay Area? Can we learn a lesson from their painful experience?

[O]ne analyst in San Francisco, Gabriel Metcalf, the CEO of SPUR, an urban planning and policy think- tank, ...does not attribute the runaway cost of housing [there] to any evil intent, but believes that there is a tragic fatal flaw in the progressive politics, which tried to “protect their city from unwanted change. It just happened to backfire.” As it stands now, DC is headed down the same path as San Francisco. We have the opportunity to reverse the direction in our Comp Plan revision.

Gordon Chaffin started his story with the memorable line: “I’m Gordon Chaffin, and I live in a shipping container.” He went on to explain that his building (made of shipping containers in Brookland in Ward 5) created an opportunity for him to live in the city, and that too often those more affordable opportunities aren’t built in DC.

When I moved into my building, I met my neighbor Herman, a lifelong Washingtonian. He shared with me how much DC has changed since he moved in. He bemoaned the destruction of the single-family home that once stood on my building’s lot. “But,” he mentioned, “more and more of you young people are moving here, and we need space. If you’re willing to live in a shipping crate, then I’m glad we put up something you could afford.”

Herman’s right: things in our neighborhood are changing. It’s necessary. Necessary because all the data say cities thrive with mixed-use, transit-oriented, dense development. We need new construction for rental and purchase, for students and seniors, at Class A, middle class, and low-income price points. We need permission for tiny homes and alternative dwelling units. We need project timelines that last two years tops – not five, with three in court. We need flexibility, not finite prescriptions.

Abby Lynch from Park View in Ward 1 too wants more affordable homes in the District:

This city is growing in population, and we are not adding housing at a rate commensurate with that growth. And because of that, we are also losing housing that people who live in Park View can afford. I cannot tell you how many times I have watched an apartment building in my neighborhood get cleaned out and flipped into rentals, or condos at prices that I, on my nonprofit salary, am not likely to buy or rent. We are also adding housing in Park View, as houses pop back and up, and create homes for three, or four, or six households in the space of what used to be one, and that’s great – I hope that we will see more opportunities to add market-rate housing into the entire city as we grow. But it’s not the only solution to this upward pressure on housing costs.

Which is why I am here – to ask that the framework element of the Comprehensive Plan more directly describe the need for affordable housing, and clarify the need for the Comp Plan to prioritize its creation and preservation.

Finally, Richard Day elicited some late night reactions from the remaining councilmembers with his memorable testimony:

I’m one of the 110,000 people that have been added to DC since the last comprehensive plan. I’m proud of my contributions to this city — including the non-profit I help lead. I hope to raise a family here someday.

But every year, this city gets less affordable and less equitable. It gets less affordable because we’re adding people faster than we’re adding homes. With more possible tenants to choose from, landlords have the power to raise rents. And as prices to buy a home skyrocket, renters and the less wealthy get locked out of the market.

I want to stress that there’s no other solution to this problem. Even if DC’s population didn’t grow at all, we don’t have enough housing for those of us here today. And we can’t stop people from wanting to come here. We can’t build a wall around the city and make Maryland pay for it.

But we can channel this growth. In Barney Circle there’s a multi-family building going in my backyard. And while nobody loves construction noise, it gives me hope. I might be able to afford a down payment on a condo, even if a row-house is out of reach. And each person who moves into that building is one fewer possible tenant for my row house — making it harder for my landlord to raise the rent again.

Of course, we don’t just need more housing — we need more equitable housing. More density in Barney Circle is great — we also need a lot more housing West of Rock Creek Park. Much of that needs to set aside for people making well under the area median income — because the people of this city should matter more than the character of a specific neighborhood.

The debate for the future of DC’s Comprehensive Plan is not yet over. The DC Council will make some changes to the current draft and re-submit it for a vote, possible in late May or early June. Sign the DC Housing Priorities statement to support a better Comp Plan and to stay updated on this campaign as it progresses. And join me in thanking all of those here and elsewhere who stepped up to testify at this important hearing!

Sign the Priorities Statement!