With DC Mayor Muriel Bowser facing no serious opposition, the most important and most competitive race in the District's June 19 primary is the contest for DC Council chairman between incumbent Phil Mendelson and challenger Ed Lazere.
Greater Greater Washington has previously written about their differing approaches to the District’s budget and fiscal health. We are trying to determine how each candidate would approach pressing issues in the District, so we sent a questionnaire to both asking about housing, transportation, economic issues and their approaches to running the DC Council.
From their questionnaire responses, neither candidate stood out as indisputably better than the other on issues important to urbanist voters. Both candidates have positions we appreciate and significant areas where we disagree. Sometimes we agree with both, and sometimes we disagree with both. In fact, on a significant number of issues, the two sounded similar, while there were also key differences.
We want to talk more with Mendelson and Lazere about these issues to determine if we can make an endorsement. But first, we are sharing with our readers what they had to say. You can read the full responses here from Mendelson and Lazere.
Similar: On the Comprehensive Plan
Affordable housing – or the lack thereof – is one of the most critical issues facing DC. The candidates seemed to agree on that point and promised to ensure a priority for affordable housing in revisions the Comprehensive Plan.
Neither has been totally clear about whether they also support the revisions proposed by the Office of Planning to fix the Planned Unit Development process. Greater Greater Washington has advocated for passing those changes but also making amendments to add more affordable housing and protect against displacement.
Yes, I support policies in the new Comp Plan to add housing and to create and preserve much more affordable housing. Moreover, I'll write them into the legislation. The creation of housing is a priority, necessary to meet the population growth estimated to occur, and must be added in all parts of the city. The creation of affordable housing is equally important; studies repeatedly show that tens of thousands of units are necessary if we are to overcome gentrification and maintain economic diversity.
At a recent Ward 3 forum, Mendelson seemed opposed to the PUD changes:
Lazere, meanwhile, wrote in his questionnaire, "I ... want to make sure the Comp Plan update will support equitable development, in particular by placing a top priority on preserving and building affordable housing and preventing displacement. Unfortunately, the proposed Comp Plan does not provide appropriate emphasis on affordable housing, which is shocking and unacceptable."
He spoke about the importance of emphasizing housing for people making below 60% of Area Median Income and ensuring tenants in redevelopments are able to return to equivalent units to their lost homes. And, he said, "The Comp Plan also should support increased development near transit, to help accommodate DC's growing population and housing demand."
Lazere also addressed some of the community opposition that has arisen to Comp Plan changes:
I recognize that there is substantial community concern that proposed changes to the Comp Plan would limit community input on PUD's and in particular would limit review of Zoning Commission decisions. As Chair, I would not move forward with Comp Plan changes until those issues are addressed, in a way that addresses community concerns and creates clear rules for development.
We'd like to better understand what "a way that addresses community concerns" would be when for many of the opponents, simply building larger buildings is the concern (while it's different for others).
Different: On historic preservation
The candidates showed more of a difference on historic preservation. Nearly 20 percent of all property in DC is designated historic, more than Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined.
We questioned the candidates on whether they think DC's historic preservation process is striking the right balance or needs changes to preserve our history without excluding potential residents from historically-designated neighborhoods.
Mendelson wrote:"I'm sorry, but I do not believe historic preservation is an impediment to housing development. Indeed, we have seen quite a bit of new housing built in historic districts." He also said historic preservation promotes "stability" in neighborhoods. "Neighborhood stability" and “neighborhood character” are sometimes invoked to oppose the new and affordable housing that’s needed as DC continues to grow.
Lazere sees a connection between historic preservation and lack of affordability. He wrote: “Restricting the housing stock for any reason, including historic preservation, places upward pressure on prices and contributes to the spread of gentrification.” He suggested that “a review of our historic designation process makes sense.”
Similar: On transit (for some, against some)
Both candidates support DC joining with Maryland and Virginia to jointly provide $500 million in dedicated annual funding for Metro. Maryland and Virginia have passed legislation for dedicated Metro funding. In the District, the mayor’s budget request includes DC’s share of the money and the DC Council is fully behind dedicated funding for Metro.
Mendelson is no fan of the DC Streetcar, but neither is Lazere. Mendelson was the architect of major cuts to the streetcar budget last year that halted streetcar expansion. Under last year’s budget, there would be no money for streetcar expansion until 2023. Four years ago, Mendelson made even larger cuts to the streetcar, slashing hundreds of millions of dollars and undoing plans for multiple streetcar lines across DC.
Answering our questionnaire this year, Mendelson said he supports expanding the streetcar to east to Benning Road, but not west to Georgetown, because the streetcar “is too expensive, too unpopular, and has yet to demonstrate that it is the most efficient way to move commuters cross town.” The reason the streetcar has not been able to prove it can move people across town, however, is because Mendelson’s budgets have reduced the streetcar to a two-mile rump line along H Street NE.
Lazere supported Mendelson’s 2014 streetcar budget cuts. He wrote in the questionnaire that (like Mendelson) he supports extending the streetcar east to Benning Road and he would support the streetcar going west to Georgetown only after WMATA sees a funding increase. Even after the regional agreement on $500 million in annual Metro funding, a spokesperson for Lazere said the candidate would still put westward streetcar expansion on hold.
Different: On bike and bus lanes
We asked the candidates whether they would support expanding bike and bus-only lanes, even if it meant taking away on-street parking.
Mendelson said, "Yes, I support dedicated bus lanes and protected bike lanes. And I would support them in some locations even if that required removing on-street parking in some cases." He'd want to see an increase in bus service to go along with any new lane to ensure the lane is well-used.
Lazere said he supports lanes like on 16th Street and H Street, but seems to put more priority on parking and avoiding taking action unless all neighbors are on board. He wrote:
Expanding bus or bike lanes should be done in a way that minimizes antagonism and problems for people who choose to drive or have little choice but to drive. This includes former DC residents connected to DC churches, many of whom left DC because of issues like affordable housing or schools. Whenever possible, the District should work with affected communities to ensure that dedicated bike or bus lanes do not greatly restrict access to on-street parking in that community.
Different: On subsidies for development
Last year, the DC Council approved an $82 million taxpayer subsidy for infrastructure improvements at Union Market that included $36 million for 600 underground parking spots. Mendelson defended using tax increment financing (TIF) to subsidize the 600 parking spaces, even as he acknowledged "development at Union Market likely would occur without a TIF." Nonetheless, he supported it, he said, because without the boost from taxpayers, "it would not be as quick."
Lazere disagrees, writing that "the subsidy will go to an area that is gentrifying and does not need public subsidies." He also said he would favor "investments that would support other ways to get to Union Market other than by car." And he wants stronger requirements to hire DC residents and unionized labor for the project.
Similar and different: On income inequality
We asked candidates about their ideas to reduce income inequality. Mendelson wrote that "education is the best and most obvious strategy to reduce income inequality" and noted his efforts to increase funding for primary and secondary schools, the University of the District of Columbia and DC's community college.
Lazere said he wants to tackle income inequality by "eliminating the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers," "scheduling requirements for restaurants and retail stores to help part-time workers plan their lives," and "more strategic and rigorous enforcement of DC's labor laws."
Different: On the budget process
The last topic on our questionnaire asked about management of the DC Council. We noted that Mendelson has made significant changes to the budget the night before the Council votes on it, limiting public participation.
Mendelson defended his budget practices, saying they're an improvement from those of his predecessors. He cited former council chairman Vince Gray's 2010 budget, when streetcar funding was whittled down to $5 million — literally overnight, in the wee hours of the morning on the day of the budget vote — only to have $47 million restored that afternoon.
Lazere promised that if elected, he'd release his final budget proposal at least two days before it is voted on.
How should you vote?
The Mendelson-Lazere contest is the marquee DC race of 2018. There are key differences in vision and leadership style between the two candidates, but also many similarities. Which do you think would be a better leader for the District of Columbia?