At a June hearing about a controversial development in DC’s Ivy City neighborhood, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie engaged in a series of meaningful exchanges with neighbors, and in the process made a clear case for why officials must keep pushing for new homes. It’s a hard argument to listen to if you’ve been asking for investment and support, not receiving it, and now you see investment meant for new folks and not yourself. But McDuffie makes important points about why current residents do need to care about housing for incoming residents.
The hearing was about the redevelopment plans for the Crummell School, a historic abandoned site in need of repair in a neighborhood in need of investment. As I wrote about previously, there were a number of nuanced tensions that arose at this hearing. However, one argument was something we hear often in similar hearings everywhere: why are you so focused on building for those people who are coming, and not supporting those who live here now?
McDuffie began the conversation like this (which starts at around 5:31:00 in the hearing video):
When you know that you’ve got a lot of people that are moving to this city that are looking for housing, I believe it's still around 800 a month, and they are going to need a place to live…
If there is nothing for the residents who are moving here, they’re going to come after the existing housing stock. It means that somebody’s going to come and want to buy Ms. Taylor’s house [a witness who had just testified], and if you don’t sell they’re going to go for your neighbor’s. And your neighbor perhaps will sell for a premium and make some money, which I think people have a right to do. It also means that it is going to put pressure on you all in the neighborhood, perhaps your property values go up and there are still issues there.
So how do we reach a happy medium: develop and create amenities for people who want to stay in the neighborhood and not leave… without pricing people out, without displacing people? How do we create an environment where people across income levels can live in communities as well? It’s a challenge.
Ms. Taylor, the witness on the stand, responded:
I appreciate what you are saying, but what of your initial responsibility to the people who elected you? We are the ones you are responsible to right now. I would love to have plans for the 800 people a month who are coming to DC, but we’re here and we’re the ones who are asking for something for the ones who are here.
This is an important and common tension in development debates, in particular in lower-income neighborhoods. For neighbors who have stuck it out through tougher times, when new development and investment finally arrives and it’s not priced nor intended for them, it can feel like a bait and switch.
Why shouldn’t elected leaders directly respond to the needs of their current constituents first, then worry about future ones?
McDuffie responded and rephrased his earlier remarks:
You are here today, but whether I want them to or not, people are going to move to the District. Why? Because they see opportunities… they love the beautiful diversity of the city. They’re coming whether or not I want them to, and the point I was trying to make is that they are going to offer to buy your home, and if you don’t sell they are going to offer to buy your neighbors home, and it impacts you. It impacts the people who are living here today.
So you can’t have a conversation about displacement and say “Don’t build these high end condos.” Perhaps we say no to all this stuff [the proposal before them includes 375 new homes, most market rate and 113 subsidized affordable homes]. It doesn’t mean those folks aren’t going to continue to come and need a place to live, and the price of housing is going to skyrocket because we don’t meet the demand that exists.
Clearly my responsibility is to represent the residents of Ward 5, first and foremost, and that’s what I do. But I can’t do that effectively if I’m not thinking about the what the future looks like for you and your family and all the other families around.
I’ve been here my entire life, three generations. The home I live in has been in my family for more than 60 years, and I’m not going anywhere. What that looks like for my kids is also part of my responsibility.
I wasn’t suggesting that these folks who want to move to the city are in any way more important than the folks who are already here. What I’m suggesting is that their desire to be here will affect whether or not people like you and your community can afford to stay here.
This is a difficult tension to navigate, and it is rare to have it play out in a public hearing in such a respectful and meaningful way. It’s perhaps easy to understand that a politician will support projects that bring new residents to their jurisdiction — that means more votes for them!
But McDuffie’s explanation shows that in planning for the needs of new residents, he IS supporting the needs of current residents. If he doesn’t plan for incoming residents, McDuffie says he’s shirking his responsibility to the existing residents. Without new housing to absorb that growth, the pressure will ultimately affect those currently in the neighborhood.
That’s the kind of argument that inherently sounds fishy to someone who’s been asking for support for a long time and not receiving it. But it’s also true.