My name is Alex Baca, and I'm GGWash's new Housing Program Organizer. I'm excited—and a little nervous!—to be taking over David Whitehead's position following his phenomenal work in this role.
I've been involved with GGWash for nearly a decade: I started volunteering with the site in 2010, as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. I continued to contribute as I moved from DC, to San Francisco, to Cleveland, then back home to DC. It's a pleasure to be on board now as a staffer.
I've worked for global design and construction companies, a startup building software for public-transit agencies, and as the general manager of the Cuyahoga County bikeshare system in Cleveland. In DC, I worked for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and, most recently, the Coalition for Smarter Growth. I started my career at Washington City Paper, and still freelance occasionally: I've written about Amazon coming to Arlington for Vox, how upzoning and affordability are entangled for CityLab, and about land use and the Green New Deal for Slate
When David Whitehead started as GGWash's first housing program organizer in March 2016, he wrote that his work, though in a position largely unformed, would reflect that “housing is unaffordable for too many in this city,” “sometimes blogging is not enough,” and “I can’t do this by myself.”
Three years on, I think that David's maxims are still deeply relevant, even though fundamental elements undergirding how housing works in DC have shifted since then, some in enormous ways. In January 2016, DC had just confirmed its new zoning code, which legalized accessory dwelling units and reduced the required amount of parking in some places, but otherwise did not add additional density anywhere in the city.
In December 2016, the DC Court of Appeals halted redevelopment of the McMillan sand filtration site. This decision has become case law of sorts for the court, which has heard numerous cases against planned unit developments (like Brookland Manor and Barry Farm) in the intervening years and continually references McMillan as the basis for its decisions. The Comp Plan, which feels as if it has permeated nearly every geographic crevice in the city, was not yet open for amendments—that kicked off on June 2017. (And, for what it's worth, Metro had not yet started SafeTrack.)
So it may be useful to start with what this job, and GGWash, is and isn’t. It's not a tenant organizer's position. And GGWash is not a direct-services organization. We're not a community development corporation, either. We describe ourselves as “a volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization that brings people together online and offline to discuss, organize, and advocate for an inclusive, diverse, growing Washington, DC region where all people can choose to live in walkable urban communities.”
As the blog has expanded into advocacy, it's supported pro-housing and pro-transportation policies in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, often convening partner groups to do so. It's surveyed and endorsed candidates on the basis of their positions on transit and housing, and trained and supported numerous ANC commissioners. Its related endeavors include the DC Sustainable Transportation coalition, a separate organization managed directly by David Alpert and Caitlin Rogger on the GGWash staff.
The contours of my role in 2019 and beyond are still being shaped—by our funding, by our priorities as a staff and as a contributor-powered organization, and by the politics of development in DC. For instance, Mayor Bowser’s declaration in her recent inaugural address that we need 36,000 more homes, in every neighborhood, adds much dimension to how we’re handling housing here. What will those 36,000 units be? Where will they go? What will they cost financially, politically, and emotionally?
Personally, my priorities include shoring up and supporting a constituency of people who want more accessible, affordable, stable, and safe housing in DC. That includes developing new homes, and preserving existing homes; though I expect the majority of my time to be spent wrangling with the questions around what we build, and where, I don’t think that building more inherently conflicts with preventing displacement. The whole city bears the responsibility of housing its residents; some neighborhoods, in fact, have shirked that duty. I think redressing this can be accomplished through policy work, political action, alignment and affiliation with people and organizations working toward similar or related outcomes, and public conversation.
There are so many ongoing, complex issues and questions related to housing. Few of them have clear and direct answers, which means addressing them isn't easy, and can be unpopular. But some places are taking radical approaches to the legal intricacies of adding housing that we would do well to consider here: Minneapolis now allows triplexes to be built citywide. Austin’s city council unanimously approved a resolution that would “relax building regulations for dense, affordable housing developments.” San Francisco Mayor London Breed has proposed “a charter amendment to guarantee as-of-right approval for 100% affordable housing, provided it meets local regulations.” California's SB50 was recently amended to upzone neighborhoods with “high-quality” jobs and good schools.
Fundamentally, housing here isn’t working very well at all for most people, and I look forward to figuring out how, exactly, to make it work better. No one policy, and no one blog post, is a panacea, so I’ll absolutely need your help, insight, and support—and your patience.
I am thrilled to be in this role, and thrilled to be working with you in the coming years on ensuring that our city and region are affordable and accessible to all who want to be here. We have a moral mandate to both provide shelter and to look toward a future in which our world is rapidly warming. Achieving resilience in the face of climate change while creating a system in which housing is abundant, not scarce, is possible—though it may require tradeoffs that we’d prefer not to think about. But we also have enormous opportunities to provide and preserve the places that people call home.
I look forward to exploring them with you. And I hope to meet you, and talk about this, at our birthday party this Thursday!