Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

Many local housing advocates have been waiting for almost a year and a half to see how the DC Council would react to the newly-rewritten intro of the Comprehensive Plan. The Comp Plan guides future growth and development, and the intro (called the Framework element) is important because it lays out the vision for the rest of the document. On June 9, the DC Council undertook the first reading of the Framework element at its last Committee of the Whole session before recess.

Anything related to the Comp Plan has felt complicated and tumultuous. It’s a big, unwieldy document, and the Framework element is just one part of it. It’s taken 16 months for Chairman Phil Mendelson’s office to release amendments based on the March 2018 public hearing for the Framework bill. But on Tuesday, the council had other, even more contentious issues to consider on its last Committee of the Whole session before recess, including the city’s sports-betting contract and what should be done about Jack Evans. So its discussion of the Framework bill was quick.

In the amendments he released on July 7, Mendelson scaled back what was initially offered by the Office of Planning (OP) in September 2017. His approach to the Framework is more traditional, and restores much of the 2006 Framework’s emphasis on “neighborhood character.” This language, while neutral on the surface, is often used to justify exclusionary policies.

Mendelson also took out OP’s proposal to strengthen small-area planning (which are plans in between Comp Plan cycles) by giving those plans equal weight. Instead, he suggested that the council adopt small-area plans as amendments to the Comp Plan. We are not crazy about this idea.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau was the only one to offer additional amendments to the chairman’s version. The bill will go for a final vote in September.

The council agreed to study nixing single-family zoning

Nadeau’s first amendment asks OP to study getting rid of single-family zoning, and give the council advice based on its findings. Currently large swathes of the city (such as Rock Creek West and Near Northwest) are reserved for single-family homes. As people move to DC, this policy effectively forces the rapid growth into the areas where apartments are allowed. Allowing denser and more affordable types of housing throughout the whole city would distribute the growth more evenly, and hopefully reduce displacement in middle- and lower-income neighborhoods.

The amendment requires the OP to “provide to the Council additional guidance on…options for increasing the variety of housing types in areas zoned for single-family detached and semi-detached housing and the implications on equity and affordability of allowing small multifamily buildings in all residential zones.” It was accepted as friendly by Mendelson, which means it’s now part of the bill.

Nadeau’s first amendment seeks guidance instead of directly eliminating single-family zoning largely because of a conversation with Mendelson before the hearing. Here’s how he summarized it: “Councilmember Nadeau and I talked about this at length yesterday morning, and I suggested that one way to deal with that is rather than put before us that we are adopted that as a change, particularly since it wasn’t, many people would view it as radical, and it wasn’t part of any hearing process, that one approach would be to ask the Office of Planning to look at this.”

Authorizing a department to study something like the effects of single-family zoning, so that the council can be advised on how it will work, is probably the most DC-Council-esque of ways to tackle a big issue. Changing land-use laws so that people aren’t prevented from living in certain, often highly privileged neighborhoods is currently of the zeitgeist. We need really bold, status-quo-challenging solutions, now—and, frankly, political will is the only thing holding us back from the things we already know we need to do.

To that end, Nadeau’s second amendment would have changed section 224.9 of the Framework to consider strategies to produce more affordable housing and prevent displacement, including:

  • “the production of new affordable housing units above and beyond existing legal requirements and/or a net increase in the number of affordable units that exist on-site,”
  • “the preservation of housing units made affordable,”
  • “the minimizing of unnecessary off-site relocation,” and
  • “the right of existing residents of a redevelopment site to return to new on-site units” as “high-priority public benefits in the evaluation of residential PUDs.”

Further, it would have rewritten section 220.3 to more accurately describe the conditions of development in DC, and clearly state housing-centric approaches that could potentially counter the city’s disparate economic growth. As she stated, “I think it’s high time to be more exacting in our anti-displacement language.”

“The recent population boom has triggered a crisis of affordability in the city, creating a hardship for many District residents. The preservation of existing affordable housing and the production of new affordable housing are essential to avoid a deepening of racial and economic divides in the city and must occur city-wide to achieve fair housing objectives. Affordable renter-and owner-occupied housing production and preservation is central to the idea of growing more inclusively, as is the utilization of tools such as public housing, community land trusts, and limited-equity cooperatives that help keep the costs of land affordable, particularly in areas with low homeownership rates and those at risk of cost increases due to housing speculation.”

Alas, this was not accepted as friendly, and Nadeau withdrew it. Mendelson claimed it was too detailed for the framework and that he was concerned about legal issues that might come up when when requiring such anti-displacement measurements for private developments.

Nadeau clarified, “We’re not binding any private sector developer to do certain things. What we’re saying is that we want these things to be prioritized in PUDs, especially in community benefits packages.” Mendelson made a public commitment to work with her over the summer on something that he might find more acceptable.

Silverman boosted land value recapture

The only other notable commentary on what the Framework could and should do came from At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who hammered on the idea of land value recapture. Land value recapture is a favorite policy of the Grassroots Planning Commission. This policy, used in some European and South American countries, broadly allows community benefits to be tied to land-use changes or otherwise pairs increases in density with more community benefits.

Land value recapture is mentioned in the 2006 Framework, and Mendelson’s amendments retain that reference. Silverman (after a sly dig at the chairman for releasing such a significant bill only a week before its first reading) committed to studying how it could work over the summer, and suggested that she might introduce a relevant amendment in the fall.

So what’s our take?

Overall, we’re excited by Nadeau’s amendments and by Silverman’s interest in land value recapture. Both broadly line up with the amendments that the GGWash-led Housing Priorities Coalition offered in advance of the March 2017 hearing, and move the city in a direction that we hope to see reflected in the Comp Plan.

“There are very few easy decisions to be made in this document,” Nadeau said, before introducing her amendments. “My guiding light here has been to ensure that we plan our city in a way that every part of the District is doing its fair share to accommodate new growth. We know what happens if we maintain the status quo of our land use policy. Costs go up, people get displaced, and some neighborhoods undergo significant change to accommodate new growth, while other places change very little.”

We’re expecting that the council will take up the Framework bill for its second reading and final vote in September. And we expect that interested councilmembers—Nadeau and Silverman, as well as Allen, who said he’d like stronger, clearer, and more accurate language around transportation and land use—will be working diligently on ways to incorporate their preferred policies into the Framework over the summer.