Willow Lung-Amam, Don Edwards, and Neil Flanagan discuss inequitable land use and housing policies at Woodrow Wilson High School on Saturday, December 7. Image by the author.

The District has a history of inequitable land use and housing policies that have resulted in patterns of segregation that persist to this day. As the District seeks to update its Comprehensive Plan, a planning document which lays out how the city will develop in the years to come, it seeks to address these wrongs.

Racist federal and local housing policies in the 20th century laid the foundation for the racial and economic segregation in American cities today. These policies include segregated public housing, racial housing covenants, government-backed mortgages that were off-limits to African Americans, and redlining, or designating black neighborhoods as off-limits to lending. In one notable example, District and federal officials forced a thriving African American community out of Fort Reno Park.

While many racist policies ended with the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the damage was already done. By the time many of these same benefits were allowed for African Americans, price appreciation ensured that the nicest neighborhoods were too expensive for them. The result has not only been segregated cities, but also a significant wealth gap between white and black America that is largely attributable to historical differences in homeownership.

As the Office of Planning works to update DC’s Comprehensive Plan, it’s soliciting feedback on how to do it right. The agency capped a month-long feedback tour with a discussion at Woodrow Wilson High School on December 7. Panelists explained ongoing barriers, as well as possible solutions to inequitable policies in DC. You can watch the entire event below:

Panelists Willow Lung-Amam, Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Maryland, sat down with Don Edwards, CEO of Justice & Sustainability Associates, and Neil Flanagan, a local writer and architect with Maginniss + del Ninno Architects, to unpack the District’s history of inequitable policies, and how we can craft new ones to promote a more equitable future.

Zoning codes have been used as a tool of segregation

DC’s original zoning codes were often applied “to reinforce the covenants and restrictions of real estate, of single-family developments built by…segregationist developers” and to protect DC’s wealthiest areas, notably west of Rock Creek Park, said Flanagan.

Although many racist policies, like restrictive covenants or race-based mortgage insurance, were deemed unlawful by the late 1960s, restrictive zoning has since kept the wealthiest parts of DC economically out of reach for low-income residents. Approximately 23% of DC’s land area, and 80% in Rock Creek West, is restricted to detached single-family homes. That pushes the pressures of growth into only a few areas of the city, which can lead to displacement.

Detached single-family housing remains an extremely expensive form of housing in a city where land is so expensive. Therefore, it’s very difficult for black and other households that did not benefit from 20th century housing wealth to buy into these communities. This has preserved an intentionally segregated pattern of development we experience to the present day.

This history continues to impact current residents. At Saturday’s event, David Williams, Policy Director at Opportunity Insights, presented research that shows how low-income children that grow up in the wealthiest parts of DC—west of Rock Creek Park—have, on average, much higher incomes in adulthood than those who grew up in poorer neighborhoods.

How do we fix the problem?

Policies that can help reverse segregation in DC include rent control, inclusionary zoning, accessory apartments (also known as Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs), and eliminating zoning that only allows single-family homes and not denser housing types like duplexes or apartment buildings, said Lung-Amam.

Lung-Amam advocated for “banning single-family zoning, something that has been commonplace in zoning since it was enacted in the 1920 but…is by its very nature exclusionary, and is not helping communities achieve the goals of integration.”

Besides being the right thing to do, fostering diverse neighborhoods can lead to economic benefits. Segregated neighborhoods, on the other hand, harm economic mobility, David Williams, Policy Director for Opportunity Insights said.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s target to add 36,000 new housing units—including 12,000 dedicated affordable units—by 2025 across the city will help, said Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) Director Polly Donaldson and Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood, who also spoke at the event. If wealthy neighborhoods build affordable housing, this will allow people of various incomes to live there and help break down these ongoing patterns of exclusion.

The Bowser administration has established goals to equitably distribute this new housing throughout the city. In order to accomplish these goals, the Office of Planning has announced updates to DC’s Comprehensive Plan, which include changes to allow for more housing along key transit corridors like Connecticut Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue.

The public has until December 20 to weigh in on the Comprehensive Plan updates, while ANCs have until January 31 to give comments. You can learn more about these and other initiatives at housing.dc.gov.