Image from the developer.

The DC Council is rushing to a final vote on Tuesday to roll back affordable housing at the Southwest Waterfront. The vote would relax existing requirements in the land deal that make 30% of new housing affordable for residents at low incomes.

The Southwest Waterfront project will replace acres of parking lots and low wharf buildings with a lively, walkable district. But creating a great neighborhood means doing more than building high-end condos and attracting top-tier retailers. The neighborhood also needs to include a range of residents with different income levels.

The Anacostia Waterfront Development law requires that the redeveloped public lands provide 30% affordable housing for families at very low incomes, protect water quality to a high standard, and include strong local hiring and workforce development.

But at the request of the developer, the Council’s bill would cap the amount of affordable housing built in the project. The developer wants to switch some commercial development for residential and not have to meet the affordability standards for the added housing units.

Without an independent financial analysis of the developer’s reasons for asking for the rollback, the public has no way of knowing if this is necessary or a good deal. And if the Council passes this, it sets a precedent that any community benefit required by law can be renegotiated at any stage of the agreement. 

The Southwest Waterfront is one of the earliest projects to advance as part of the city’s Anacostia Waterfront Development plan.  Cutting back the affordability requirement is a bad precedent. The city often touts its 30% affordable housing set aside as it shows its plans to redevelop public land with private partners.

The deal for the Southwest Waterfront has been in the works for several years, but this move to cap the affordable housing on site was sudden. The Council advertised its November 19th hearing on the bill only a few days before.  The bill has already sailed through its first procedural vote and is heading to its second and final one tomorrow.

Backtracking on this commitment — with little public notice or debate — casts into question how the city conducts a competitive process to give land to the private sector.  The Southwest Waterfront lands were awarded after more than a dozen development teams proposed to meet the city’s standards for community benefits and offer exciting mixed-use market rate projects that conformed with redevelopment plans.

The developer has offered verbally to include some portion of the new housing above the capped amount as affordable to households earning 100% of area median income, or over $100,000 for a family of four. Since DC’s median family income is a little over half of area median income, this hardly seems like a good deal. It doesn’t fulfill DC’s commitment to use its land resources to address the tremendous housing challenge that many of DC’s working families face.

Rather than simply accepting this offer, the District needs to sponsor an independent evaluation that includes input from affordable housing experts and the broader public. And it should set a precedent against opening up commitments to community benefits at the last minute and with little notice.

If provisions of the law need to be revisited, we should have a fair public debate informed by independent analysis to assess if the deal is still a good one for the public.

Click here to send the D.C. Council a message saying we shouldn’t rush to rollback important commitments made on affordable housing.

Cheryl Cort is Policy Director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth.