Mark Rose
credit: Mark Rose

The public comment period for the revision of D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan closed on June 23.

This document is the District’s legislative framework for long-term growth and development. Activists are calling for a plan that requires inclusion of safe, quality low-income housing in any new development plan approved by city government. And they are calling for a plan that regulates rent increases in units designated as affordable.

The Comprehensive Plan is revised every five or 10 years, including a major revision in 2006, another update in 2011 and now a major revision for 2018, according to Claudia Barragan, an urban planning and environmental policy expert.

The last of several community meetings held throughout the city to gather residents’ feedback occurred June 10 at Ambassador Baptist Church in Southeast. Affordable housing advocates, members of tenants’ groups, faith groups, officials from nonprofits and for-profits who deal with public housing and some individual citizens all agreed on the importance of preserving and increasing the city’s stock of public housing. This issue has dominated all of the meetings, which were organized by the nonprofit advocacy group Empower D.C.

A report by Empower D.C. summarizing feedback from the meeting series is now scheduled to be reviewed by the D.C. Office of Planning, which will also review input from other citizens’ groups.

The D.C. Office of Planning said in an email they received 3,000 proposed amendments to the Plan, up from the 200 they received the last time the Plan was up for revision in 2010.

The Office of Planning held several community meetings, workshops and town halls across all eight wards. They also sponsored “meetings in a box,” in which community representatives had conversations with constituents about the plan. All of these efforts brought a robust response, according to Office of Planning Communication Officer Chanda Washington.

The Office of Planning will produce a draft report from all this that will be available for public comment for 60 days, Washington said. After public comment, the office will make adjustments and submit a legislative package to D.C. Council.

Barragan and Empower D.C. Executive Director Parisa Norouzi both told the assembly at Ambassador Baptist Church that it is important for citizens and constituents to keep public pressure on the D.C. Council. “We don’t want to have a lull, because this is just beginning,” Norouzi said.

It will be important to show up to hearings and see what they accept and what they don’t, Norouzi added.

Once approved by D.C. Council, the plan amendment will be submitted to the federal National Capital Planning Commission and finally to U.S. Congress. Federal review and approval is given within 90 days.

Growth and change need to be managed, according to Barragan, who called for all residents to be given equal access to education, employment and interconnected neighborhoods.

Gentrification has been a growing problem in the District, with rising rents driving poorer residents to far-flung pockets of the city where poverty persists.

Barragan said that these residents, many of them native Washingtonians, must be accounted for and supported in all planning and development efforts. She called for language to be added to the plan about preserving equality in distribution of government resources so the poor don’t get left behind. “They didn’t want to deal with equity [in 2006],” Barragan told those gathered at Ambassador Church. “It’s too hard.”

Activist Chris Otten commented that “this plan has been weak; it needs more accountability” He described seeing a lot of upscale studio and one-bedroom apartments being built for single professionals, disregarding the need for affordable family housing. “It’s all for more profit,” he concluded.

Otten told Street Sense that Trammell Crow, Patrick, Nancy Hofmann, and the Menkiti Group have been awarded the bulk of residential building contracts in the city since the administration of former mayor Anthony Williams. He expressed concern that D.C. Council would not take the community’s suggested amendments seriously.

“Affordable housing is a civic priority,” Caroline Petty said at the meeting. She lives in the Brookland neighborhood in Ward 5. “Prioritize housing for those with the greatest need.”

Petty said that most new development over the past two decades seems like it is only built for affluent people who can generate more money for the District and for the developers who build it.

Norouzi was hopeful, saying the pursuit of equity for all residents has united communities across the city.

There are three levels within the plan: policy that applies to the entire city, policies for specific wards, and small area plans. Flyers provided at the meeting said that Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, which represent neighborhoods and small areas, should hold more sway in local government, especially when it comes to land use and development decisions.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are crucial when it comes to collecting feedback from residents. However, it is not clear from any guidelines what their “advisory” role should be. Barragan suggested that Comprehensive Plan amendments should be approved by any ANC that they would affect.

A news release from the Office of Planning’s housing organizer, David Whitehead, said a coalition of 16 for-profit and nonprofit development organizations in the city has developed a list of 10 detailed amendments for the plan. They included strategies to meet housing demand, fairly distribute housing assistance, locate affordable housing near public transportation, support neighborhood commercial corridors, improve data collection and more. These priorities were endorsed by many residents and local organizations, which the release says included eight Advisory Neighborhood Commissions

Members of these development organizations also unanimously agreed that all residents down to the poorest need fair access to housing they can afford, including realistic plans to help people priced out of their own neighborhoods by new development. Barragan stressed that most of the city’s wards have had a lot of growth since the last major update to the plan in 2006, including 15 new small area plans in Ward 5.

Many attendees offered their own suggested amendments.

Otten asked whether developers who build near transit hubs, which tend to have the most desirable and thus expensive housing, could be asked to contribute to Metro.

Laura Richards, an activist from Ward 7, denounced the number of charter schools concentrated in her ward, 50, while there are none in the more affluent Ward 3, “They’ve turned the building of charter schools into land grabs,” she said.

Richards added with dismay that even the percentage of units developers are required to market as affordable are often out of reach for citizens earning 30 percent or less of the Area Median Income “One size does not fit all” for building affordable housing, according to Richards.

Barragan noted that the Area Median Income is based on the D.C. metro region, including Fairfax and Montgomery counties, some of the wealthiest in the nation. In 2015, the D.C. Metro Area AMI was $93,294, while the city’s AMI was $75,628, according to U.S. Census data. This number would further vary if calculated for some of the most economically-segregated enclaves of the city. Many people in Ward 8, for example, are subsisting on $31,000 for one person, and $32,000 for a family.

Yet units that are priced at 50 percent of the AMI would cost $46,000 per year to rent, based on the 2015 AMI. “We’re still abiding by something that’s really unfair,” Barragan said.

She called for calculating AMI by city ward, noting that New York City officials are considering redefining AMI by zip code. Changing the definition of AMI in our Comprehensive Plan, now, is a necessary update, Barragan said, “Let’s be bold.”