Marion Barry’s crusade against rental housing moves to St. Elizabeths

November 29, 2012
Barry doesn’t want renters on the St. E’s east campus. (Office of the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development)

Updated 2:45 p.m.

Last year, D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) made a bit of a stir when he proposed an outright ban on new rental apartments in his ward. “The American dream is to own a home,” he told Washington City Paper. “And black people have not gotten the American dream as much as they need to.”

His bill, which would deny construction permits to apartment buildings, went nowhere. But Barry hasn’t ceased his war against rental units. He’s proposing a bill next week aimed at taking rental housing out of the development mix for the St. Elizabeths east campus.

A memo sent Thursday from Barry to other council offices said the “oversaturation” of rental units in his ward “is handicapping my constituents and preventing them from making economic investments into homeownership.”

“This perpetual cycle of renting continues generation after generation with far too many families ever realizing the opportunity of becoming a homeowner and all the benefits that it entails,” he added.

The bill would modify the official plan for the St. Elizabeths site, approved nearly four years ago, to specify owner-occupied housing only. Currently the plan doesn’t specify one way or another whether the planned 700,000 to 1,850,000 square feet of housing is rented or owned. A request for first-phase development proposals issued this week by the city mentions rental housing as a potential use, but does not require it.

Barry was not immediately available to comment. Incidentally, he was absent for the December 2008 vote on the St. E plan, according to council records.

Update, 2:45 p.m.: Barry, in a phone interview, said his move is a logical response to the fact that Ward 8 has a lower percentage of homeownership than anywhere else in the city: “Seventy-five percent of the families in Ward 8 are renters, compared to maybe 35 percent in Ward 3 and Ward 4,” he said. “I insist in Ward 8 that we put homeownership on the top of the list.” (The true numbers are 24 percent homeownership in Ward 8, versus 51 percent in Ward 3 and 61 percent in Ward 4.)

But why a government mandate against rental housing instead of letting the market determine what sort of housing mix would be appropriate for the St. Elizabeths site? History, Barry said: “The government has not been involved with this, and look what we got — 75 percent rentals in Ward 8.”

“There are people who don’t want black folks to own anything,” he added. Pressed for specific parties who feel that way, he said, “That’s the sense I get from some people.”

As for his previous bill, the one that would have banned new rental housing outright, he said “it didn’t go anywhere because I haven’t worked on it.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
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