Proposed fitness tax reveals two sides of D.C.

In D.C., gym memberships and fitness classes could get more expensive due to a new 5.75% sales tax proposal. PostTV looks at two other cities that have been taxing gym memberships for years to see if people are willing to pay more for fitness. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

( Related: Developer: If you build a gym east of the river, we will pay your yoga tax )

Over the past month, Shamika Bradley fell in love with the core-crunching workout that is Zumba. She recently joined one of the fastest-growing fitness classes in her neighborhood, one that city officials have heralded as a success.

“I’ve been so inspired by this class,” Bradley said. “My energy is up, I want to eat healthy. It’s helped so much.”

Far from the glitzy gyms that can cost $100 a month on the other side of the Anacostia River, Bradley’s Zumba class is held on an indoor basketball court at Fort Stanton Recreation Center in Ward 8.

Fewer than a dozen people show up. It is free. And it is the best option that Bradley, a 35-year-old project manager, has in this part of town, a river and a world away from a spirited debate about the “fitness tax.”


Ann Duvall, 57, during a free Zumba class at the Fort Stanton Recreation Center in Southeast. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

When a coalition of fitness buffs arrives at Tuesday’s council meeting to protest a proposed 5.75 percent sales tax on gyms and yoga studios in the District, it’s unlikely that any will be members of full-service private gyms east of the Anacostia. That’s because there are none.

On one side of the river are temples of fitness with tanning booths and rooftop pools, in a city where the number of gyms has grown by 11 percent since 2009. On the other side is a patchwork of boxing rings and workout classes at community centers and churches.

In other words, the debate about taxing yoga highlights yet another aspect of economic disparity in the city.

Over the past month, it has become impossible to walk downtown without seeing signs outside health clubs saying “#donttaxwellness.”

Last week, at least 60 people gathered on Freedom Plaza to protest. In the blazing sun, they performed a warrior yoga pose, physically illustrating their position against the proposed tax. They chanted, “Tax slurpees, not burpees!”

“There’s this illusion that yoga is for rich, white people. But a lot of people sacrifice to be able to afford classes,” said Greg Marzullo, 37, an instructor at Flow Yoga Center in Logan Circle, who attended the event.

Hawah Kasat, an artist and author who was host of the event, noted, “This is not a tax on the rich; it’s a tax on a virtue.”


Rhonda Afinni, 37, participates in a popular free Zumba class on at Fort Stanton Recreation Center in Southeast. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Bradley is not without sympathy.

“That doesn’t make sense to try and punish people for being healthy,” she said, adding, “They don’t charge taxes for bike lanes.”

But in Bradley’s part of town, people don’t think of fitness as an entitlement. It’s a luxury that inspires appreciation.

“It’s a tremendous benefit to have someplace where I can work out in the area,” she said. “I’m grateful that there’s something here to do to stay in shape. I wish there was more.”

In Wards 7 and 8, the areas east of the Anacostia, the obesity rates are 35 percent and 44 percent, respectively, compared with 22.4 percent for the city as a whole. Residents and scholars alike attribute that to high poverty rates, the absence of grocery stores and a lack of access to gyms. In a city survey, one in three people in those wards reported that they work out less than once a month; in the city’s tonier neighborhoods, that number is closer to one in six.

Bradley’s Zumba class was a part of a city effort to increase wellness. The District’s parks department is installing outdoor fitness equipment as a part of a $35 million-plus initiative to reimagine the park system, with an emphasis on areas east of the river.

The proposed fitness tax came out of a local tax review commission that sought more money for the city coffers while cutting income taxes for the middle class.

Rather than increasing rates for services that already were taxed, the panel suggested that the city broaden its base, said Steven Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center. The revenue from taxing fitness clubs is projected to bring in $5 million.

The proposal has been supported by tax policy experts at the more conservative Cato Institute as well as the more liberal Fiscal Policy Institute. According to research from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, 25 states tax health-club memberships. The group opposes the proposed fitness tax in the District.

Although the D.C. Council dismissed a plan to tax haircuts, Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) saw no issue with taxing gyms.

“We also have a sales tax on books,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want people to read.”

Mendelson said the sales tax would affect a base that can withstand the blow, saying, “I do think that people who have memberships are probably better able to pay this sales tax.”

The proposal quickly caught the attention of gyms.

A coalition of gym owners has been trying to persuade council members to vote against the proposal. Ori Gorfine, the chief operating officer of the 4,000-member Balance Gym, noted that the inability to afford a membership was given as a reason in 11 percent of his gym’s cancellations.

Gorfine said the city could be shooting itself in the foot by discouraging health clubs from opening up in poorer neighborhoods.

“At the end of the day, gyms anchor development,” he said, adding: “Developers all the time call to ask if we want to start new businesses in different neighborhoods in the city. This [tax] makes us question whether it’s truly worth it.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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