In Shaw, an Affordable-Housing Pledge at Risk

Sunday, October 12, 2008

On Nov. 14, 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Council members Kwame Brown and Jack Evans held a news conference at Parcel 42, a swath of public land at Seventh and R Streets NW, to announce the approval of an affordable housing development long desired by the Shaw community.

Standing side-by-side with residents of Shaw, our elected officials spoke about hearing the needs of the community and promised to build affordable housing on Parcel 42 for people earning less than 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), which for a family of four in the District is $59,040. Indeed, in a news release one day earlier, Fenty said, "[W]e need to address the housing needs for all residents -- at all levels of need -- from the chronically homeless, to those struggling with monthly rent payments, to those scrimping to come up with a down payment for their first house."

Unfortunately, the victory announcement was premature.

In the past few months, the city has forced the developers of Parcel 42 to create plans for housing for families earning $60,000 per year and above, which is higher than 60 percent of the AMI. The city now claims that housing on Parcel 42 cannot be built at the lower levels of affordability it once promised because of "market conditions."

We have grown tired of being reminded at every meeting with city officials about the changing economic circumstances. It is the duty of the city to honor its commitment and work under the existing conditions. None of the promises the city made included a proviso that permits the city to do otherwise.

Perhaps the levels of affordability that the city promised are no longer feasible -- not because of the market but because the city has drastically cut the subsidy for Parcel 42. At the same time, the city is doubling the subsidy for the development of Parcel 33, a neighboring lot that is going to house Radio One, the country's largest radio broadcasting company targeting black listeners, and other private development. Once again, housing for the low-income residents who helped build this city is being put on the back burner -- sacrificed in the name of "progress."

We, the members of Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE) DC and residents of Shaw, believe that public land should benefit the public, not private developers. We thought the city held this view as well, particularly when Fenty touted the city's efforts to give back to the community.

We also thought that the city believed in providing housing that is affordable to its residents per the Community Benefits Agreement with the city and the developers of Parcel 33. The agreement explicitly linked developing 100 percent affordable housing at Parcel 42 to the development of Parcel 33, because the latter would not deliver the number or level of affordability of low-cost housing that the neighborhood needs. More than three years later, while the Community Benefits Agreement remains unrealized, the city is moving forward to build market-rate apartments and Radio One's headquarters on

Parcel 33.

Before we stand with the mayor and other city officials at another news conference, the city must make good on its promises to build low-cost housing that is truly affordable to long-term residents of Shaw. This is essential to stabilize the neighborhood and support the backbone of this community. The residents of Shaw provide more than a photo-op for city officials -- we helped to build and sustain this city.

It is now the government's turn to build and sustain diversity in D.C. neighborhoods by honoring its commitment to provide rental housing affordable to families earning below $25,000 and $50,000 per year at Parcel 42.

-- Jessica Gordon Nembhard


The writer is a board member of ONE DC, a local nonprofit that works to create and preserve racial and economic equity in Shaw and the District.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company