Tomorrow the D.C. Zoning Commission is scheduled to take a final vote on whether to force developers to subsidize and build luxury housing downtown or apply the bulk of resources instead to producing affordable housing in other D.C. neighborhoods.
A coalition of nonprofit housing groups, churches, community-service organizations, private citizens, the D.C. Building Association, the D.C. Board of Trade, the Barry administration and the city planning office, as well as five independently commissioned feasibility studies place priority on affordable neighborhood housing rather than on luxury housing downtown. In addition, the D.C. Council passed a nonbinding resolution 11 to 2 last week that urges the zoning commission to focus on affordable housing in the city rather than luxury housing downtown.
The real issue in this drama is "community." Are we going to be a diverse community that works together for a common good -- especially that of those who have the least opportunity and most need -- or are we going to continue the trend of becoming a collection of isolated groups living in "enclaves of the similar" and concerned primarily with narrow self-interest?
We have become a polarized city in every way. We are divided along race, class, political and geographic lines. The luxury downtown housing versus affordable neighborhood housing debate at the zoning commission is but one theater in which this larger drama is being played out.
In the case of the Downtown Development District, the three zoning commissioners who voted preliminarily to spend 70 percent of the resources for subsidized luxury housing downtown are all white, affluent men, two of whom live west of Rock Creek Park in mostly white and wealthy Ward 3 neighborhoods. The third lives in Rockville. Two serve on the commission as representatives of the interests of the federal government.
The two zoning commission members who voted against that proposal are African Americans who live in struggling Southeast and Northeast neighborhoods. Both work for antipoverty and neighborhood improvement organizations.
But this sort of splintering of our city doesn't have to continue. The D.C. Council has shown the direction in which it wants the zoning board and Washington to go, and the coalition in support of affordable housing has crossed racial, class and geographic lines in this common cause. The housing issue is providing the momentum for bringing back a real sense of community in our city. The D.C. Zoning Commission should catch the wave.
Jim Dickerson is co-director of Manna Inc., Housing for People, Not Profit.