Developers in the District of Columbia, under a much-disputed concept called housing linkage, are increasingly offering to donate funds to low- and moderate-income housing groups in return for city approval for their large downtown office projects.

Housing linkage, which takes various forms in cities nationwide, has been embraced by city officials here who see the concept as an answer to the District's affordable-housing crisis.

Low-income housing groups, faced with constant struggles to obtain an ever-dwindling supply of funding, also support the linkage proposals, although with some reservations.

But critics, particularly residents living in neighborhoods bordering the booming and expanding downtown area, charge that the linkage notion is nothing more than legalized bribery in which large developers can simply buy their way around a neighborhood's restrictive zoning provisions.

As a result, they claim, their neighborhoods are forced to accommodate an increasing number of bulky office towers, while areas in other parts of the city are given new housing under the linkage concept.

In the three housing linkage cases in the past year, downtown developers have attempted to bypass a neighborhood's particular zoning mandate by offering to give $1 million or more to housing groups. One of the office buildings was approved last December by the D.C. Zoning Commission, and the panel is now considering linkage bids by two other developers.

In a request considered last week, Boston Properties argued that it would not be economically feasible to build housing on a proposed office building site in the West End, despite the area's zoning calling for a mix of residences and offices. The firm has offered to donate up to $2.2 million for housing more than a mile from the lucrative office location.

Such actions have been vehemently opposed by residential groups, which say a neighborhood's zoning is there for a purpose and should be adhered to as mandated in the city's comprehensive plan.

"Housing linkage can erode the protections that zoning laws provide from unwanted uses coming in to a neighborhood," said C.F. (Con) Hitchcock, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. "If developers can buy their way around zoning restrictions, then the whole zoning map may be up for grabs."

But low-income housing groups, as well as some city officials, say zoning rules can be bent if it means helping solve the District's housing crunch.

"It is systematic of a larger issue between the haves and the have-nots," said James Dickerson, president of MANNA Inc., a low-income housing group that is scheduled under one of the housing linkage plans to receive $750,000 over the next eight years to help it buy and renovate 75 housing units. "I can appreciate {neighborhood groups'} concerns, but ... poor people are being squeezed out of housing. It doesn't matter what the comprehensive plan says if most poor people are living in shelters."

In addition, Dickerson said some activist groups, particularly those in areas undergoing gentrification, are opposed to housing linkage because they don't want to see any low-income housing in their neighborhoods.

Inter-neighborhood conflicts are not unusual, but different areas of the city typically do not get into turf wars when it comes to battling big-time development firms. If there has been an alliance in the past between city neighborhoods, it has been to stem encroachment by developers, particularly builders of giant office complexes in residential areas.

But some fear that such neighborhood square-offs are given impetus by housing linkage. "The developers are starting to pit communities against one another," Hitchcock said. "Developers say to us, 'Why are you against low-income housing?' That is not really the issue."

If the conflicting sides share any agreement, it is that housing linkage, at least so far in the District, is an economic windfall for office developers.

Dickerson said the $10,000 his group is slated to receive for each housing unit it purchases and renovates represents only a small portion of the actual cost. He said developers should be willing to share more of the large profits they will obtain by winning increased zoning rights.

Dickerson said his group has already identified the 75 units to be purchased under its housing linkage plan. But he said it is unable to buy them because MANNA will not receive the linkage funding from the developer, the John Akridge Co., until after the individual units are purchased and renovated by MANNA.

"We're a nonprofit with not a lot of cash" on hand to purchase the units without some up-front money, Dickerson said. As a result, he said MANNA might lose the sites due to ever-rising real estate prices.

Further fueling the angry debate over housing linkage is the realization that the large development firms that have made housing linkage proposals have offered relatively small housing donations compared to the profits they will enjoy by bypassing an area's zoning.

This week, the Hadid Development Co. appeared before the commission in an effort to win approval for a 12-story, 369,000-square-foot office building at 1001 New York Ave. NW.

That site's zoning requires that a certain portion of the development include housing. But Hadid maintained that housing there would not be economically feasible and offered to donate $1.4 million to the Shaw Coalition Redevelopment Corp. for housing on a block a quarter of a mile away from the New York Avenue parcel.

In return, Hadid wants to build about 72,000 square feet of office space beyond what existing zoning would allow.

Under the higher office density sought, Hadid would receive nearly $2 million in additional gross rents each year, not including future rent increases.

"It's worth a lot, and we're willing to give a lot to the city," said John Sarpa, Hadid's senior vice president.

Are developers getting a good deal under housing linkage?

John E. Akridge III, president of the company that bears his name, said, "Good is an adjective which can connote many different things to people. We don't like to do bad deals."

Last December, the Akridge company became the first firm to win zoning approval by using housing linkage. It received permission to construct a much larger office building at 1215 I St. NW than zoning normally would permit in return for giving $1.5 million to Dickerson's MANNA group and Jubilee Housing, another housing group.

Akridge said that in addition to receiving the housing money, the city also benefits because a larger office building means additional revenue for the District treasury from property and employment taxes.

Despite his victory in the controversial case, Akridge said linkage is not right for all areas of the city, but should be reserved for downtown office spots where housing is not economical.

"Linkage can be used to an extreme, and it could be abusive and counterproductive to zoning and land use," Akridge said. He said that while linkage should not become normal business for city developers, he is against any new regulations to deal with the matter, as some have suggested.

"Personally, I'm a free-market kind of guy {who believes} that land ought to be used to its highest and best use. I would argue for no zoning. Let the market decide," he said.

Critics of housing linkage also claim that allowing developers to trade zoning for cash encourages them not to build housing downtown, which goes against the urging of city planners and civic groups.

But Ibrahim Mumin, president of the Shaw group that is affiliated with the Hadid plan, said housing downtown just won't work given the rising land prices in Washington.

"Maybe for luxury housing, but that's not my interest," he said. "Planning for downtown housing should have happened 20 years ago. It's like trying to come up with a security system after the prisoners have escaped."

Fred Greene, the city's planning director, said that despite the initial disputes, he favors linkage, especially during a time when the Reagan administration has sharply cut federal housing subsidies.

"The cuts are forcing local governments to look at other alternatives, and I think housing linkage is very viable," Greene said. He added, however, that the District must ensure that new housing is built as close to a proposed office site as possible, and not in a location across town.

Despite Greene's assessment, some critics questioned the current city policy of giving a nonelected body -- the D.C. Zoning Commission -- the power to allow a developer to bypass a neighborhood's zoning called for in the city's comprehensive plan.

"It's a political decision, but it's not being made by a politically accountable body like the city council," Hitchcock said. "The zoning commission is taking it on itself to say that housing is so bad that we need to tie in housing to various zoning benefits. Why housing? Why not education or police?"

Others said linkage needs better planning if it is to work. "Housing linkage in the District is very suspect," said Dorn McGrath, chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a planning watchdog group. "It needs good planning and good policy, and the District doesn't have either one of those."

As a result, housing linkage in the city is "fostering office buildings in areas where we may not always want to see them," said McGrath, who is a planning professor at George Washington University.

A bill recently introduced in the D.C. Council by council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) would create a housing trust fund, into which developers could contribute housing linkage funds. The legislation, however, contains no specific formula for donations and makes contributions voluntary, unlike several other cities with housing linkage programs.

Jarvis said she did not make the contribution mandatory in the bill "because there was a very strong and vigorous opposition within the development community."

In addition to the Jarvis bill, Greene said the planning department is preparing a formal housing linkage plan, which will, if adopted, delineate city policy on the matter.

For Mary Travett, housing linkage provided her a home. But she wasn't aware of it until a Washington Post reporter told her this week.

For the past six years, Travett rented a town house at 602 R St. NW. Earlier this summer, the MANNA housing group, using its small linkage allotment as well as other funds, purchased the house and renovated it.

Two weeks ago, Travett, a 38-year-old laundry worker at the Washington Hotel, bought the home from MANNA, becoming the first homeowner under housing linkage in the District.

"They fixed it up, which I couldn't afford," said Travett, a first-time home buyer. "It feels good so far. I feel now like I'm paying something that one day is going to be mine.