The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How George Floyd’s death is fueling a push for affordable housing in mostly White parts of D.C.

Lisa Gore, newly elected to the ANC, at the fountain in Chevy Chase Circle honoring Francis G. Newlands, a U.S. senator from the early 20th century who held racist views. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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In an affluent, mostly White neighborhood in Northwest Washington, a volunteer task force wants to atone for the racist policies that forced Black residents from the community a century ago.

At another group’s Zoom meeting, the moderator talked of rewriting zoning policies to crack the “invisible walls” that have excluded Black people from the neighborhood. The agenda, the moderator said, was to determine “what we can do to turn the tide against racism.”

The nationwide focus on racial equity — intensified by the coronavirus pandemic and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody — has trickled down to the realm of the local zoning board. Advocates in D.C. are invoking the need to correct past wrongs as they demand subsidized housing in affluent neighborhoods where low-cost apartments have always been scarce.

The fate of their campaign rests with the D.C. Council, which in the coming weeks will vote on Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s proposed changes to zoning policy. The revisions would allow taller apartment buildings on key corridors, potentially catalyzing the construction of tens of thousands of housing units, a portion of them subsidized.

Bowser’s push for more housing echoes efforts in Portland, Ore., Minneapolis and Sacramento, where leaders seeking to lower costs have moved to relax zoning laws to allow more building in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes. Across the Potomac River in Virginia, Fairfax County officials are considering similar changes.

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As in the past, talk of altering D.C. vistas is triggering opposition from preservationists and fierce debate on neighborhood listservs. Business leaders and developers say additional requirements for below-market units would discourage post-pandemic projects.

And a chorus of voices — left-leaning activists among them — say Bowser’s plan would add mainly to the city’s stock of luxury housing, while doing little for the poor.

But there is also conspicuous support for the Democratic mayor’s proposed changes, as was evident during a recent community meeting in Cleveland Park, home to multimillion-dollar houses and a sleepy commercial strip that would be primed for 90-foot towers under the plan.

“We should be welcoming everyone,” Sauleh Siddiqui, a professor and a newly elected advisory neighborhood commissioner, said before voting for a resolution that passed supporting the changes. “I fear if we don’t make space for everyone, there’s really no way we can say we’re going to be an inclusive and diverse community.”

Another proponent of the zoning changes, Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel Congregation in Cleveland Park, recently urged congregants to place their desire for social justice above concerns about traffic congestion and overcrowding.

“This might sting a little bit — it stung me,” he said in a sermon, recounting what he has learned from advocates and developers during discussions about building affordable housing. “Those most likely to put signs on their lawns for the most progressive causes are also very likely to be the ones in community meetings saying, ‘No more development.’ ”

“We need more density. We need more affordable units so everyone has the chance to live in any neighborhood,” Alexander said.

Mark Rosenman, 77, a retired professor who has lived in Cleveland Park for 22 years, has no signs in his front yard. But he is a veteran of the civil rights movement and has advocated on behalf of the poor.

He predicted that the rezoning Bowser wants would mainly generate a gush of new high-priced apartments, with a small number of subsidized units for moderate-income households.

It’s “offensive” to portray skeptics of the plan as “hypocritical,” he said. “It’s a way of tarring the opponent.”

'The greater good'

As she drives around the city, Rebecca Barson, a health-care advocate, finds herself noticing encampments of people sleeping in tents in Dupont Circle and under highway overpasses.

“It just feels unconscionable that this is happening in a city like ours,” she said.

Barson, 43, joined a grass-roots campaign seeking city support for converting a recently bankrupt hotel near her Woodley Park condominium — the Marriott Wardman Park — into a mix of retail and affordable housing. She has embraced the cause even as she contemplates the potential risk to her property value.

“I’m not saying I’m not grappling with it. There could be a financial cost — personally, my apartment may not be worth as much,” she said. “I also think I have benefited as a White person from systems I didn’t create, and this is an important moment to do what’s right for the greater good.”

Bowser has invoked the displacement of Black residents from a gentrifying city as she sells her plan to build 36,000 housing units by 2025, a third of them affordable. She set the goal in 2019, a year before the pandemic ravaged the economy and slowed real estate development. Since then, roughly 2,000 subsidized units have been built.

To catalyze more, the mayor wants to require developers to include subsidized units as part of bigger buildings along rezoned portions of Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues and other corridors. The biggest chunk, about 2,000, would be in prosperous, predominantly White neighborhoods — Cleveland Park, Tenleytown, Friendship Heights and Chevy Chase — which have the smallest share of subsidized units in the city.

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The D.C. Council is expected to vote on those changes and other proposed revisions to the comprehensive plan — the voluminous guide to the city’s future growth — by the end of the month. Under the revised policy, developers would have to devote up to 20 percent of square footage to below-market units — in some cases, more than double the existing requirement.

Bowser’s team also is exploring whether to expand inclusionary zoning — the policy that requires developers to include subsidized units in exchange for added density — to currently exempt areas such as downtown and portions of historic districts in Georgetown, Anacostia and Capitol Hill.

John Falcicchio, deputy mayor for economic development, said that expanding overall housing supply, including subsidized units, is the path to controlling costs: “We either grow units or we price out residents.”

But developers and business leaders say D.C. officials should study the pandemic’s full effect on city life before setting long-lasting policy. They predict that new regulatory requirements would stall the city’s economic recovery, particularly downtown, which has been largely deserted during the pandemic.

“It would cost the developers to create that additional housing. It comes out of their profits at a time when they are struggling,” said Neil O. Albert, president of the Downtown Business Improvement District. “We think it’s unfair to put that additional burden on landlords and developers.”

Some neighborhood leaders, particularly in poorer sections of the city, object to the prospect of additional subsidized housing in their communities. “We don’t need any more,” said Greta Fuller, co-president of the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society. “If we got market rate, there’d be a parade down Martin Luther King Avenue.”

Across town in Cleveland Park, opponents of the mayor’s plan say new high-rises would overwhelm their shopping area, a designated historic district on Connecticut Avenue that includes the shuttered Uptown Theater, a relic of the Art Deco era.

“You’re going to have a serious impact on the character and nature of our community,” Bonnie LePard, a member of the Cleveland Park Historical Society, said at the recent neighborhood meeting, which drew nearly 200 viewers. She added that the new buildings threatened to turn the corridor into a “canyon.”

Advocates for low-income families, meanwhile, dismiss Bowser’s strategy as providing too little for the poor.

Of the 9,500 affordable housing units built from 2015 to 2019, 20 percent were for households identified as “extremely low-income,” according to city data, which is up to $37,000 for a family of four. Nearly 60 percent were affordable at higher income levels, up to about $80,000 for a four-person household. Of the 989 affordable housing units built under inclusionary zoning, nearly three-quarters were affordable to those earning up to 80 percent of the median family income for the Washington region, which is about $100,000 for a four-person household.

“In the name of racial equity, they’re pushing a program that will continue to displace Black people from D.C.,” said Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC, an advocacy group. “All these people want is to sprinkle the word equitable into things that aren’t equitable. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”

History of racism

As other D.C. neighborhoods have transformed over generations, the four Connecticut Avenue blocks that are Chevy Chase’s commercial core are a time capsule to a bygone era: one- and two-story buildings, with a toy store over here, a liquor store over there, and a movie theater in between.

A plaque at Chevy Chase Circle — a gateway to D.C. — honors the neighborhood’s founder, Francis G. Newlands, a senator from Nevada who wrote of Black people as an inferior race and sought to strip them of their voting rights.

“A lot of people consider our community a quaint little village,” said Randy Speck, a neighborhood leader. “It can be other things, too.”

Speck is part of a volunteer Chevy Chase task force exploring the neighborhood’s early racism, when leaders used eminent domain to force out Black families and restrictive covenants ensured they could not return.

The Task Force on Racism, as the group is known, wants to find ways to diversify a quiet, leafy neighborhood that a century later remains overwhelmingly White and prosperous.

Residents “could continue living our lives as if history does not matter because we can regard ourselves as good people who aren’t actively denying another person the opportunity to live here,” a task force committee wrote in a report. But, it added, “complacency is a corrosive factor contributing to today’s injustices.”

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Lisa Gore, a task force member, said she has learned history during its meetings that she did not know after having resided in Chevy Chase for two decades.

“It was surreal because you’re living in an environment that wasn’t designed for you — and you’re talking about it with White people,” said Gore, 53, a Black retired federal law enforcement officer recently elected to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. “At the same time, it’s history we need to come to terms with.”

That means more, she said, than removing Newlands’s plaque from the traffic circle, as some residents have been seeking. It requires allowing “for Black and Brown Washington to get a chance for the affordability pie here in Chevy Chase.”

The task force also called for allowing housing along the neighborhood’s commercial core, including subsidized units. It also recommended that the city rebuild the Chevy Chase Library and Community Center to accommodate affordable apartments — an idea that Mary Rowse, a longtime neighborhood activist, dismissed as unnecessary.

“Such a project could take years and millions of dollars without a guarantee that more than a token number of units are available to those in need,” she wrote in an email.

Instead of new construction, Rowse said, the city could buy and convert to housing retail sites such as Mazza Gallerie and a vacant Lord & Taylor, both in Friendship Heights. Or the government could offer financial incentives to induce apartment owners to sell units that could then be made “available as low-income housing.”

“Today, in Chevy Chase D.C.,” Rowse said, “we have all the buildings we need to create affordable housing units for many people.”

Peter Gosselin, a journalist also recently elected to the ANC, said local businesses would benefit from overhauling a commercial strip that — particularly since the pandemic — “looks like one of those Midwestern towns where the guts got sucked out because they put a Walmart on the outskirts.”

“I, like many of my neighbors, find the history tragic and discouraging,” he said. “This place is better than its history, and history calls us to do better.”

But he and others question whether expanding the neighborhood’s number of duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes — something the task force suggests studying — would create enough lower-cost housing to make a substantial difference. “We’re talking about a drip, drip, drip of units.”

The disagreements percolating in Chevy Chase, Gosselin said, are not about “the need to act.”

“The divide,” he said, “is on what the solution is.”