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D.C. Council approves major tax break for Howard University as it launches plan for new hospital

Howard University Hospital is set to be replaced with the financial assistance of a tax abatement approved by the D.C. Council on Tuesday.
Howard University Hospital is set to be replaced with the financial assistance of a tax abatement approved by the D.C. Council on Tuesday. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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A $225 million tax abatement for Howard University sailed through the D.C. Council on Tuesday, a day after an ethics probe revealed how the university offered to create a job for a high-ranking city official even as it was seeking the official’s support for a bigger tax break.

The legislation lowers Howard’s future property tax bills in an effort to boost the university’s planned redevelopment of land it owns along Georgia Avenue NW, which would include a new hospital and mixed-use development.

It’s part of a broader effort to improve health-care access in D.C. and build better hospitals for some of the city’s poorest residents — a project that has drawn widespread acclaim and, later, ethics concerns related to then-City Administrator Rashad M. Young’s involvement.

Lawmakers who voted unanimously to back the project stressed the importance of addressing the racial health disparities in the nation’s capital, where the life expectancy for Black men is 17 years less than for White men.

Lawmakers also noted Howard University Hospital’s reputation as a national training ground for Black physicians. Experts have cited the underrepresentation of Black and Latino doctors and discriminatory treatment of patients of color as factors driving racial disparities in health care.

“None of us ever want to see such an institution like [Howard] struggle or cease to exist under our watch,” said council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large).

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Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) issued a statement heralding the passage of the bill but did not respond to repeated questions about the ethics probe she requested into Young’s negotiations with Howard.

In discussion before the vote, council members said the investigation did not reveal evidence of impropriety in the terms of the deal presented to them.

“That matter has been resolved, so I would urge my colleagues to support this measure because this hospital is sorely needed,” said council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5).

Howard on July 14 contacted Young’s office with proposed amendments to the bill that would have added $89 million to the value of the tax abatement, according to records of a D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability probe released Monday.

At the same time, Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick met with Young at the school campus to discuss hiring the city administrator.

Young rejected the changes to the bill sought by Howard later that day.

The ethics board did not find evidence Young improperly tried to use his government position to help Howard. But it voted Monday evening to fine Young $2,500 for his involvement in the Howard legislation while he was in job discussions with the school, even though his actions did not benefit the university.

The ethics probe did not issue a conclusion as to whether Howard deliberately sought favorable treatment while wooing a government official for employment.

Howard officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said the investigation reflected poorly on perceptions of city government ethics.

“If a top government official is unaware that our ethics laws forbid him from weighing in on a deal while trying to get a job with the beneficiary, I mean, that’s just simply Ethics 101,” said Silverman, who forced lawmakers to discuss the bill before voting.

Young abruptly resigned as city administrator Aug. 14, two weeks after accepting the Howard job. Bowser then asked the ethics board to review the circumstances of his hiring.

Young and the university have since repeatedly declined requests for comment.

The D.C. government has drawn criticism in the past for the close relationship between some of its public officials and entities affected by their decisions.

The council’s longest-serving member, Jack Evans, resigned under pressure this year after an investigation detailed how he took actions benefiting companies that paid him consulting fees.

The legalization of sports betting also prompted scrutiny after the council approved a no-bid contract benefiting people with ties to city politicians.

Other council actions from Tuesday’s legislative meeting:

●Lawmakers unanimously extended the public health emergency related to covid-19 through the end of 2020. The declaration allows Bowser to impose certain measures, including a moratorium on utility disconnections, debt collections and evictions. The council can revisit the specific provisions of the emergency before the year ends.

●The council approved legislation that would prohibit landlords from sending tenants eviction notices while the eviction moratorium is in place. Silverman, one of the introducers, said such notices have sparked anxiety among tenants who worried they would lose their homes even though evictions are on hold.

●An amendment to that bill, offered by council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), would bar landlords from taking other steps to force out tenants, such as shutting off power or stopping maintenance.

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●The council passed emergency legislation meant to stop non-D.C. firms from receiving preferences meant to help local businesses secure government contracts. It came in response to a controversy over a local company receiving a portion of the city’s $1.5 billion Medicaid contract after being acquired by a Maryland nonprofit but does not apply retroactively to that contract.

●The council unanimously passed a resolution condemning a partnership between the District and the federal government to prosecute more gun crimes in federal courts. Court records revealed the initiative, which was supposed to be enforced citywide, instead targeted three predominantly Black wards.

●Robert White withdrew a measure that opposed Bowser’s request to redirect $1 million from a city agency overseeing employment services to cover costs for the construction of luxury reviewing stands for the 2021 inaugural parade. Bowser had dropped her request, rendering White’s measure moot.

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