However, the system is frequently abused in favor of prejudicial residential property owners. In neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan, where I currently serve as commissioner, this deference to a select few has accelerated racist patterns of gentrification and segregation. As D.C.’s statehood hopes remain in flux, now is the time to either better invest in the ANC system or redefine it so that local governance is truly a tool for progress.
Adams Morgan, like much of D.C., has seen an astronomical rise in property values since ANCs were created. When coupled with historical demographic data, the neighborhood paints a picture similar to other parts of the city: Whiter, wealthier and more expensive than it used to be, with those who directly benefited from these changes often erupting at the thought of altering course.
Working hand in hand with these dynamics are examples of residents attempting to use ANCs to halt further change based on obstructionist, occasionally ridiculous, grounds: Examples include tense conflict over development to granular quarrels to anger over transformer statues and even a treehouse. One recent case in Adams Morgan demonstrates what happens when race becomes a dividing factor: An ANC commissioner and 23 condo owners went to excruciating, ethically compromising lengths to protest a liquor license — pinnacled by an 11-hour hearing — because they feared a Black-owned bar would lower neighboring property values. And who has financial investment in a business just three doors down the street? That same commissioner, who conveniently failed to disclose this conflict of interest. Similar situations are not uncommon and show how ANCs, though not necessarily the core problem, can further injustices based on prejudice, whether well hidden or thinly veiled.
A widely present, rarely addressed example of ANCs perpetuating racism and inequality is in the power of saying “no.” Of the few formal powers ANCs possess, approving liquor licenses and zoning and development plans are (quite literally) at the top of the list. Other actions, both formal and informal, are certainly available to commissioners, but these two are perhaps the most readily consequential. In part, this limited focus is a structural question: ANC commissioners are unpaid volunteers, commissions routinely suffer from a lack of resources, and the creation of ANCs was a modest win following decades of congressional control over D.C. The rules establishing ANCs (and thus neighborhood representation) were not written to be expansive. But there is also a practice problem: Rather than facilitate community growth, many commissioners understandably lack the time or energy to assume a full slate, while others are actively destructive or pave the way for those who are.
What does this mean in more tangible terms? A lot of money and effort spent on hiring attorneys to respond to obstruction from the community. In some cases, obstruction may be fair. When neighbors band together to protect their livelihood with good-faith arguments against well-financed outsiders simply looking to make a quick buck, obstructing can be a matter of survival. But in many other instances, people typically more concerned with speculative real estate value than with building a just society hijack the process and start dragging their feet.
When one of those sides is majority-White and the other is not, that dynamic translates to a deeply disheartening conflict: Black presence is treated as a liability to a primarily White gaze whose comfort is given priority status. In local D.C. governance, this is rarely done explicitly but instead through more covert measures and misdirection with phrases like an “infringement upon the peace, order and quiet of the neighborhood” or “a threat to the cohesive nature of our historic district.” Using purposefully benign, codified language in this sense might not be the same as using a racial slur or committing a hate crime, but it is still racism.
So, what can be done? Part of the answer lies in what some commissioners and their neighbors are already doing: selfless work to benefit those exploited by a harmful system. Institutionally, we can make bias training mandatory, disclosure of financial conflicts of interest more rigorous and “great weight” more clearly defined. This will not fix everything, but it certainly would offer a promising start.
D.C. prides itself on being a hub of progressivism. In some ways that label is accurate, but in too many local conflicts there is little practical difference between wealthier “progressives” and the right-wing counterparts they pretend to denounce.
As we add new chapters to the D.C. story, ANCs deserve to get the training and organizational support they need to undo a racist past. If this doesn’t happen, they need to be reconfigured into a local elected office that will do precisely that.