Ed Lazere is the executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Scott Schenkelberg is president and chief executive of Miriam’s Kitchen.
A key challenge facing the District is how to manage growth — more people and new development — in a way that benefits everyone rather than causing displacement and homelessness and widening D.C.’s racial inequities.
Striking this balance is fundamental to the District’s future. As rents skyrocket, as homelessness remains a crisis and as our racial wealth gap grows, we need city leaders to invest in our growth so that all residents — particularly residents of color facing displacement — can stay and thrive.
Yet recent decisions by the D.C. Council would squander new resources and limit opportunities to invest in equity. One proposal would reverse a commitment to sharing prosperity with residents who need the most help.
This year, the Supreme Court ruled that cities and states can require online retailers to collect sales taxes. Now, most online retailers will do so, just as every hardware store and flower shop in the District does every day. These taxes will raise millions of dollars in new revenue for the District.
In 2013, when the D.C. Council anticipated this change, it took the opportunity to invest in the needs of D.C. residents and committed to use much of the online sales tax revenue to address homelessness . However, now that the online sales tax will soon be a reality, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) are proposing to instead use the revenue to cut taxes for the District’s largest commercial properties. This reversal would move us away from a commitment to ending homelessness and instead deepen the equity gap.
The added revenue could be a game-changer for some of the District’s most vulnerable residents. The $20 million expected from online sales taxes could create permanent homes for 700 individuals facing chronic homelessness or 1,000 rental subsidies for families living on very low incomes. But that will only happen only if the council keeps its commitment to dedicate new resources to lifting our neighbors out of poverty and homelessness.
On the surface, these choices may appear to be technical, but they’re not. They reflect the most basic decisions about how we raise and spend money as a city, with profound impacts on the lives of D.C. residents. Every budget dollar wasted is a missed opportunity to help residents get a home, a good education, job training or other tools to help them continue to afford to live here.
To be a city truly committed to inclusive growth, we must share our prosperity with our own residents, invest in equity and prioritize funding for our residents’ most critical needs.