HOW FAR should private companies be pushed to solve public problems? How far can — or should — a developer building on private land with private money be pushed to address the shortage of affordable housing in gentrifying Washington, D.C.? Is it sufficient to meet, even exceed, the requirements of city law? Or is it fair to demand even more because of the city’s great needs? Those are questions being raised in a contentious, and increasingly ugly, controversy over a redevelopment proposal for an aging housing complex in Northeast Washington. The answers could have implications that reach beyond whether this one project gets built.
At issue are plans by MidCity Financial Corp., the Bethesda-based owner of Brookland Manor, to redevelop the 535-unit apartment and shopping complex located on roughly 20 acres east of the Rhode Island Avenue Metro into a new mixed-use community that will include up to 1,760 residential units. There is little dispute that the 80-year-old buildings are nearing the end of their useful life or that denser development would make smarter use of the land. Opposition, largely led by community organizers at OneDC, centers on the number of affordable housing units that would be built and concerns that low-income, minority tenants will be displaced.
Under the plan that won preliminary approval from the city’s zoning commission, MidCity has promised to permanently reserve 373 units for very-low-income families under the project-based Section 8 program of the Housing and Urban Development Department. D.C. law requires far less — 10 percent moderately affordable units, no very-low-income units. MidCity’s willingness to continue project-based housing for the neediest is unusual; the units were set aside 40 years ago as a condition of obtaining a federally subsidized mortgage, but that mortgage will be paid off this year and so the obligation ends. That MidCity from the start volunteered to do more than the legal minimum is why Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), the council member whose ward is home to the project, told us he backs it. So do 180 tenants who have signed a letter of support.
Nonetheless, tenants’ anxiety about change and what it might mean for them is understandable; they have seen people like them priced out of neighborhoods, and their concerns must be addressed. MidCity, disputing charges it has undertaken a campaign to displace people, said it will work to keep tenants in the rebuilt community. New apartments will be built before old ones are demolished. Opponents are right that promises are easier made than kept. But working against — indeed, even seeking to demonize — a company that seems committed to carrying out the mission of its founder, who was nationally recognized for his dedication to affordable housing, serves no one, least of all the tenants.
The city has a responsibility to hold developers to their promises. It also has a responsibility to find the right balance between encouraging public-mindedness and keeping business opportunities viable. When the zoning commission votes this month on whether the company can proceed with its plans, let’s hope thought is given to what happens if MidCity is turned down, and what message that will send to other developers.
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