The challenge now facing the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and all those dedicated to the betterment of our region, is how we apply what we have learned from current events as we shape a better, more equitable future — not just a return to normal.
If not for the coronavirus, I don’t know that we would be shining a light on long-standing health disparities affecting communities of color. Without George Floyd, I don’t know that we would be drawing widespread attention to the systemic racism that has been baked into policies and practices of our governments and other sectors. But we are having these conversations now, and I am proud to be part of a region with government, business and nonprofit leaders ready to respond with action, not lip service.
The board of directors of the Council of Governments took a key step this month, unanimously affirming racial equity as a fundamental value and pledging to weave equity more intentionally into all our programs, including transportation, environmental and community planning. By bringing together leaders from 24 local governments, this action was an unprecedented statement of solidarity in rejecting racial discrimination and exclusion, and a sign of close alignment as we pursue anti-racist approaches in our home jurisdictions.
We have plenty of promising work to build on. Even before the pandemic, area health directors were studying how health outcomes vary starkly by race and ethnicity in our region. They noted that health is shaped by more than our individual choices or health care but also strongly correlates with where we live and inequities in the education, employment and criminal justice systems. It’s why, for example, a Virginia Commonwealth University analysis conducted for the Council of Governments found that African Americans account for 93 percent of the population in the region’s five census tracts with the lowest life expectancies.
One path toward greater equity is to significantly increase our housing supply. The Council of Governments’ regional targets adopted last year calling for 320,000 new homes by 2030, in addition to those already planned — with 75 percent of them affordable to low- and middle-income households — have grown more important. Because of the pandemic, we now better appreciate the role of housing as health care, and the need for front-line workers to afford to live in the communities they serve.
Housing forms the foundation for economic mobility, academic success and quality of life. However, closer examination of past housing and land-use policies reveals a pattern of systemic racism and presents an important opportunity for local governments in our region to enact a culture change and prioritize and advance equity. My own jurisdiction, Prince George’s County, is rewriting its zoning ordinance and developing a new and comprehensive housing strategy.
The road ahead won’t be easy, and these initiatives will have to be driven by staff members educated and energized about advancing equity. Fortunately, in partnership with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, the Council of Governments has been helping build our human capital capacity, training 100 staff members from 11 area jurisdictions as part of a year-long racial equity cohort launched in September. A new cohort will begin in early 2021.
I see this focus on equity as a way of strengthening, not shifting, our regional priorities. And I am confident it will help us take our forward-looking planning and place-making to the next level in the years ahead.