The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C.’s build-build-build mind-set results in more gentrification

A construction crane in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood in July.
A construction crane in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood in July. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post)
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Christopher Williams is a member of Southwest Voice and the Friends of Buzzard Point Steering Committee. Renee Bowser is 4D02 advisory neighborhood commissioner. Paul Johnson is 4C07 advisory neighborhood commissioner. They are members of the D.C. Grassroots Planning Coalition Steering Committee.

As longtime African American residents of D.C., we find recent remarks from D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) on the D.C. Comprehensive Plan so deeply misguided as to be offensive.

The past 20 years have made clear that the build-build-build scenario just results in gentrification, the forcing out of Black and Brown residents from D.C., and increased land values that destroy existing affordability without producing replacement affordable housing. In addition, hundreds of acres of public land have been given away or leased at fire-sale prices with all manner of financial incentives thrown in, from gap funding to tax-increment financing to tax abatement, usually for more luxury studios and trophy office space. Far from correcting for these disproved policies, the mayor’s amended Comprehensive Plan provides more of the same.

Insultingly, Cheh’s statements, like her Ward 3 developer-backed boosters, make no mention of the term “displacement” and the deepening racial and class divides in the city. It is unacceptable to dismiss the reality of directly affected residents who have lived in the areas of the city where high-end, high-density development has been constructed, such as gentrified neighborhoods around Union Market, Navy Yard, Southwest and even Shaw. These Black and Brown communities shoulder the burden of housing injustices under the “smart-growth” paradigm. This erasure of the lived experiences of displacement is a perpetuation of structural discrimination and historical violence against African Americans in the District.

The principal failed policy is that building more market-rate residential density will result in adequate affordable replacement units. It hasn’t, and it won’t. Our city’s feeble inclusionary zoning program has produced only 1,000 units in the past decade because typically only 8 to 20 percent of new units are set aside as “affordable.” Also, officials have pegged affordability as mid-area incomes, approximately $1,500 a month for a studio, rates out of reach for most working people, let alone the poor. Plus, substantial parts of the city, most notably downtown districts, are exempt from even these meager requirements. This means virtually no meaningful affordable family-size housing has been built despite the vast demand. Because of the enormous wealth inequities in D.C., these failures fall most heavily on Black and Brown families.

Cheh also perpetuated a false narrative that housing takes place in a pure form of free market economics. This myth is dispelled by the D.C. chief financial officer’s conservative report of nearly 20,000 housing unit vacancies in D.C., a key figure that highlights how developers can make income on both occupied and vacant units either as monthly rent or as liability write-offs that reduce the developers’ end-of-year tax bills. This proves there won’t be an immediate housing market correction for any overdevelopment in one of the hottest real estate markets in the world. Yes, supply and demand are a factor, but of more importance is the role of government that could actively incentivize housing production that serves D.C.’s residents, especially our vulnerable communities.

Instead, we see the government that is most often the not-so-invisible “invisible hand” putting developer profit over community needs. We have witnessed federal and local decisions that catalyze land redevelopment through density upzoning and changes to land use maps for real estate speculation, provide substantial government financing assistance such as municipal bonds and tax abatements for luxury hotels, stadiums and condos. We stand aghast at the selling, and sometimes outright gifting, of our limited public land, buildings and assets to private interests. Government-backed capital projects have added considerable value and profit margins to surrounding properties, such as along the South Capitol corridor, resulting in the financial and environmental destabilization of adjacent communities. The 2017 local and national tax plan benefits developers by providing tax deferment and exemptions for housing construction in “Opportunity Zones,” a program already associated with increased gentrification.

We don’t want Cheh’s #BuildMore dogma applied to planning across D.C. We want neighborhood-level and small-area planning that considers long-term data and projections such as health, environmental and gentrification impacts and, more recently, how the coronavirus is directly changing the needs of the built environment in urban centers. We also want all neighborhoods to play a role in planning, not just English-speaking residents (none of the Comprehensive Plan documents was translated, nor were meetings interpreted).

If the mayor’s proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan are accepted as Cheh proposes, it will be more of the status quo inequitable luxury development that will likely displace tens of thousands more Black and Brown people from their longtime homes in D.C.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: I support affordable housing in D.C. — and in my own ward

Jonathan M. Smith: Gentrification in D.C. was not fated. Policy made it happen.

Dylan Gottlieb: How gentrification caused America’s cities to burn

Pamela Newkirk: How blighted urban areas transform into trendy, gentrified communities

Neil Albert: D.C.’s growth is tied to the amended Comprehensive Plan

Kirby Vining: Are the proposed changes to D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan already out of date?