Creating a New Day in Rock Creek West
NWOPCDC recognizes the deep historical roots of housing inequality in Rock Creek West. To repair past harms and to create a new day of housing justice in RCW, we need a new commitment, a new narrative, and new policies and tools.
A New Commitment
In 2019, the Bowser administration set a goal of creating 1990 new units of affordable housing by 2025. As of 2022, almost none has been built, although some have been projected.
● On the former Fannie Mae site, City Ridge will have over 650 residential units, only 56 of which will be affordable.
● In Friendship Heights, the prospect for the matter-of-right redevelopment of the full-block Mazza Gallery with 350 new apartments is no better and may result in only 28-35 affordable units.
● On the Wardman Hotel site in Woodley Park, Carmel Partners plans a matter-of-right development for 9.5 acres that will produce 900 rental units, only 8% or 72 of which are required to be affordable.
The total yield from these 3 large-scale projects near Metro stations and creating a total of 2002 units? A mere 163 units of affordable housing.
And for whom are even these few units going to be affordable? Almost all of the 163 units will be available to residents living at an average of 60% of the Median Family Income (MFI), while the Black MFI for a family of four is $49,652, which is below 40% MFI for all families.
Clearly, we need more than a goal. We need a hard commitment, backed by bold, clear, concrete targets at all income levels, including 0-30% MFI, per neighborhood that are then enacted through robust intervention and guidance by the Office of Planning (OP) and the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).
A New Narrative: From Concentrated Poverty to Concentrated Opportunity
Myths and misunderstandings about affordable housing are ubiquitous and deeply embedded in our country’s thinking. .We need to rethink the narrative about affordable housing if we hope to build a city that works for all its residents.
One powerful stereotype is that people who live in affordable housing are ‘not the right kinds of people,’ although most people do not say this openly. Instead, the specter of ‘concentrated poverty’ has come to serve as a proxy for fears about crime, disrepair, lowered property values, and nuisance behaviors. These fears seem largely based on what happened to many public housing communities that gradually became unlivable as a result of deliberate governmental disinvestment in the maintenance and repair of the properties.
An early and infamous example of deliberate disinvestment by a local housing authority began in 1977 at Fort Dupont in Southeast Washington, a predominantly Black community managed by the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA). Despite having received funds from HUD to modernize and replace many of the units in the complex, DCHA failed to act, the community fell into deeper disrepair and residents experienced all of the related negative side effects that accompany deliberate disinvestment.
In a lawsuit against DCHA (Edwards v. District of Columbia), residents were the first to name the phenomenon that so many public housing residents were, and still are, experiencing: ‘de facto demolition’, wherein a Housing Authority causes the inhabitability that would trigger a HUD-funded demolition, where “…the assumption is that without this deliberate neglect…the project would have continued to be viable, inhabitable, and therefore continue to be a source of affordable housing for very low income families.” (Goetz 2013, p. 54)
Adding insult to injury, the specter of a community condemned to dilapidated, unsafe conditions is then described in catastrophic terms in the press and the public imagination (called by Goetz a ‘discourse of disaster’), and the residents, not the owners and managers, are blamed.
A new narrative about affordable housing not only debunks these racist stereotypes; it shows the benefits that accompany deep investments in truly affordable housing.
Consider an example: When a group of housing advocates pushed for the District to buy the then-bankrupt Wardman Park Hotel in wealthy Woodley Park in Ward 3, our proposal faced objections from city government officials, elected officials, and others that an affordable housing community for residents earning 0-80% MFI (up to roughly $103,000 for a family of four) would amount to ‘concentrated poverty’ in Woodley Park. In the end, our proposal did not prevail, Carmel Partners bought the hotel at auction for private development, and their current plans will produce only 72 affordable housing units, possibly none of which will be family-sized or for extremely low income residents.
Let’s be clear. To our national shame, concentrated poverty does exist. The Annie E. Casey Foundation says that “Areas of concentrated poverty are defined as census tracts where the overall poverty rate checks in at 30% or more…These neighborhoods generally lack healthy food options, top-performing public schools and quality medical care. High-poverty neighborhoods are also more likely to expose residents to crime and environmental hazards, such as lead and smog.”
In other words, one affordable housing community in the middle of wealthy, leafy, Woodley Park does not even remotely resemble concentrated poverty. Instead, it could be a life-changing, harm-repairing investment in the lives of low-income, predominantly Black and Brown, DC residents. The power of moving to this kind of amenity-rich neighborhood has been made clear by Harvard’s Opportunity Insights research, “Neighborhoods Matter: Children’s Lives are Shaped by the Neighborhoods They Grow Up In.”
And whose lives would benefit? It is very likely that the people who might live in affordable housing are already present in every community. They may already work in the area, and everyone who works here ought to be able to live here if they choose. They could be seniors, families, young people, people living on low or fixed incomes, and workers in child care, home health care, hospitality, retail, construction and other low-paying sectors. Even teachers and other professionals starting out on their careers, burdened with student debt, might not earn enough to pay market rate prices.
These new residents would benefit from Ward 3 neighborhood amenities and resources.This “concentration of opportunity” is good for the new residents and for the wider community as well, since new residents will add to the vigor of the neighborhood, patronize local services and businesses, work and play among us, and bring new life and energy, particularly in many neighborhoods in Ward 3, with aging populations. This is especially true in Friendship Heights, where many opportunities for redevelopment that include affordable housing could bring valued new residents into what the Urban Land Institute calls a ‘naturally occurring retirement community.’
New Policy and Tools
Nationwide over the past seven decades, federal policy that is ostensibly race neutral has caused the destruction of Black communities, through programs such as urban renewal and the demolition of public housing and other low income Black communities. In fact, leading scholar Edward Goetz has written, “Thus, as with the urban renewal program of the 1950’s and 1960’s, one of the main outcomes of public housing demolition has been the forced removal of Blacks from their homes.” (2013, p. 9)
Washington has been no exception to this trend. A 2019 article in the Washington Post reports the findings from a study conducted by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition that DC is the most ‘intensely gentrifying’ city in the US: about 40% of low income DC neighborhoods were gentrified between 2010 and 2013; 20,000 Black residents were displaced in that three-year period alone and t were replaced by affluent White residents.
This displacement and gentrification, like the segregation created many years before, was not accidental, but rather, the result of recent policy, starting in 2003, to attract and retain 100,000 new residents through a variety of coordinated strategies, such as ‘investing in strategic areas’ and ‘eliminating blight.’ These strategies were not as race neutral as they were presented to be. Over the next decades, many predominantly Black neighborhoods were redeveloped, resulting in the displacement of tens of thousands of Black residents. Despite the promise to generate quality affordable housing, very little was actually created, leaving the displaced Black residents to fend for themselves elsewhere.
Many current policies have a stated goal of creating, preserving or redeveloping large amounts of quality affordable housing. In fact, many of these policies have been weak or ineffective in reaching their goals.
Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) is one such program. It is intended to increase the numbers of affordable units in otherwise total market rate developments. On the one hand, it does that. If there were no IZ requirement, matter-of-right developments would not need to include any affordable units at all. However, the requirement can be so minimal that very few affordable units – and virtually no deeply affordable units – are created. This is what we see in Rock Creek West, as mentioned earlier, where at three large redevelopments at City Ridge, Mazza Gallerie, and the Wardman, 1900 new units are in the pipeline, creating about 163 IZ units, and these for residents living at 60% MFI.
Current IZ practices, even with enhancements, will never create enough deeply affordable, or even moderately affordable units in RCW to reach the Mayor’s goal. LINK TO CALCULATOR
The New Communities Initiative (NCI) is another program that purports to redevelop large amounts of deeply affordable housing, but that has in fact, produced very little. Created at the end of 2016, it was intended to redevelop four public housing sites that DCHA had allowed to fall into disrepair: Park Morton in Ward 1, Northwest One (formerly Temple Court and Golden Rule) in Ward 6, Lincoln Heights in Ward 7, and Barry Farm in Ward 8. NCI’s commitments are to keep residents on or near the sites during redevelopment, to replace low income housing units one for one in the mixed use redevelopments they propose to build, and to return the residents to the site once it is redeveloped. So far, however, it has emptied or razed deeply affordable public housing communities like the historic Barry Farm, displacing thousands of Black residents living on low incomes, while building only a fraction of promised replacement units at scattered sites. To date, no residents have returned to a redeveloped community.
Taken together, these and other policies have contributed to displacement and an additional decline in the Black population of DC of an estimated 19,315 people from 2010 to 2020. (It is worth noting that Ward 3 is one of only two that saw a modest increase in the Black population over that time period.)
Policy created the problem; policy can solve it. It is time to enact bold policy initiatives and practices that will create housing justice. As Attorney General Karl Racine said as recently as late 2021,”I think the development arm of this city has acted intentionally with great purpose, and we see the result. The highest level of displacement of anywhere else in the United States of America. Now, the Office of Attorney General is free, free at last to act independently, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to work as hard as we can for the next 13 months to ensure that zoning laws and other actions actually don’t hurt longtime DC residents and vulnerable people. And I look forward to crossing swords with the development arm of the government so that a court can decide what’s fair and what’s not.”
Need our key policy recommendations
The single most important new policy that could stem Black displacement and lead to the creation of abundant affordable housing is not so much a policy at all, but a posture. We need leadership at DMPED, DHCD, and OP that will seek out, stake out, and work out targeted affordable redevelopment opportunities by:
● Setting firm targets for affordable units by neighborhood;
● Identifying promising sites, such as the Lord and Taylor in Friendship Heights and moving quickly to secure them;
● Creating an Acquisition Fund that would enable pre-qualified nonprofit affordable housing developers to move nimbly to purchase properties in high-demand areas like RCW;
● Actively working with community-based organizations like ours to put together a redevelopment plan that will include robust, truly affordable housing and a variety of community amenities; and
● Prioritizing promising models for permanently affordable housing such as community land trusts, limited equity cooperatives, and social housing.
A new day in Rock Creek West
We can’t undo historical harm but, strengthened by our proposed policies, we can create many new, intentional communities throughout Rock Creek West: at the Lord and Taylor site, Home Plate lot and the WMATA bus garage in Friendship Heights; at the Wardman in Woodley Park; above the library in Tenley that was designed to accommodate building above; with redevelopment of Chevy Chase Library and Recreation Center site; and on National Park Service land near Reno. These can be thriving communities of concentrated opportunity, near transit, employment, schools and other amenities, where anyone who wants to live in Ward 3, including many of our displaced Black neighbors, can thrive.
We seek to develop partnerships with local government agencies and non-profit organizations to build these communities. Justice demands nothing less.
Annie E. Casey Foundation. Concentrated Poverty
Brookings Institution, 2003. Neighborhood 10: Ten strategies for a stronger Washington.
Goetz, Edward G. 2013. New deal Ruins: Race, economic justice, and public housing policy. Cornell University Press.
Harvard University. Opportunity Insights: Policy solutions to the American dream. Opportunity Insights
Racine, Karl. 2021. The Politics Hour, Dec., 17, 2021, at about 41min into the tape >> https://wamu.org/story/21/12/17/the-politics-hour-december-17-2021/
Smith, Jonathan. 2019. Gentrification in DC was not fated. Policy made it happen. Washington Post.
Urban Land Institute, 2021. Report of the Technical Assistance Panel on Friendship Heights.