Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The D.C. Housing Authority and the D.C. Building Industry Association tried to water down tenant protections around affordable housing in the District’s Comprehensive Plan, a 20-year roadmap that guides development. But so far, they haven’t succeeded. 

The proposed language in the Comp Plan provides guidelines to property owners looking to redevelop their properties, essentially asking them to secure tenants’ rights to return to the new site at a similar affordable price to what they paid before the renovation. DCHA, for its part, appears to be more concerned about the language opening them up to lawsuits. 

“The Housing Authority’s big concern is if they try to do a project and they don’t do those things, they will get sued. Well the way it’s written is ‘we’d love for you to do this,’ not ‘you have to,’” says Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who introduced the provision. 

The disagreement between the Council and DCHA over how best to respond to development and displacement foreshadows a long, turbulent process ahead. The Council is voting on the Framework Element of the Comp Plan Tuesday, and still has more sections to review.

Specifically, the tenant protections apply to “planned unit developments,” or a process for large-scale developments where landlords get more flexibility on zoning in exchange for public benefits. 

In an email forwarded to City PaperDavid Goldblatt of the law firm Goldblatt Martin Pozen LLP wrote Mendelson, asking him to revise the bill to effectively soften the guidelines. Goldblatt said he is speaking on behalf of DCBIA. Specifically, Goldblatt requested that Mendelson soften two sections, including a provision that maintains “the right” for existing residents to return to new affordable housing. Instead, he asked that tenants only be afforded “the opportunity.” 

In response to this email, a Nadeau spokesperson replied: “We very deliberately crafted this language knowing that the Housing Authority is constantly trying to skirt around these principles and … respect for residents in the redevelopment/privatization of their housing stock. So to me, it’s fine that they’re not too happy.”

Nadeau tells City Paper she spoke with DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett specifically to address his concerns.

“This will not open us up to more lawsuits—that has been a huge focus for all of us working on the Comp Plan, because when we’re getting sued we can’t build more housing and what we want is the housing,” says Nadeau. “My sense from my meeting is that he felt more comfortable after we talked but I think he is probably covering his bases, moving around the building and talking to other councilmembers.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson released the latest version of the Comp Plan Monday afternoon with tenant protections in tact. The legislation is scheduled for a second reading and final vote on Tuesday. Nadeau says she’s prepared to refute any amendments that attempt to hobble the language.

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A spokesperson for At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the housing committee, says she “has met with the Housing Authority and has been on record supporting the right to return. Her position has not changed and the right to return remains an element of the framework. Anything that would prevent the Housing Authority from providing safe, sanitary, and affordable housing with the appropriate density would be reviewed. But Councilmember Bonds feels that the revised language provided by the Chairman (which was also circulated earlier today) adequately addressed any concerns that we’ve heard from the Housing Authority and from tenants.”

Even the smart growth set is in favor of Mendelson’s language. “This is a huge step toward steering redevelopments to incorporate the priorities that so many groups endorsed: more affordable housing, preserving existing affordable housing, minimizing residents having to move away, and ensuring they can return if they do,” writes Greater Greater Washington President David Alpert of the legislation. 

D.C. is experiencing rapid gentrification and displacement, particularly of black residents. A recent study says the District experienced the greatest “intensity of gentrification” of any U.S. city, displacing more than 20,000 African American residents between 2000 and 2013. That’s why the Council needs to strength Nadeau’s provision, not weaken it, advocates argue.   

“It would be tragic to not do something in there to encourage the prevention of displacement replacement of family-size units,” says Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC. “We think it’s critical, of course, in light of the fact that half of the existing public housing stock in the city is now in the pipeline for demolition and those residents will be just displaced at some point in the next 10 years as these projects move forward.” 

DCHA already relocated nearly 200 families that live at Barry Farm, a housing complex in one of the poorest parts of the District, to make way for development. 

“Essentially they’re going to be tearing down properties that have four or five or six bedroom units and they want to be able to rebuild without replacing those larger units,” Norouzi says of DCHA’s reluctance to guarantee the right to return. “They want to have the opportunity for residents to return but not the right for residents to return so that they can screen people out in different ways.” 

When asked whether DCHA supports the provision, spokesperson Jose Sousa says the agency remains “100% committed to the same levels of affordability and the opportunity to return at future redevelopment sites within DCHA so long as returning families are still participating in our voucher program or residing in a different DCHA unit during relocation and are lease compliant.”

“On the matter of unit size, we will work within the framework of existing multi-bedroom offerings to ensure that an appropriate number of units are incorporated into the revitalization of DCHA sites. We want to make sure that the underwriting to finance these transactions isn’t threatened by an overreliance on units that don’t reflect the need of a property’s population or of our existing waitlist,” Sousa adds.  

Nadeau underscored that her office worked “very careful[ly]” in the crafting of our language, and consulted with the D.C. Office of Planning. The priority was to “reduce the number of lawsuits.” Meanwhile, Norouzi “want[s] to see the language strengthened so that it is not a suggestion, but it’s a requirement to replace affordable units that have been demolished.”

Mitch Ryals contributed to this report.  

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