Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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New rule: If you have something to say about the long-anticipated Reunion Square development in Historic Anacostia, you must first show Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White your ID.

At least that’s what he told some constituents in response to an email campaign opposing the project’s current iteration.

On Sept. 12, Brandon Bass, who says he lives in the 1700 block of W Street SE in Anacostia, sent an email objecting to a bill to approve tax increment financing (TIF) to subsidize the development. The email also says the project does not bring enough economic development to the area and accuses White of not fully engaging with the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Other concerned citizens sent the same email as part of a campaign opposing the project.

D.C.’s TIF program is a financing method where the District borrows money using bonds, uses that money to subsidize a development project, and then pays back the borrowed funds over time from the increased property and sales taxes generated by the development project.

White, replying from his Council address and cc’ing each councilmember and staffer included on the original email, writes:

“Hello Mr. Bass,

Please send a copy of your ID card reflecting your Ward 8 ‘Anacostia’ address. Thanks.”

“I think it’s a little insensitive of him,” says Bass.  “I’m one of your constituents, and I have to show proof I live in the ward? Kind of like a bully factor.”

At least one other Ward 8 resident, whose partner spoke with LL on the condition of anonymity, received a similar email from White.

“Even if he wants to make sure people who are signing the petition are in the area, he needs to do it in a systematic way, not by asking via email,” the man says. “We felt intimidated and threatened.”

White did not respond to questions about his demands for identification, but the emails, which were shared on a neighborhood listserv, clearly unsettled his constituents.

Their demands echo those in a change.org petition, which condemns what its supporters say is a lack of engagement from White. The petition scolds the lawmaker for renegotiating the amenities and terms of the TIF behind closed doors.

The petition specifically objects to the diminished amount of TIF funding from $60.8 million to about $25 million, removal of most market rate housing, and the removal of a planned 180-room hotel.

“We remind Councilmember White that the proposed hotel had job training, as well as the potential to attract retail and other businesses that would create viable, sustainable jobs and much needed amenities for Ward 8 residents,” the petition says.

In response to questions about the petition, White, in a text message, says in part:

“The developers suggested a housing unit to support seniors housing for residents, and Ward 8 residents are opposed to that during a housing crisis for a hotel? I must be missing something.”

A document from White’s office with FAQs about the project also notes that hundreds of market rate units are planned for other developments throughout the ward. “Economic growth in Anacostia should encourage choice not displacement, ensuring that development benefits everyone in an inclusive manner, especially those who are at highest risk, and results in positive public impact and equity,” the document says.

As of press time, more than 250 people have signed the petition, though White does have some support.

Ronald Thompson, an Anacostia resident who has attended community meetings about Reunion Square, says the hotel would have been nice, but affordable housing should take priority. He also believes it’s reasonable for White to ask how deeply rooted a person is to the community.

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“[Some residents] treat people who they don’t want to have access to the neighborhood anymore with a level of disdain that is beyond reproach,” Thompson says. “So if the councilmember asked for their IDs, hats off to him.”

The debate over this phase of what will be a massive 1.5-million-square-foot development represents a difficult question for Ward 8 and its elected representative. In an area with only one grocery store (another is expected to open in the fall), and where the median household income is about $32,000, will amenities like hotels catalyze enough economic growth to lift low-income residents to the next rung or push them further out? 

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Last November, White maneuvered to pull back the bill that would give about $60 million in TIF bond financing to the Reunion Square project. ANC 8A, where the development is located, had approved the project, and its chairman, Troy Prestwood, had testified before the Council in support. 

White told City Paper last year that the project included too few affordable housing units, and not enough guaranteed jobs for Ward 8 residents.

“The whole premise behind a TIF is that the property taxes will go up in value around the property,” White said in November. “If we aren’t helping people with education, economic opportunities, and careers, then people won’t be able to afford to live there when the property values go up. There’s no use to there being a hotel if people can’t afford to stay there.”

(Some residents have since scratched their heads at White’s argument that Ward 8 residents would stay in a hotel located in Ward 8.)

In May, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced new TIF legislation with support from White and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who chairs the business and economic development committee.

Bowser highlighted 143 affordable housing units, with 134 dedicated to seniors, 5,000 square feet of office space for Ward 8 businesses, space for the Anacostia Playhouse, and space for DC Health. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson officially introduced the legislation at the mayor’s behest in June.

Days later, Attorney General Karl Racine filed a lawsuit against Curtis Investment Group Inc., one of the Reunion Square developers, which owns several Ward 7 and 8 buildings, for illegally advertising that it would not accept housing vouchers. From McDuffie’s perspective, the project cannot move forward until the AG’s suit is resolved.

Anacostia residents who spoke with LL recently say they heard little from White’s office until an Aug. 14 meeting where he and his staff gave updates on the project’s community benefits agreement (CBA). That’s when White and a representative for one of the project’s developers unveiled the new draft CBA, which aligned with the mayor’s announcement. It did not include the hotel, added more affordable housing units, and reduced the number of market rate units.

White’s office says they’ve held five community meetings about Reunion Square since February and that ANC 8A commissioners were present at each one. 

The draft CBA shows that the developer also agreed to pour more money into surrounding community organizations: around $1 million, up from about $225,000 in the previous CBA.

Ty’on Jones, the ANC for single member district 8A06, which includes Reunion Square, sent White questions after the Aug. 14 meeting on behalf of his residents. They’re asking White to explain why he made the changes he did, whether any official analyses guided his decisions, and how he picked the organizations that the CBA benefits. Jones is withholding his support for the project until White responds.

“I’m hopeful that there’s still an opportunity for the community to weigh in on the changes, or to get questions answered, or to find out more information on the project from the councilmember’s undertaking,” says Jones, who used to work as the constituent services director for White’s predecessor, LaRuby May. “It was my belief that a hotel would provide economic development in that we are increasing the number of people in our community who can spend dollars in our local businesses.” 

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