Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

The D.C. Council passed legislation last Tuesday that could prevent new food deserts from forming and lessen the blow to those that currently exist. Lawmakers unanimously voted for the “Grocery Store Restrictive Covenant Prohibition Act of 2018.”

The bill makes it so that owners or operators of a site in D.C. cannot restrict its use by making buyers unable to use the site for a grocery store. If this legislation is signed into law, any land covenants or restrictions will become void and unenforceable.

While the bill may be newly voted on by the Council, the earliest version of it dates back to 2014. CouncilmemberMary Cheh first introduced a prohibition on grocery store land covenants after catching wind of a Safeway in the Palisades neighborhood that planned on putting a covenant in the sale that said another grocery store could not replace it. By doing this, Safeway attempted to limit its competition.

“That would be a major blow to the people of the Palisades and their access to convenient grocery stores,” Cheh says. “They want to keep competitors away from other stores that they have, and so when they sell a store with a covenant, well, that may be convenient for them, but it’s entirely inconvenient for the community.”

Since 2014, Cheh has introduced several versions of the bill, both temporary and permanent, but only the temporary versions have ever been approved. Cheh attributes this stagnancy to former Councilmember Vincent Orange, who was the chair of the Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs.

“He may have had many reasons,” Cheh says, speculating on why Orange didn’t push the bill through “Maybe he was just indifferent. He was a Councilmember in my experience anyway who had his own … priorities.” Orange did not respond to requests for an interview.

Since being in office, Cheh has introduced several bills to combat food insecurity in the District. In 2014, she co-introduced with Councilmember David Grosso the “Food Policy Council and Director Establishment Act of 2014.” This bill established a food policy director to promote food policy in the District and attract new participants to the local food economy. It also established a Food Policy Council to identify regulatory burdens.

In March of 2017, she also co-introduced, with Councilmembers Vince Gray, Trayon White, Anita Bonds, and Jack Evans, the “East End Grocery and Retail Incentive Program Tax Abatement Act of 2017,” which established major benefits and tax breaks for anchor stores, grocery stores, and sit-down restaurants that open in specific sites in Wards 7 and 8. Ward 7 has two full service grocery store for its 70,064 residents while Ward 8 only has one for its 78,686 residents, according to 2016 data from DC Hunger Solutions.

This post has been updated.