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Less than a week before the special election for D.C. Council chair, the four major candidates stood atop Market Square, the monumental core panoramic behind them, and answered questions from residents of Pennsylvania Quarter. Three of the candidates strongly supported bringing more inhabitants to the neighborhood-in-progress around 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The one who was lukewarm was the one who won the election a few days later, David Clarke.
The prickly Clarke tried to sound conciliatory, noting that he was involved in crafting “Living Downtown” objectives in his previous terms on the council. But he declined to wax enthusiastic about more downtown residents and was the only candidate to leave the Sept. 10 forum early.
Charlene Drew Jarvis, meanwhile, told the audience that “the Housing Production Act will not be moving. It’s very important to keep the noise level down on this issue.” That was exactly what Pennsylvania Quarter denizens wanted to hear, and a far stronger position than former Council Chair John Wilson, who claimed to oppose the act, ever took publicly. Jarvis’ prediction would mean more, though, coming from a council chair than from a Ward 4 representative who ran a poor second in the race.
The Orwellianly titled Housing Production Act is actually an anti-downtown-housing bill. It’s designed to eliminate the requirement for more residential units along the 7th Street corridor; instead of creating new (and largely, if not exclusively, upscale) housing in the area,
developers would contribute to a fund to build moderate-income housing elsewhere in the city. (Under the current zoning, up to 40 percent of the housing requirement can already be “bought out” and used for this purpose.)
Since the city charter prohibits the D.C. Council from meddling in zoning, the Housing Production Act would be purely symbolic—or “noise,” as Jarvis put it—but its passage is symbolism that advocates of the long-promoted Living Downtown would just as soon avoid. It’s a particularly sensitive issue for Pennsylvania Quarterites, who want more residents in the surrounding blocks in order to create a livelier neighborhood and to support shops, restaurants, and services.
The forum’s most outspoken speaker was Marie Drissel, who finished fourth in the chair race but who has been touted as a Ward 1 council candidate. Drissel argued that no buyouts should be allowed, that 100 percent of the possible housing should be built in the area. “I’ll say it in any ward in the city,” she vowed, arguing that the city needs more middle- and upper-income inhabitants.
For D.C. to benefit fully from such inhabitants, of course, they must be income-tax-paying legal residents. Trying to drum up support in her own Sheridan/Kalorama neighborhood, Drissel noted, she found that many of her neighbors are not registered voters because they’re officially not D.C. residents; they’ve established legal residence at weekend getaways in lower-tax jurisdictions. No one spoke up when Drissel made that comment, but there are at least a few Pennsylvania Quarter dwellers who maintain exactly the same arrangement.