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Despite pleas from the administration of Mayor Vince Gray to shelve the measure, the D.C. Council has unanimously passed legislation requiring that all new residential developments on city-owned land include a substantial affordable component.
Amid runaway housing costs, the supply of housing that’s affordable for low-income D.C. residents has dwindled, putting pressure on the government to come up with new mechanisms to ensure the production and preservation of reasonably priced housing. The city’s principal statutory means of creating new affordable housing, the inclusionary zoning program, has been very slow to get off the ground. Gray claims the city is on track to reach his goal of producing or preserving 10,000 affordable housing units by 2020, but many of those units are still too pricey for the poorest families or are concentrated in high-poverty areas of the city.
The bill that passed today, authored by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, aims to make affordable housing a top priority when the city grants publicly owned land to developers for new projects. Under the bill, 20 percent of all housing units constructed when public land is sold or leased for development of at least 10 residential units must be set aside for households under certain income levels. That share increases to 30 percent when the site is near a Metro station, a streetcar line, or a major bus route. Both figures are meaningfully more than the 8 to 10 percent of units that must be affordable under inclusionary zoning.
Gray administration officials have expressed concerns that the bill will tie the hands of the mayor’s office, even when the requirement is not the most efficient means of creating affordable housing. Under the bill, if the city’s chief financial officer deems the affordable housing requirement for a particular project to be financially unfeasible—-for example, if the city subsidy required to make the affordable housing viable is more than the land is worth—-then the mayor’s office can waive the requirement. Gray officials have hoped to keep this power in the hands of the mayor’s office.
Housing advocates have urged the Council not to amend the bill. The whole purpose of it, they’ve argued, is to force affordable housing to be a priority on public land. Leaving the veto power in the mayor’s office, they said, would allow the mayor to create higher priorities, such as maximizing revenue or creating public amenities.
Gray sent a letter to the Council asking for a delay on today’s vote. Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, who brought the bill out of her housing committee, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson opted not to seek that delay. Instead, Mendelson introduced two minor amendments to the bill, which both passed.
“This bill was never intended to be a panacea,” McDuffie said, responding to the administration’s criticism. “It’s just one more tool in the toolkit to ensure we’re creating housing across income levels.”
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans was the only member to raise a substantial objection to the measure. “It’s no secret I have some grave concerns about this bill,” said Evans, who believes the city can create more affordable housing with a flexible approach than with rigid requirements. “I had hoped that we would be able to not vote on this today and take another two weeks to see if we can improve it.” Nonetheless, Evans did not vote against the bill, which passed on a voice vote.
Today’s vote represents a victory for housing advocates who have pushed the measure. However, it’s not clear just how much affordable housing it will create, or where. The city has recently disposed of major public sites, like those at CityCenterDC, Walter Reed, and the former McMillan Sand Filtration Site, and has issued a solicitation for development of a major part of the St. Elizabeths campus near Congress Heights—-taking those sites off the table for this new regulation. There are only a handful of large remaining sites that would be affected by the legislation.
Gray spokesman Doxie McCoy says Gray has not yet determined whether he’ll sign or veto the measure. “That’ll have to be decided,” she said. “Nothing’s determined at this point.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery