The John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C.
The John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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The D.C. Council approved new ward boundaries yesterday with the most significant changes coming to wards 6, 7, and 8. The once-every-decade process is required to ensure equal representation across all eight wards, which comes to about 86,000 people, plus or minus five percent.

The months-long redistricting process, led by a subcommittee chaired by At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, shifts Navy Yard, which includes swanky residential buildings, waterfront vistas, and Nationals Park, from Ward 6 into Ward 8, an area with higher poverty. The addition will double the majority-Black Ward 8’s white population. And the eastern section of Capitol Hill, known as Hill East and flush with rowhouses and low-rise apartments, will become part of Ward 7.

By an 11-1 vote, the Council approved the map, which reflected the subcommittee’s recommendations plus some changes from Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. (Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray was absent from the vote because of recent health issues.) 

The subcommittee initially recommended placing Kingman Park and Rosedale, neighborhoods that were split during the previous redistricting, into Ward 6. Mendelson’s reconfiguration, which divides Wards 6 and 7 along the length of 15th Street, moves them into Ward 7.

Mendelson’s changes reflect demands from some Ward 7 leaders who argued that the move would worsen deep disparities between communities in Ward 6 and those like Kingman Park. In a press conference Monday, Ward 7 Democrats leaders cited the proposed boundaries’ potential effects on services, economic development, and voting power on their community. 

The Battle over the Armed Forces Retirement Home

The most debated change came from Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who grasped at two sparsely populated parcels that include the Armed Forces Retirement Home and Washington Hospital Center.

The final map moves the both parcels from Ward 5 to Ward 1. McDuffie argued that the protocol for redrawing boundaries applies only when one community has too many or too few residents, which isn’t the case for either Ward 5 or Ward 1. Plus, the retirement home has ties to Ward 5 institutions, McDuffie said.

McDuffie challenged the subcommittee report’s claim that the change did not receive opposition from residents. He cited a letter signed by at least 30 community members and asked, “like, how many residents of Ward 5 are enough to oppose a request from a few [in Park View]?” 

Silverman later clarified that the email campaign from Ward 5 community members came too late in the redistricting process. McDuffie said he wasn’t aware of this particular proposal until just before the final subcommittee public hearing.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau countered that the retirement home is geographically cut off from Ward 5 and that Park View residents will be most affected by the retirement home development. She mentioned that residents in Ward 1 and Ward 4, aware of the forthcoming development of the home, have formed a Friends of Soldiers volunteer group that supports regular activities for veteran residents there. Gray’s absence may have hurt McDuffie’s effort to keep the two parcels in his ward, which he lost on a 6-6 vote. The second and final vote on the new boundaries will take place Dec. 21.

The Council postponed a vote on another high-profile item over Nadeau’s objections. Her emergency bill would have paused the part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s pilot program that clears homeless encampments while leaving in place the focus on housing and social services support. The bill also would have set public health, safety, and public space requirements for sites cleared in the pilot. Some councilmembers asked for revisions to the bill that would allow the city to clear tents from encampments near school grounds. 

The Council also set a date for the election of resident commissioners on the D.C. Housing Authority board. The agency failed to hold elections before the three commissioners’ terms expired Oct. 1. Now, they will remain in hold over positions on the board until after the election in March 2022. It’s only the latest bit of turmoil for the board with oversight of about 50,000 public housing residents and voucher holders as its former chair resigned amid scandal, and its new chair is technically ineligible to serve because she owes the District at least $15,000 in back taxes.

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