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In 2019, Mayor Muriel Bowser set a timeline to create 12,000 affordable housing units throughout the city by 2025. City data shows that more than 3,500 affordable units were produced between January 2019 and November 2021. Zero of those units are in the zone deemed Rock Creek West, which encompasses much of Ward 3. It’s baffling because Rock Creek West has the loftiest goal set—1,990 affordable units. While 440 units are in the works, right now all they have is a big fat goose egg in D.C.’s wealthiest ward.
Bowser unveiled a “roadmap” on Dec. 16 to bring more housing to the area, writing: “Through our collective action and deeper collaboration, we can meet our housing goals in Rock Creek West and advance our collective vision of an equitable city.”
It would combine the current incentives of the Housing Production Trust Fund with two new initiatives:
- A faith-based assistance/incentive program given to churches to build housing on property they own.
- Incentives to property owners with vacant units to turn them into affordable housing for 15 years. (This plan is similar to one proposed by mayoral candidate and At-Large Councilmember Robert White.)
It’s a win for local activists who have been pushing for change themselves. Many Ward 3 locals have created organizations, such as the grassroots Ward 3 Housing Justice, to advocate for a more equitable spread of units.
“There is community support for affordable housing,” says Margaret Dwyer, who does communications for W3HJ. “And we are pushing and pushing and pushing and we hope that the mayor is finally going to listen to us.”
Dwyer lives in Wakefield/Van Ness and her fellow activist, Gail Sonnemann, lives in Friendship Heights. Sonnemann says they have first hand experience with Ward 3’s lack of affordable housing.
“I’m a librarian. Margaret’s a teacher. We know what your mortal salaries are,” Sonnemann says. “It’s the day population of the people that we care about.”
Dwyer and Sonnemann describe this “day population” as the people who have to commute into Ward 3 to work in various businesses, but can’t afford to stay there at night because housing is too expensive.
“The answer has to be that it is not just the current community, it is the should be community,” Dwyer says. “The community that involves all of the people who should be able to live here.”
Several areas have been scoped out for potential affordable units, including the Chevy Chase Library & Community Center, several spots around the Friendship Heights Metro, and the Howard University Law Campus. Another location mentioned is the former Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park, which activists like W3HJ have criticized as Bowser’s biggest missed opportunity. The owners of the 1,100-room hotel and convention center filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Despite the efforts by W3HJ and the Wardman Park Strategy Group, a developer snatched it up. The Washington Business Journal reports the group asked for permits Tuesday to tear down the building.
However, Dwyer says the hotel should not be referred to as a past opportunity and “it is still way up on our list.” She and Sonneman say Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio told them he would “negotiate hard for the greatest maximum amount of affordable housing.” But overall they haven’t heard anything from Bowser’s team on the progress of that negotiation. Still, they remain hopeful.
“You have to be hopeful to do this kind of work,” she says.
Dwyer and Sonnemann also stress that this is something residents want. The Ward’s past has a historically rocky relationship with welcoming marginalized communities. In the 1920s, D.C. and the federal governments forced Black residents out of the Fort Reno area. White developers also torpedoed a plan to create a Black Chevy Chase in the Belmont neighborhood.
While those racist acts impacted the demographics of Ward 3, Sonnemann says canvassing in places like Woodley Park shows her that tides are turning.
“You might find that surprising when you see enormous homes that are great real estate value,” Sonnemann says. “We found there’s so … many apartment dwellers and group homes and four story structures of beautiful homes that are cut into apartments.”
“It is not the wealthy upper class,” she adds. “It is the people that we met on the street and knocking on doors who wanted affordable housing.”
One of those residents is Councilmember Mary Cheh, who says in a statement to City Paper that Ward 3 is “well-positioned to do its part.”
“Community groups and residents have done outstanding groundwork to identify those sites in the Ward that are already poised to contribute ample and diverse housing, including District-owned, federally-owned, and privately-owned sites, and the Mayor’s Rock Creek West Roadmap reflects that effort,” she said.
“There is no single tool that will get us to the level of affordable housing that we need, but each site in Ward 3 will play an integral part in a District-wide strategy, and I’m excited for what the next phase of growth will look like.”
—Bailey Vogt (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
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