Janeese Lewis George Green New Deal
Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George is backing a version of a Green New Deal for housing. Credit: Alex Koma

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Let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat: The obstacles to anything resembling a “Green New Deal” becoming law in D.C. are numerous—perhaps too numerous for supporters to surmount anytime soon.

The D.C. Council may be tilting left, but moderates still hold many of the levers of power that could prevent such ambitious legislation from passing (and most of those lawmakers are favorites to win re-election this year). The same goes for Mayor Muriel Bowser in both regards, another major obstacle considering her administration would be the one implementing proposals from the coalition of housing, labor and climate activists backing this movement.

But the past week or so has proved that these sorts of ideas, as nebulous as they may still be, are gaining purchase in D.C. politics. Cynical observers may tut-tut about the “art of the possible,” but the fact remains that a near-majority of the Council just signed on to a climate-centered expansion of social housing in the District. And a few days before that, a leading mayoral candidate rolled out a plan for a similarly climate-centric jobs guarantee.

Will any of that become a reality anytime soon? Probably not. But it’s worth taking these policies seriously, because it looks as if momentum is building and could coalesce into a major initiative in the near future.

The promise of the Green New Deal always has been that it could unite a diverse coalition of political actors with interests that don’t always align, and that promise was on display at Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George’s big unveiling of her GND plan Tuesday. Labor activists with LiUNA, environmentalists with the Sierra Club and Sunrise Movement, and racial justice and housing advocates with the NAACP and Empower DC all got on board to champion Lewis George’s new bill. Five other councilmembers are listed as co-introducers—one short of the majority needed to pass.

“If we’re going to fight climate change, we’re going to have to fight all of these, hand in hand, partnering together,” Lewis George said at a rally on the steps of the Wilson Building.

So what’s actually in Lewis George’s new legislation? She’s promising two bills: One to spur the construction of District-owned affordable housing (commonly referred to as “social housing”) and another to accelerate the removal of lead service lines from buildings around the city (with an accompanying union-backed hiring initiative to get it off the ground).

The former is co-introduced with Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, At-Large Councilmember Robert White, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, and Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto—a bit of a surprise addition to this list, considering she only seldom aligns with the Council’s more progressive wing. And Loose Lips would expect to see At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman‘s name on the list of co-introducers, yet she is notably absent. Silverman says in a text that she needs a better understanding of the bills. “Too much going on right now,” she writes. Lewis George said she’s still discussing with potential co-sponsors for the lead bill.

The idea of social housing has been floating around D.C. as a potential solution for the past several years as the city’s affordability crisis has worsened. Ask just about any candidate running this year, and they’ll express support for it, at least in theory. But tenants’ rights attorney Will Merrifield probably did the most work to drag the policy into the mainstream with his quixotic bid for an at-large Council seat two years ago. He helped Lewis George draft this latest bill, which would create a new “Office of Social Housing Developments” within the District government.

That office would coordinate opportunities for such development (ensuring it’s all built to net-zero emissions standards and with minimal off-street parking, to meet the GND’s climate goals) but would also need to find a way to actually build all this housing. Lewis George points to Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission as a potential model, since the body acts as a quasi-public affordable housing developer. But the HOC also frequently partners with private firms as well, and Lewis George said she would not be averse to doing the same. The HOC also recently launched a new housing production fund to line up bond financing for these pricy projects (seeded by some county funding) and Lewis George wants to see D.C. embrace that strategy too.

A major challenge for any affordable developer is securing land in the high-cost D.C. market, so the GND legislation would also incentivize the use of District-owned property for social housing (and make it harder for the mayor to give away city land without seeing it developed as social housing instead). The bill would also make these projects eligible for money from the Housing Production Trust Fund, the city’s main source of loan funding to get affordable housing projects off the ground.

The problem for Lewis George is that Bowser is a crucial gatekeeper at many of these inflection points. The Council has a role to play in the disposition of public land, but the mayor’s economic development team largely steers that ship. Same goes for the HPTF, where Bowser’s housing department gets to choose which projects win crucial funding (a process that hasn’t always gone smoothly). So, LL asked, how does social housing work if Bowser’s still in charge?

“I don’t see this as in conflict with the executive,” Lewis George said. “I see this as me creating another tool for the executive to use for affordable housing. If the executive is going to meet the Housing Production Trust Fund goals [to serve low-income renters], then this is an additional tool to make that happen.”

Count LL as skeptical that Bowser will view that offer so charitably given her feelings on most of the left-leaning Council bloc’s proposals (and her history with Lewis George, who knocked off her close ally in her home ward). Maybe having a more sympathetic mayor in the Wilson Building like, say, Robert White would make this all more possible.

White didn’t take up the Green New Deal mantle quite as explicitly as Lewis George in unveiling his jobs guarantee proposal last week, but many of the same themes were there. He wants to hire about 10,000 new government workers and coordinate with unions to see every unemployed District resident placed in a new job, often in green-adjacent roles. White suggested the city could hire more people to plant trees or make building energy efficiency upgrades—he noted his own trouble finding maintenance companies when he got a green roof installed on his house.

Those workers could perform the sort of lead remediation work that Lewis George’s second bill envisions as well. Her legislation would add roles to the DC Infrastructure Academy (essentially, a local job training program) to perform that work, but White’s proposal (which he has yet to translate into legislation) would go much further. Lewis George said she feels her bill is “absolutely complimentary” to White’s proposal, and would support that effort too.

There isn’t much reason at this moment to expect to see a new mayor eager to work on these issues, or leadership on the Council ready to move it through the legislative process. Empower D.C. head Parisa Norouzi acknowledged as much in her own brief speech Tuesday, alluding to the distinct possibility that At-Large Councilmember Anita Bondshousing committee may never be willing to give a hearing to these expansive social housing proposals. Norouzi even joked that Lewis George may be a better fit to chair that committee; the Ward 4 councilmember demurred when asked if she agreed.

But the picture may not be quite as dire as it seems on first glance. Lewis George is already just one vote shy of a majority on her social housing bill, opening the door for her to insert it into future budget language, and Ward 3 Council contender Matt Frumin heartily endorsed the idea on Twitter. That means a Green New Deal could be just one election away from becoming a distinct possibility in the District.

“D.C. will be one of the first cities to pass a Green New Deal in this country, leading the way as we always have,” Lewis George said.