Development near Union Market in 2019
Development near Union Market in 2019. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Developers generally make for reliable boogeymen in big city politics, easily caricatured as deep-pocketed, out-of-town interlopers more eager to make a buck than help communities. But it is still a legitimate novelty to see not one, but two major contenders for mayor explicitly running against the building industry in the primary race’s closing weeks.

Sure, Marion Barry railed against the establishment in his early days as an activist, but it didn’t take very long before he was embracing development executives with open arms. Tony Williams was even more explicit about his fondness for the industry as he sought to revive the city’s economy, and the mayors to follow him haven’t deviated much from that playbook—Muriel Bowser very much included.

So it is striking to hear At-Large Councilmember Robert White pledge to “stand up to developers and insist that we don’t need one single more luxury one-bedroom condo in this city,” as he did during a debate hosted by D.C.’s Office of Campaign Finance last week, or to listen to Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White claim that the city’s main affordable housing loan fund has become a “slush fund for developers,” as he has during his past several debate performances. A new Facebook ad from Robert White goes a step further, too, noting that “Mayor Bowser talks a lot about the money she spends on affordable housing, but the people benefitting are her developer donors, not the people being priced out of D.C., like my family.”

At-Large Councilmember Robert White
At-Large Councilmember Robert White Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

As Loose Lips sees it, the rhetoric is a promising sign of political change in the District, where a small subset of the region’s developers still exerts outsized influence over wide swaths of government policy. The public financing of elections has limited how much money development executives can give to local candidates, but it would be difficult for anyone to deny that Bowser gives quite a bit of deference to the industry broadly and steers many government projects to a specific group of builders that have grown close to her administration (often, holdovers from the Adrian Fenty days).

On balance, it seems like wise policy if Robert White wants to do as he’s promised and demand more from developers looking to build in the city (particularly for projects on public land). The frequent refrain from the industry is that developers will flee for the suburbs if D.C. burdens them with too many regulations or requirements, but the District has become such a desirable location that the city has leverage here: There’s too much money to be made to scare them away completely.

“Developers right now are building what they want to build,” Robert White tells LL. “But as members of the community, they need to be building the housing we need … I’ll be sitting down with the development community and telling them that, telling them that I’m a mayor with a vision for the city that includes everyone.”

Where things get a bit more complicated for both of Bowser’s challengers is that there is ultimately no escaping developers if they hope to accomplish their stated aims and see more housing built to serve poor residents.

Even the most ambitious plans for social housing (such as those advanced by Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George) require private enterprise to build those new units. The city could stand up its own entities to finance and manage that construction, sure, but that’s a long way off. Bringing housing prices down in the near term does require building more of every type of housing, or so all the best research shows, and that means any mayor can’t cast aside developers entirely.

“I know there is great anxiety about affordability, and that’s why we have to continue to build more units across the entire city, so D.C. residents can avail themselves of what’s available,” Bowser herself observed during the OCF debate.

That is where anti-developer rhetoric tends to start rubbing some the wrong way. The urbanists and smart growth-ers that would otherwise welcome Robert White’s candidacy, in particular, feel put off by some of his talk (and tweets) on the issue, arguing his otherwise nuanced policy platform is undermined by such sweeping statements.

“It’s really disappointing to see someone that we’ve worked with on this stuff fall back on circa-2014 talking points,” says Alex Baca, the D.C. policy director for the nonprofit Greater Greater Washington (and a former City Paper staffer). “It feels like a late-stage, desperate kind of attempt to seize on this anxiety about housing and use it to mobilize people against Bowser.”

The comment about D.C. not needing any more one-bedroom units particularly galls members of the smart growth set like Baca, who views that line of attack as “lazy shorthand for how the city has changed.” Payton Chung, another prominent urbanist and GGWash contributor, observed on Twitter that “the 76 percent (& rising) of D.C. households (like mine) which house 1-2 people will continue to demand new housing choices.”

Robert White says now that it was perhaps unfortunate that his point on one-bedroom units was highlighted so explicitly on his Twitter, considering he believes that “we need housing in every income band.” His broader point is that “development is incredibly lopsided right now” and it’s not that “we would become a city without one-bedrooms, but we have a lot of that, and we need to focus on the types of housing that are not being built.”

Accomplishing that goal likely requires different management of the Housing Production Trust Fund, the city’s main loan pool for affordable development, and it’s a feat both Whites say they hope to achieve.

Right now, the fund is generally used to create as much new affordable housing as possible, even if those developments are only affordable to people a bit higher up the income bracket. That’s still a worthy pursuit, but it means that more expensive projects serving the poorest renters in the market don’t always win money, even though the city is statutorily required to spend at least half of the fund on projects targeting extremely low-income renters each year. The fund has, in fact, never met that target, a reality highlighted by a much-discussed report from the Office of the Inspector General last year.

Robert White says he is committed to making the changes necessary to “follow the law” and see more deeply affordable housing built. Baca is glad to hear it, but she worries that the language about the HPTF becoming a “slush fund” or otherwise being a giveaway to developers just isn’t helpful in making that happen. Robert White has been less explicit on that point than Trayon White, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But Robert White’s tweet noting that Bowser chose to invest money in the HPTF instead of housing vouchers drew similar urbanist ire for walking up to that line.

Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

“Why not talk about the mismanagement of the fund and a huge opportunity to provide housing for residents versus throwing the whole idea of the fund under the bus?” Baca wonders, noting that a 2019 report from D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson outlines plenty of problems for Bowser’s critics to seize on. For one, it shows that Bowser’s deputies chose to fund projects that scored lower on their own ranking system (and those projects just happened to be backed by developers close to the administration).

Robert White says he is certainly committed to making that case against Bowser, and though he may not be specific enough on the HPTF issue, it’s hard to deny that he has hammered the mayor for her tendency toward cronyism (and the ensuing ethical lapses of her appointees). But has it had any impact?

A number of progressives have marveled to LL that Bowser has breezed past several scandals (particularly the ongoing mess at the D.C. Housing Authority) without taking a hit to her reputation. Her challengers can try to paint her as an out-of-touch incumbent in the pocket of developers, but many voters have yet to see her that way.

“The mayor passed major ethics reform legislation when she was [the Ward 4] councilmember, and handled several crises as mayor,” says Bill Lightfoot, Bowser’s campaign chair. “People know her judgment, and they trust her.”