DC Mayor Bowser Orders New Push To Weaken Land Use Controls

For roughly two years now, Metro DC DSA members have worked with individuals and community organizations in the DC Grassroots Planning Coalition to prevent Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration from fatally weakening the city’s existing DC Comprehensive Plan for the benefit of large developers.

Mandated by the DC Charter that granted the city limited political autonomy in 1973, the DC Comprehensive Plan is supposed to guide land-use decisions in the District on a long-term basis and is amended at regular intervals, ideally to reflect the goals and values of DC residents whom land-use planning will affect.  But in the latest wrinkle of the amendment process, the DC Office of Planning, which is essentially under the Mayor’s control, proposed in early 2018 to amend the Comprehensive Plan’s all-important preamble section in such a way as to make it virtually impossible for residents to use the provisions of the plan as the basis for challenging bad land-use decisions in court.

After the DC Federal Court of Appeals struck down two proposed developments that Mayor Bowser’s planning office and the DC Zoning Appeals Board had both approved, on the grounds that the approvals were in clear violation of the Comprehensive Plan, the Office of Planning with ample assistance from Holland & Knight, a powerful law firm representing developers, essentially proposed a rewrite of the Comp Plan’s preamble that would rendered meaningless many of the Plan’s detailed provisions.  The future land-use maps in the Plan, rather than specifying exactly what kinds and sizes of buildings can be constructed in particular areas, were not meant to be “hard-edged,” the developers’ language stated.

Many provisions of the Plan did not have to be followed rigorously, the proposed rewrite also suggested; instead, it was important to consider every land-use decision “in context,” which seemed to suggest that the Comp Plan in the future would mean whatever the Office of Planning and the Zoning Commission said it would mean.  There would be few if any hard details of the Plan remaining that critics of gentrification and over-development could point to in court to prove that the District Government was violating the spirit and letter of the document.

Enormous public controversy greeted the Office of Planning’s proposed preamble amendment, with some 270 DC residents signing up to speak at a District Council hearing on the document that lasted from mid-morning of April 20, 2018 until after 2 a.m. the next day.  And in the wake of the hearing, at which several local DSA activists testified, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson withdrew the proposed preamble amendment for further tweaking by the Council.

Now Chairman Mendelson is expected to introduce his own proposed amendment to the Comp Plan’s preamble sometime this summer, probably shortly before the DC Council goes on recess in August.  The DC Grassroots Planning Coalition, under the leadership of Parisa Norouzi, is trying to prepare DCGPC members to respond to the new proposal, whenever it appears, and to be ready to lobby Council members for any needed changes to it.

In the meantime, Mayor Bowser, in the name of providing more housing for DC residents, has issued Mayor’s Order 2019-036, her “Mayor’s Housing Initiative,” in the alleged interest of providing both more affordable housing and more market-rate housing for the District while also fighting homelessness.  Her stated goals seem laudable, just what any decent-minded democratic socialist should support, but the details of her order indicate that she’s still intent on gutting any Comprehensive Plan land-use regulations that could unduly interfere with the ambitious of the region’s biggest developers.

The Mayor’s Housing Initiative, as stated, mandates a number of actions on housing by six different District agencies, including the Office of Planning (OP), the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH).

Also covered by the order is a DC agency known as “The Lab,” a multi-agency research office, which is directed to “take user-centered approach to improve access for people seeking affordable housing programs.”

Not all of the Mayor’s directives to the different agencies seem to be about gentrification.  For example, OP is ordered to work along with DHCD to “prevent discrimination under the Fair Housing Act,” and the Deputy Mayor’s office, DMPED, is supposed to continue working with OP, DHCD and ICH to promote affordable housing and permanent supportive housing strategies.  One of the mandates for DHCD, the Department of Housing and Community Development, is to continue existing efforts by the DC Government to help older residents age in place, supposedly by working for preservation of existing housing.

But on the downside, as far as accountability to DC residents and community organizations is concerned, the Mayor’s initiative also directs OP to propose changes in the DC Comprehensive Plan in order to hit housing targets.  It directs DMPED, DHCD and DCRA to change District regulations that are supposedly stopping the production of affordable as well as market-rate housing.  It orders DHCD to work with the Deputy Mayor’s office to recommend changes to zoning and land-use processes in order to increase the production of both market-rate and affordable housing.

DHCD also is ordered to find ways to reduce the risks involved in building larger and more complex housing redevelopment projects – presumably, some of the risks being mentioned are risks to developers and investors.

The goals of the Mayor’s Housing Initiative include (a) the production of a total of 36,000 new units of residential housing by 2025, with at least 12,000 of these units being affordable to low-income households; (b) the preservation of 6,000 units of existing affordable housing; and (c) the “equitable distribution” of affordable housing units to DC residents by 2045.

Critics of the Mayor’s initiative point to several inconvenient facts that somewhat undermine its attractiveness.  For one thing, the initiative proposed to create only 36,000 units of new residential housing by 2035, with only 12,000 of these being reserved for low-income households; as of today, however, there are more than 40,000 DC households on the DCHA waiting list for housing vouchers, and more than 26,000 households on the waiting list for public housing.

The housing initiative therefore is too small to cover the need for low-income housing that is known to exist, and in her last proposed budget the Mayor called for no money at all to be allocated for new public housing.  Her administration also is engaged in tearing down an existing public housing development in the historic Barry Farm neighborhood of Southeast DC.

From the perspective of many local residents belonging to the Grassroots Planning Coalition, the Mayor therefore seems to be serving the needs of big private developers as usual and giving short shrift to the needs of the poor, even while her administration promises great things in the form of affordable housing and the battle to end DC homelessness.

The Marxist geographer David Harvey, in his books Rebel Cities and The Enigma of Capital, argues that historically, urban real estate development and re-development has served as an essential “sink” for many leading capitalist economies.  Capitalism for various reasons has a built-in tendency to generate excessive capital, as well as excessive production of consumer goods, and the system can go into crisis when no profitable uses can be found for the capital investment flows that a society has on hand.

In France in the 1850-1870 period under the Emperor Louis Napoleon, Harvey writes, the immense sums of money and the huge quantities of human labor required for the rebuilding of Paris helped French capitalism to rebound from a period of deep depression and thrive spectacularly for awhile.  Similarly, the master planner Robert Moses, in the state of New York following the end of the 1930s Depression and the Second World War, helped to keep contractors employed and money flowing through the economy by his massive expenditures on new scenic parkways, proposed highways cutting through the heart of New York City, and even a major public housing development or two.

Most members of the DC Grassroots Planning Coalition do not appear to be socialists, and few are suggesting that David Harvey’s economic analysis explains what the DC Mayor’s Office under Bowser is attempting to do to land-use planning in the District.  But from a Marxist perspective modified by Harvey’s analysis, it looks as if the District Government -- for good reasons and bad – is intent on keeping the developers’ dollars and the construction jobs flowing into the local economy, regardless of whether the buildings being proposed are actually needed or helpful to the lives of local residents.

Many critics of the Mayor, citing ample historical precedent, argue that DC gentrification has a strong racial element as well, that it is essentially pushing lower-income black people out of this city for the social and economic convenience of higher-income whites.  But as Deep Throat is supposed to have advised investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate affair, it’s essential to “follow the money” to understand what keeps gentrification going.  And from the looks of the Mayor’s Housing Initiative, it’s all too obvious that big money is to be made by making land-use planning in the District beyond the ability of ordinary people to affect.

Fortunately, Mayor Bowser cannot simply rule the city by fiat; the District Council has the power to oversee and check at least some of the actions of her agencies.  That means local community organizations and anti-gentrification activists have some chances to challenge the Mayor’s gentrification agenda. But it’s likely to be a tough fight.

Related Entries