An amendment 4 years in the making, with massive implications for affordable housing in DC, to be voted on in March
D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson reintroduced the Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 2020 on Jan. 4, making it the first bill of 2021 and Council Period 24. In 2016, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office saw that the Comprehensive Plan, which guides development in the District, was last amended in 2011 and required a significant update. In May 2016, the Bowser administration launched town halls and meetings with residents, ANC commissioners and developers, so they can discuss and submit the changes they want to see in the Comprehensive Plan. They sent a first round of amendments to D.C. Council in September 2017, urging prompt passage of bills to quicken development in the District, including her plan to deliver 12,000 new affordable housing units by 2025.
The amended plan instead spurred four years of unprecedented engagement from nongovernmental organizations and District of Columbia residents alike, whether in full support of or in great concern over its effects on D.C.’s future.
Provisions that govern the expansion of affordable housing in the city are particularly controversial, due to concerns around whether such housing will be truly affordable and accessible to the communities that most need it. The Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act has been edited and reintroduced into Council repeatedly in order to reflect various community concerns. The legislation was last introduced into the D.C. Council in April 2020, at the mayor’s request; it received a hearing in November but did not progress to a vote before the council period ended that year.
“The goal is for Council to act on the [the Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 2020] prior to the start of the budget period in March. We anticipate that the Council will consider them starting at the end of February,” Mendelson told Street Sense Media in February. The mayor was scheduled to release her proposed budget on March 31 for D.C. Council to begin reviewing in April. However, the Council extended these deadlines by three weeks on March 3, “with the hopes that federal COVID aid will be enacted by then, and can therefore be incorporated in [the mayor’s] budget proposal at the time of submission.” Five days later, during a “Meet with Mendo” Zoom call, Mendelson said he expects the Comprehensive Plan to be voted on by the end of the month.
The Comprehensive Plan is a massive document that outlines development plans for the District. The proposed amendment nearly doubles its length to 1,500 pages. It is divided into 24 elements, addressing housing, education and other crucial sectors of the city’s development. It also contains two land maps, the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) and the Generalized Policy Map (GPM), that guide housing developers on where and how many properties they can build within the District. While the document does not alter the city’s existing land use and zoning laws, it governs how the D.C. Office of Planning (OP) approves developers’ future land use and zoning appeals.
Specifically, it guides how OP shapes the city. The plan foresees population density growth in several regions and reviews development proposals according to the District’s needs. When OP considers developers’ proposals to build high-rise apartments or alter infrastructure, they must check if the end results will align with the Comprehensive Plan’s mission and trajectories.
Chapter 2, the Framework Element, explains why the Comprehensive Plan is being amended and guides readers, including developers and OP, on how to interpret the rest of the plan. It is divided into four parts that describe forces changing the city’s demographics, the city’s projected growth forecasts, an updated vision of inclusivity, and an explanation of the Generalized Policy Map and Future Land Use Map.
The Framework Element was the first section that the Mayor’s office amended, largely focusing on guiding future development of the city to fit its growing population. It notes that “between 2006 and 2016, the Washington metropolitan area grew by almost 17%, increasing from 5.2 million to 6.1 million residents.”
These proposed amendments were sent to the D.C. Council in September 2017, edited extensively after public hearings were held, and introduced as a bill into D.C. Council on Jan. 8, 2018.
However, the Framework Element was met with intense scrutiny from D.C. residents. For many, a significant concern was the lack of plans for affordable housing in the District.
Public worries about the plan’s focus and intentions stem from the negative effects of gentrification and Black and brown displacement in the city, particularly in the past decade. Between 2011 and 2015, a rapidly increasing number of white households with incomes greater than $100,000 moved into neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, NoMa, and sectors on the edge of downtown like Navy Yard and Capitol Hill, according to a D.C. Policy Center study. These neighborhoods were noted hot spots for gentrification between 2000 and 2012, a period in which D.C. lost half of its low-cost housing units and held the status of most intensely gentrified city in America. The city lost that position in 2018 and now ranks 13th.
The public outcry over gentrification led Bowser’s office, after its 2017 submission of the Framework Element, to resubmit a modified version in January 2018. Yet major concerns with the Framework Element persisted among residents, resulting in a 13-hour D.C. Council hearing on March 20, 2018 that ended a little after 3 a.m. the next day. Two hundred and seventy-five residents testified in front of the council, voicing support of and concern over the plan.
After the hearing, Mendelson submitted an edited version of the Framework Element, which, according to Greater Greater Washington, included much of the language expressed by D.C. residents about developing affordable housing across the District. A final amended Framework Element was eventually passed by the D.C. Council, signed by Mendelson on Oct. 8, 2019. The Framework was amended again and signed by Bowser and Mendelson on Feb. 11, 2020. Street Sense Media created a side-by-side comparison of the 2018 and 2020 versions, seen here.
The most significant changes made to the draft prior to its publication as a bill in 2019 were the acknowledgment of the city’s need for affordable housing, the need to improve and fix public housing that is currently in disrepair, and the provision of zoning relief to developers who promise to build a portion of affordable housing.
Defining what is affordable
Caitlin Cocilova, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said D.C. still does not adequately define “affordability” in the plan.
Section 500.5c of the Housing Element in the amendment that is expected to be voted on this March, added and amended in October 2019, states that affordable housing is “housing in which occupancy is limited to households meeting special income guidelines,” where these units are built and priced below market levels using deeds, grants, vouchers and more. Tenants of such housing cannot be charged more than 30% of the household’s income. The difference must be covered by the subsidies they receive. Categories of affordability of housing are defined through staggered percentages of Area Median Income, a number determined by the federal government. These categories are moderate, 120% AMI; low, 80% AMI; very low, 50% AMI; and extremely low, 30% AMI and below. The District’s AMI in 2020 was $126,000, meaning that someone could qualify for housing reserved for “very low” income people while earning as much as $63,000 a year.
Affordable housing is separately defined in the Glossary section of the plan, which states that it is “housing that can be rented or purchased by a household with very low, low, or moderate-income for less than 30% of that household’s gross monthly income.”
Cocilova argued that all definitions in the plan lack detailed goals to build more affordable housing for households earning below 30% of the AMI, or below $37,800. In her testimony to the D.C. Council from Dec. 3, 2020, she wrote that the plan fails to consider those that earn only 15% to 20% of the AMI, such as families who qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF recipients earn at most 18% of the AMI, or $21,216 a year. There were approximately 21,600 DC residents receiving TANF in 2020, who earn at most 18% of the AMI, or $21,216 a year. The lowest income example given in the plan, however, was $29,000.
“What’s going on is not okay,” Cocilova said. “If we don’t have specific language that speaks to mandating certain levels of affordability throughout the city … development will keep going toward profit-driven motives.”
The 2020 amendment to the plan sought to address practical challenges in expanding affordable housing and achieve the Mayor’s second term housing goal: to create 36,000 new homes in the District by 2025, with one third of them set aside as affordable housing. In a Jan. 26 press release, Bowser’s office said D.C. has created 2,040 affordable housing units in two years, achieving 17% of the mayor’s target. The press release also stated that passage of the Comprehensive Plan amendment would enhance the city’s potential for housing growth.
Whether these new units actually cater to residents in need of affordable housing, however, is another question. Wes Heppler, a board member of the Legal Clinic where Cocilova works, argues that existing plans for affordable housing are vague and miss the mark on housing residents who are most in need.
Heppler cited the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), a major funding outlet for the District’s affordable housing development projects, as an example of a project that misses D.C.’s residents with the lowest incomes. The HPTF caters to households earning between at least 30% of the AMI and as much as 120%, or $151,200 annually per household.
Since she took office, Mayor Bowser has committed $100 million annually to the HPTF, more than any past mayor. According to her Fiscal Year 2020 D.C. Housing Authority Action Plan, this funding comes with the stipulation to delegate $40 million of those funds toward residents earning below 30% of the AMI. A household with only one earner on the city’s $15 minimum wage, taking no unpaid leave, would earn only $31,200 a year, which is 25% of the AMI. As of a 2017 estimate by the American Community Survey, about 112,596 households make minimum wage in D.C.
Heppler said Bowser’s allocation of $40 million is not enough to meet the city’s needs, and that medium-income housing has been prioritized first in development over sub-30% AMI affordable housing. The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, which allocates HPTF funds to building affordable housing in the District, publicly updates their development project pipeline online. Their last completed project building new affordable housing units occurred in 2014, creating 120 units at 60% AMI.
“The vast majority of residents who need [the mayor’s] help, who need affordable housing, are earning 30% AMI and below, and they receive virtually no help,” Heppler said. “It makes no sense, but this is how the city’s been doing it for years.”
Parisa Norouzi, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Empower D.C., claims that while the plan mentions affordable housing, it does not clearly define goals and objectives for building different housing at all levels of income relative to the AMI. Norouzi is also a guiding leader of the D.C. Grassroots Planning Coalition, formed by Empower D.C., ANC representatives, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, and other organizations to organize residents to participate in the Comprehensive Plan amendment process.
The plan fails to make strong goals or requirements to address the needs of thousands of the lowest-income residents most in need of housing, like people experiencing homelessness, Norozi said. “There’s actually nothing in the Comprehensive Plan that requires [below] 30% of Area Median Income housing be built.”
Norouzi’s point is supported by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute’s statistical analysis comparing the need for affordable housing per income level to the number of units that have been built.
DCFPI, a progressive think tank, determined in February 2020 that an annual investment of $240 million in the HPTF is required to fulfill affordable housing needs in the District. Yet in a draft of the mayor’s Fiscal Year 2021 Annual Action Plan, the Bowser again dedicated $100 million to the HPTF for the year, with the usual $40 million of funding aimed at residents earning less than 30% of the AMI.
Concern over affordable housing is only one in several factors that caused unprecedented public engagement with the Comprehensive Plan.
A second key revision in the bill now being considered relaxes language governing how the Office of Planning awards zoning relief, exceptions to zoning regulations in exchange for public benefits like improved pedestrian spaces, more facilities for commercial use in the neighborhood, and more affordable housing.
Building development proposals that would usually violate zoning regulations are required to go through the Planned Unit Development (PUD) process. While costly and time-consuming, PUDs tend to allow developers to build more housing units than the area is zoned for, and they eventually pay for themselves through profits from rent.
Before filing, developers typically meet with ANC commissioners and community members to discuss needed public benefits. The OP must ensure the proposal is “not inconsistent” with the Comprehensive Plan.
In 2016, the D.C. Court of Appeals vacated two PUD appeals by the Zoning Commission — the $720 million McMillan project, and a mixed use building at 901 Monroe St. The McMillan project was rejected by the court after a lawsuit was filed by Friends of McMillan Park, a group of neighborhood residents who opposed the project. The group argued that the construction did not align with the Comprehensive Plan at the time, and would negatively impact the community.
In 2013, the Zoning Commission’s first appeal to develop 901 Monroe St. was rejected by the court, again citing a lack of alignment with the Comprehensive Plan, and a failure to prove the actual density of residents in the area.
This first caused a rush of lawsuits against PUD appeals by activists and neighborhood groups, with 62 lawsuits against PUD cases filed in 2013 alone compared to 28 suits filed between 2000 and 2012, according to Bisnow.
Such organizers have increasingly found success appealing PUD agreements that the Zoning Commission has signed off on in court, halting development and arguing for changes to the development proposal such as more family-sized units or more affordable units. Those involved say they are stopping displacement and gentrification. Developers and some city officials say you cannot do that by slowing the creation of more housing, regardless of whether that housing is affordable.
According to a 2019 PUD case database created by the D.C. Policy Center, about 20,000 housing units, 4000 of them subsidized housing units, are held up in court.
In order to reduce future congestion of PUD cases and to significantly expand housing supply, the amendment asks the OP to consider relaxing zoning limits on height and density near transit stations, to be more flexible when considering proposals to modify the height of buildings, and to speed up entitlement reviews, where OP determines if a developer has the right to build property in D.C.
These development goals are primarily represented in the Future Land Use Map, which predicts future densities of wards and neighborhoods.
However, Norouzi and Cocilova, steering committee members of D.C. Grassroots Planning Coalition, say that the majority of changes to the Future Land Use Map and Generalized Policy Map were submitted by developers, with little review from the Mayor’s Office. They believe that once the amendment is approved, developers will flock to build high-cost housing in low-density districts that are predicted to be medium-density in the future. The coalition calls this “UpFLUM-ing” and says it will be that much worse if engaging current residents of those areas through the PUD process won’t be required. (The submissions for FLUM and GPM changes can be seen in a spreadsheet embedded on the official D.C. government amendment website.
Norouzi finds cutting out community engagement to speed up development, out of all the other processes involvement in these projects, concerning. “I think it’s actually a lie, that the community slows down development,” she said. “In reality, these projects are always very slow.”
Norouzi also worries about building higher-density units in neighborhoods without community input. As these projects would not need to go through the PUD process, it also does not need to provide public benefits.
“In changing the approved land use on the map, communities are shut off from the process of decision making, and will not have the opportunity to advocate for themselves,” Norouzi said.
The approved Framework Element added more language and descriptions about how displacement has affected Black residents, and adds more of this language in the Housing Element, which is still up for review. It adds numerical data about the number of Black households being displaced over time, and the affordability requirements Black families need to stay in the city.
The Framework Element amendment that was passed in 2019 added that rising costs of housing in pockets throughout the city forced many Black D.C. natives out of their homes and into lower-income districts, or into suburbs outside the District such as Prince George’s County and Montgomery County in Maryland.
Black households are struggling to overcome the lack of affordable housing in the District. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute article showed that 90% of households most in need of affordable housing are Black and brown and spend more than 50% of their income on rent. The median income of Black residents in the District is between $40,000 and $45,000, equivalent to 31% to 36% of the AMI.
A $1 billion lawsuit was filed against the D.C. government in June 2018 by Anacostia-based lawyer Aristotle Theresa, alleging that the government’s development policies fueled this gentrification. Plaintiffs blamed the displacement of residents through the rapid pace of high-income housing development on former mayors Vincent Gray (2011-15) and Adrian Fenty (2007-11), and their respective development plans, titled Creative Economic Strategy and Creative Action Agenda respectively.
However, the D.C. Grassroots Planning Coalition still calls the Comprehensive Plan racist. Norouzi and other steering committee members of DCGPC state that the plan not only does not specify detailed practices and policies required to provide affordable housing to Black residents in the District, but also ignores the opinions of Black communities by bypassing the PUD process to upFLUM construction projects.
The Framework Element also did not mention gentrification anywhere in its explanations of displacement until it was edited after the 13-hour D.C. Council hearing in 2018. Even then, the word is only mentioned once, stating the city government needs to consider the “impacts of gentrification.”
DCGPC’s Housing Justice Priorities proposal, updated and presented to the D.C. Council in November 2020, details additional criticisms and suggestions of change to the amendment.
The coalition asks that the D.C. Council provide more explanations and discussions on how each element and the FLUM and GPM maps affect residents of each ward. The document includes detailed additions that DCGPC says would expand rent-control, build and preserve more public and affordable housing, end housing instability, and encourage more community-led equitable development.
As of now
The Mayor’s Office submitted further changes to the amendment in April 2020, and organized themes under five categories: COVID-19, housing, equity, resilience, and public resources. The mayor requested Mendelson introduce the bill to the council, which would become the Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 2020.
At this point, major advocacy organizations like DCGPC and the Housing Priorities Coalition (HPC) — formed by the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, Greater Greater Washington, the United Planning Organization, and other advocates for nonprofit and affordable housing — diverged in opinion.
After the mayor’s changes in April, the HPC elected to fully back the 2020 amendment and advocated for it to be passed with expediency. The DCGPC, however, still believes that the amendment’s elements and maps, as well as its relaxed language around PUD cases, will lead to mass development of high-income housing without involving neighborhood residents in the process. DCGPC and 140 residents testified against the amendment in a two-day hearing in front of D.C. Council in Nov. 2020. Despite the mayor’s hope to pass the amendment that year, Mendelson sought more time to review the changes and consider the remaining criticisms as the city grappled with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The HPC sent a letter to Mendelson in September 2020 urging him to pass the bill without delay in early 2021. The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development circulated another sign-on letter with the support of other HPC member organizations in January 2021, asking for support to persuade Mendelson to pass the amendment as quickly as possible.
“As it stands, the Comp Plan is outdated and does not provide the long-term vision for an inclusive city,” wrote HPC in its letter. “Simply put, we can’t afford to go any longer without an updated Comp Plan on the books.”
While a number of the community members who testified in November expressed still-present concerns over the direction and language of the Comprehensive Plan amendment, the bill was reintroduced last month without any changes. “We are considering the public’s comments carefully, and looking for opportunities to address the issues raised in the context of the plan amendments,” Mendelson said.
Cocilova noted that Mendelson and other councilmember staffers are still engaging with the coalition’s concerns.
“I know that they’re taking the time to [engage] and I think it just depends on how quickly, and how much time it takes to do it.”
This article has been updated to include the extension of the budget approval period that occurred after publication and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson’s most recent opinion on when he thinks the Comprehensive Plan will be voted on.