D.C. city council meeting before a packed room.
Photo courtesy of Sam Krizek

The D.C. council met as a whole on Tuesday, Oct. 8, to vote on changes to the framework of the comprehensive plan; council members voted to change the framework of the plan so that equity is emphasized over equality and the process for Planned Unit Development (PUD) is modified.  

In multiple discussions Councilmembers made clear  that it is critical to  include equity in the comprehensive plan.  

Equitable development is defined in section 213.7 of the newly modified plan.. “Equitable development  holistically considers land use, transportation, housing, environmental, and cultural conditions, and creates access to education, services, health care, technology, workforce development, and employment opportunities.”   

The push for equity is a response to the displacement and gentrification occurring in the city. It is an effort to enable all residents to benefit from the District’s growth. By writing this into the comprehensive plan, the council attempted to make equitable development a key focus during the development process 

Equity would allow residents in all communities to get what they need to be successful, rather than treating all community needs the same, and the plan states that equity-centered approaches are absolutely necessary. Plan amendments expounded on the District’s special responsibility to not only identify and engage communities that traditionally have been underrepresented, but also to establish direct efforts to improve services in these communities so residents are able to partake of the benefits of living in Washington, D.C.,  on the same level as other communities. 

The amended framework also outlined changes to the PUD process. In particular, the council changed the priorities in evaluating benefits during the PUD process and ranked some public benefits over others. 

The PUD process allows developers to seek zoning relief for their projects, such as building higher or denser than the zone allows or to build residential in an industrial zone.  

To obtain zoning relief, developers must provide public benefits to the community. The PUD process allows community members to be a part of the development process and make their opinions known by way of a more thorough and longer community engagement process.  

The nature of desirable benefits may vary according to the needs of the community, ranging from environmental benefits and historic preservation projects to employment opportunities and social services or facilities. The new comprehensive plan language that council members passed on Oct. 8 elevates affordable housing and prevention of displacement over other benefits. 

Affordable housing and prevention of displacement are now to be considered a high priority during PUD evaluation to help prevent the displacement of on-site residents and allow for more affordable housing. The four high priority benefits identified can be found in section 224.9 and are as follows: 

  • The production of new affordable housing units above and beyond existing legal requirements or a net increase in the number of affordable units that exist on-site. 
  • The preservation of housing units made affordable through subsidy, covenant, or rent control, or replacement of such units at the same affordability level and similar household size. 
  • The minimizing of unnecessary off-site relocation through the construction of new units before the demolition of existing occupied units. 
  • The right of existing residents of a redevelopment site to return to new on-site units at affordability levels similar to or greater than existing units. 

 

By highlighting these high priority benefits, the D.C. Zoning Commision can better evaluate PUDs for potential displacement and determine whether to issue more PUDs if they meet those high priority benefits.  

Preserving affordable housing and protecting the rights of the tenants of redevelopment projects were seen as key points by the D.C. council. The framework addresses the fact that the District’s housing stock is in a state of disrepair and affordable housing units are sorely needed. It also acknowledges that an increase in population is an important factor behind the hike in housing prices.  

In section 206.10, the amendments brought to light the uneven distribution of affordable housing in D.C.. “Affordable housing is unevenly distributed across the District. The Rock Creek West area has fewer than 500 subsidized affordable units, while areas east of the Anacostia River provide over 25,000,” which only adds to the challenges of this affordable housing crisis.  

The final change to the comprehensive plan was the Future Land Use Map and the methodology for defining and measuring a building’s density. Rather than determining a building’s density by the building height or number of stories, D.C. will determine density based on the Floor Area Ratio (FAR). The FAR compares the amount of floor space in a building to the size of the lot.  A high FAR indicates more living space. This change is an attempt to better understand how a building works in the space where it is built. Stories and height alone cannot define that.  

After almost three years of debate and rewriting, the council was finally able to integrate these changes into the comprehensive plan. The consensus from the council is that these changes are  critical as they try to attack the affordable housing crisis head on. All amendments were passed unanimously by the council.