Brook Hill giving a lecture on his paper "How to Retain Affordable Housing and Character of Place"
Capitol Hill Restoration Society

The second annual Dick Wolf Memorial Lecture, held March 19, showed many implications of how development may shape Washington. Affordable housing was an interest of Wolf’s, according to those who knew the community planner. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society, for which Wolf had served as board president, established the annual lecture in lieu of a plaque or statue.

“Because of Dick’s involvement in advocacy, preservation and planning – we decided to have a living memorial to encompass those concepts,” said Monte Edwards, the Dick Wolf Memorial Lecture program chair.

Georgetown law student Brook Hill won the 2016 Dick Wolf Memorial Lecture prize for his paper “How to Retain Affordable Housing and Character of Place,” which he presented at the event.

Hill emphasized the responsibility of the city to affirm fair housing. Rising rents have the effect of pushing out low-income African-Americans and other minorities. This has intensified the effect of residential discrimination. The duty to affirm fair housing requires the city to reject any policies that may create residential discrimination, and to take steps to prevent existing segregation from intensifying.

Gentrification has created an affordable housing crisis in the D.C. area. The city must take steps to end segregation, according to Hill, who suggested implementing the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), a program that would allow the District to purchase apartment buildings to be converted into affordable housing for its residents. Hill also suggested more organizing to support making TOPA effective.

“The city should refuse any planned unit development agreement [PUD] that results in affordable housing lost,” said Hill, who suggested that a much larger percentage of new housing units be deemed affordable. Affordable housing is rented or sold below the market rate to those who qualify based on their income, at several levels. To Hill, truly considering fair housing would mean 90 percent of new housing in the District should be affordable.

The lecture featured a panel from the community which answered a few moderated questions.

Allison Ladd, a Ward 6 resident, has been living in Washington for 15 years. She is also chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

“I realize a lot that was shared can be how the city uses these resources to preserve affordable housing,” Ladd said. She was asked some hard-hitting questions about regulations, including the Fair Housing Act, which protects against landlord discrimination. “Our office has been looking at regulations and talking to stakeholders. Ultimately it’s about the residents and not the developers,” Ladd said. Ladd was also asked about DHCD’s involvement with the PUD process, which allows developers to amend zoning restrictions in exchange for providing public benefits, such as increased affordable housing.

“Currently it’s not a procedure we use. We could if it was asked of us,” she said. “The mayor’s $100 million [investment in the housing production trust fund] is unprecedented in DC. We can only fund 49 percent of a project or less. Eighty percent of the 49 percent has to be units that are 50 percent or below the area medium income. This may not sit well with taxpayers that are rent burdened.”

Ladd continued: “Many residents believe that the Housing Production Trust Fund will build them a structure to stay in, but evidence of this not taking place can be seen in the area’s last PIT [point-in-time] calculation, with roughly 7,300 people using shelters, soup kitchens and serving on the streets.”

Buwa Binitie, managing principal at development firm Dantes Partners, presented a chart showing this situation.

“If we don’t work quickly to address these issues we are going to start looking a lot like Manhattan. … All I do is eat, sleep and breathe affordable housing,” he said.

Binitie went on to say that, personally, he wouldn’t do another TOPA deal, referring to the provision in the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act which requires the landlord and tenant to enter into a sales contract within 240 days of the property going on the market. “You can’t pay me to do another TOPA deal. Just 240 days to engage residents —it just doesn’t happen.”

The panel also featured Will Merrifield, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, who respectfully disagreed with Binitie’s assessment of TOPA. Merrifield sees the act as an amazing tool to protect existing communities.

“I think the District and the advocates don’t do a good job on the TOPA process,” Merrifield said. “The city just goes and gives its land away to developers. … This fight will never be won if we rely on the private market. We live in one of the richest places in the world. We can afford to create public housing and integrate it into the city. It’s important that we use public land to solve these issues, and make housing a human right.”