A photo showing a celebratory rally with DC Mayor Muriel Bowser signing a new executive order for housing, surrounded by many people and supporters.
D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development Director Polly Donaldson, Mayor Muriel Bowser and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the committee on housing and neighborhood revitalization. Photo courtesy of the mayor's office

This article was first published by TheDCLine.org.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration will host community meetings throughout the city this summer to establish neighborhood targets laying out how to distribute a total of 12,000 new affordable housing units over the next five years.

Bowser signed a mayor’s order on Friday as an initial step to fulfilling her second-term pledge to add 36,000 new housing units in D.C. by 2025, a third of which would be designated as affordable housing units. The plan directs the city’s housing-related agencies to accelerate the production of these new units throughout the city.

The order notes, for instance, that the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development should “implement techniques to reduce the risk of developing affordable housing and encourage larger and more complex affordable housing redevelopment projects.”

The document also leaves the door open for seeking changes to the federal Height of Buildings Act of 1910, which limits most construction along major corridors to 13 stories. To meet the District’s goal of adding 36,000 total units by 2025, District agencies will “evaluate increasing allowable building height and density,” the order says. That may include seeking to ease current restrictions established by the zoning regulations, which are often more restrictive than the federal law allows.

While the mayor’s order refers to maximizing height and density under existing federal law, “it does not preclude our work from analyzing strategic adjustments to the federal limits related to our housing needs,” Office of Planning director Andrew Trueblood wrote in an email.

The Office of Planning will solicit input on housing issues at a series of public meetings in May and June and then, before the end of September, establish affordable housing targets for specific areas. In sync with the Bowser administration’s continuing project to construct short-term shelters for homeless families in every ward, the mayor said the city also needs an “equitable distribution” of new affordable units across the city, including wealthier neighborhoods.

“Of course Ward 7 will have affordable units. Of course Ward 8 will have affordable units. But what part will Ward 3 play?” Bowser said as Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner and directors of the city’s housing agencies stood nearby.

Bowser said that the summer meetings will be a chance to “put everything we know on the table” and solicit new ideas from the public. The Office of Planning will hold meetings in 10 planning regions. One of those areas — “Rock Creek West,” which includes all of Ward 3 — was home to just 1 percent of the 50,871 subsidized affordable housing units in the city as of September 2018, according to the agency. The Far Southeast and Southwest region meanwhile accounted for 31 percent of the city’s total last year, with another 19 percent built in Far Northeast and Southeast.

Bowser signed the order at the site of a Ward 7 town house development — funded through the D.C. Housing Finance Agency’s Housing Investment Platform — where all five units will accommodate households making up to $140,600. Dubbed a “housing rally,” the event drew Bowser supporters as well as a handful of residents who disrupted the speech, telling the mayor at one point that the city is “not affordable currently.”

“Well, let’s work on it,” Bowser countered.

During the speech, demonstrators — who held signs likening Bowser to President Donald Trump — urged the mayor to fund repairs to the city’s public housing units. The D.C. Housing Authority, an independent agency, has said it needs $300 million to make immediate repairs to substandard units, at a time when federal funding for public housing is diminishing. The mayor and the D.C. Council say the authority needs to provide better information and perhaps undergo a management overhaul before that money can be allocated and properly spent.

Agencies covered under the mayor’s order include not only the Office of Planning but also the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

At Friday’s rally, Bowser also called on D.C.Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to arrange a vote on her proposed pro-development amendments to the Comprehensive Plan, a guide for planning and development in the city. The amendments aim to make it more difficult to challenge large development projects in court by limiting the grounds for successful appeals. In recent years, thousands of housing units have been stalled after activists took developers to court, arguing their projects were incompatible with the Comprehensive Plan. Mendelson had originally discussed having the council vote on the plan’s Framework Element late last year, but more recently said he would schedule a vote sometime this spring. He has also said his staff would redraft the legislation to place more emphasis on affordable housing — one of the criticisms leveled during last spring’s marathon public hearing on the document.

In her 2020 budget, Bowser has proposed increasing the city’s annual allocation to the Housing Production Trust Fund, the city’s main lender for affordable housing projects, to $130 million, up from $100 million. Her budget also sets aside $30 million for a Workforce Housing Fund, meant to target middle-income earners.

That fund drew criticism from Lark Cantoe, a demonstrator who predicted the Workforce Housing Fund would benefit middle-class workers seeking to move into the city. “This is specifically for housing for [people] outside of the city to come in,” she said after the rally. Cantoe said the city should instead put the resources toward helping the District’s neediest residents.

In her remarks, Bowser said her administration is putting adequate funding toward easing the housing crunch that contributes to displacement.

“The sense of being displaced from this town is real,” Bowser said at the end of her speech, responding to demonstrators. “I’ve got a plan.”

Housing issues will continue to figure prominently on the mayor’s schedule this week, according to her press office. On Wednesday, Bowser will return to Ward 7 for a ribbon-cutting at the Fort Chaplin Park Apartments, the site of 549 affordable housing units. She will also discuss the District’s initiatives and call for a regional housing strategy at the Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County’s 28th annual summit on May 17.