Should DC welcome new people, or try to turn back the clock?

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Fifteen years ago, in his second inaugural address in April of 2003, DC mayor Tony Williams called for the District of Columbia to attract 100,000 new residents. The idea that it could grow by 100,000 was nearly unthinkable just a few years before. After all, from 1990 to 2000 the city population dropped from 607,000 to 572,000 people.

But then… it was back up over 600,000 by the 2010 census and has likely crested 700,000. A million people is just over the horizon.

In the last 25 years, DC has gone from a financial basket case overseen by a Financial Control Board to strings of budget surpluses, while other jurisdictions in the Washington region struggle with deficits. It has diversified its job base, reduced crime significantly, and improved the schools. DC has achieved the big vision of its leaders of that era, and then some.

At least, in part it has. The Williams second inaugural lists four priorities:

  1. retain and attract new residents to the District;
  2. maintain neighborhood diversity;
  3. preserve affordable housing; and
  4. strengthen neighborhoods

It has succeeded wildly in the first prong. On the others, we haven’t succeeded. Not only that, we’ve moved backward. Nearly half of the District’s housing affordable to people making 30 percent of Area Median Income or less has disappeared, dropping from about 60,000 in 2002 to 33,000 in 2013. Mostly, those are homes whose price rose as a consequence of market forces without being preserved or replaced, or properties under covenants which expired.

Also, despite overall prosperity, many DC neighborhoods have high unemployment and poverty rates, schools that struggle to provide an adequate education for students, and lack basic amenities like grocery stores.

The runaway success for many parts of DC being desirable places to live has also brought its own concomitant problems. This is the District’s challenge for the next 15 years: to continue this renaissance that has led to record budgets and strong population growth, but also to ensure there is a place for the long-time residents who stuck by DC during the tough times and improve the quality of life (without displacing people) in areas which haven't boomed.

Protestors wave clocks to stop DC's zoning update in 2013. Image by the author.

Turning back the clock (and waving a clock) will not solve it

Some people want to confront this problem by turning back the clock. They lament all the new people (including me) who have decided to make DC their home, blaming them (us) for these problems.

At a recent activist meeting about DC’s Comprehensive Plan amendments, some people suggested the 1 million person future is something to prevent.

“Do we want a million people?" This is the wrong question. The right question is, "How can we build a city that works for both newcomers and long-time residents who want to stay?"

New residents will come, but it’s up to us if that causes displacement

The only way DC will stop attracting new people is if it becomes an undesirable place to live. It could go back to being the murder capital of the US, which nobody wants, or go back to more widespread local government dysfunction and corruption. Or, maybe the federal government moves out and sends the District into a massive recession.

These aside, the Washington region has a strong job market and the District has many attractive, walkable urban places which are appealing to live in. Many people want to come here, and many of those can afford to buy or rent homes here. Hence, they will.

If the total number of homes remains fixed, that means new residents will outbid lower-income existing ones — and less affluent new folks can’t afford to live here either, which is why fewer millennials are coming to DC than had in the past.

Or, as Seattle activist Sara Maxana said in this amazing keynote address, “When housing choices are limited, the wealthy always win.”

If instead the District adds homes, that doesn’t inherently solve all other social issues, but it avoids creating another one. It avoids creating the kind of housing crunch that is vexing San Francisco and Seattle and other cities with similar growth.

In short, there are only two choices, if the natural projection is for a million people:

  • Have a million people
    OR
  • Have fewer than a million people by pushing out some lower-income people

If we don't plan for enough housing, also, there will be continuous pressure to subdivide larger houses into small rooms, removing family-sized housing from the mix.

More housing is part of the answer but not the whole answer

Adding homes has helped DC avoid the crisis afflicting some cities, like San Francisco. Class A rents have stabilized thanks to a boom in residential construction. However, lower-priced homes have continued to appreciate out of reach for their residents.

We must continue building homes for the demand. But at the same time, we must also boost policies that ensure some homes are available to people of the lowest incomes, protect long-time tenants when their complexes undergo redevelopment, strengthen job training and transportation options, and much more. Let's ensure there is funding for housing production and preservation. Let's also talk more about land trusts, TOPA/DOPA, and fixing rent control.

It becomes easier to do all this when the District has a strong budget, and adding new residents with professional-level jobs is the best way to strengthen the budget. Certainly, more income tax receipts then require political will to invest in programs that reduce inequality, and the District’s record on doing so has been mixed. But an insolvent city certainly can’t fund programs like this.

I also reject the "let's keep people out" sentiment on a moral level. If our community is great, we should want to enable everyone to be a part of that community, to share in what is great. Otherwise, we are in essence saying, “I think this is the best and I have the privilege of being part of it, but I would deny you the ability to make the same choice.”

Certainly, every human cannot be in the exact same place, which is why we should also advocate to create more places that deliver the same level of happiness as our own place. That’s why I advocate for creating better places around the region, nation, and world. But, we are not there yet, and should not slam the gates on others in the meantime.

Doing nothing is not an option

Housing affordability isn’t going to improve on its own. Displacement isn’t going to stop on its own. If the government takes no action and makes no plans, we will end up with a city with very little income diversity and far less racial and ethnic diversity than today. This is not a future any city leader or responsible citizen wants to see.

It can feel good to blame a visible symbol, like a new building or tech buses in San Francisco, which weren’t themselves the reason tech workers lived in San Francisco. That can gain headlines, and maybe followers, but doesn’t actually make people’s lives better.

Instead, let’s try to find solutions. You can start by signing up to testify on the Comprehensive Plan on Tuesday March 20.

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