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'We Haven’t Advanced At All': Bowser Addresses Failure To Add Affordable Housing In D.C.'s Wealthy Enclaves

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks outside the Chevy Chase Community Center on Dec. 16.

Since Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser released her Housing Equity Plan two years ago, her office says the city has produced more than 20,000 units toward her goal of 36,000 new units by 2025.

But that growth hasn't been as affordable as Bowser envisioned: Just 3,578 new affordable units have been built in D.C., roughly 30% of the mayor’s goal of 12,000 units.

To address that gap, the mayor is ramping up efforts to boost affordability in the Upper Northwest neighborhoods that contained less than 1% of the city’s affordable housing stock when she first set her goals in 2019. The mayor released a Rock Creek West road map Thursday to help the area meet its goal of building 1,990 affordable units in the area by 2025. 

“We’re privileged that we’re a growing city … and what that means when you’re a city in hot demand is the cost of housing goes up and up and up,” Bowser said at a press conference to address the new initiative. “So our job for the last seven years has been to focus on how we can create more affordable housing for Washingtonians.”

In the report, the city found that the number of affordable units in the pipeline in the area increased from 80 planned units to 440 since 2019. But in comments delivered alongside other housing officials at the Chevy Chase Community Center, Bowser acknowledged that the region was behind in making good on the affordability she envisioned with her equity goals.

“All of the other planning areas have advanced in some way, with some units delivered,” Bowser said. “We haven’t advanced at all in Rock Creek West, and so that’s why we’re very focused on the road map to get there.”

To advance the area, the mayor announced she would be implementing a new Cash 2 Covenant program that will allow multifamily property owners to convert vacant market-rate units to affordable to residents making, at most, 80% of the area median income.

The program, run through the District’s Department of Housing and Community Development, will give property owners a financial incentive to mark vacant units as affordable for roughly 15 years, though officials said that timespan could be longer depending on the proposals they get. 

Interim Department of Housing and Community Development Director Drew Hubbard speaks Dec. 16.

An RFP for Cash 2 Covenant will open in January, according to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and the financial incentive would be determined by affordability, covenant duration and unit characteristics.

The proposal hews closely to an act first proposed by D.C. At-Large Councilmember Robert White, the Generating Affordability in Neighborhoods, or GAIN, Act, which would have established much of the same guidelines while preserving units at 50% AMI. White is running against Bowser in the D.C. mayoral race.

Drew Hubbard, DHCD’s interim director, said the program was first envisioned prior to the coronavirus as just one tool to advance affordability.

“The whole idea is having as many tools as possible to get to these goals and funding and resources to really backstop that,” Hubbard said. “To actually have different avenues to get to [affordable housing goals] is really what it’s all about.”

But while the Cash 2 Covenant program may preserve affordability among existing housing stock, Bowser still faces an uphill battle in getting new, dense housing constructed in the planning area named Rock Creek West.

Where Housing Could Go

Developers looking to build dense, affordable multifamily projects have faced difficulty getting approval in the area.

A plan from Valor Development to build a 219-unit development, 12% of which would be affordable through the Inclusionary Zoning program, in AU Park received approval from the D.C. Zoning Commission in 2019 but saw heated criticism over both its size and level of affordability. Neighbors of the project appealed the decision in 2020, and it is still being adjudicated. 

Supporters of affordable housing at the Wardman Park hotel site attended the mayor's announcement of her Rock Creek West road map.

The mayor’s road map seeks to address those challenges by focusing on transit corridors and city- or privately owned sites primed for redevelopment.

Some of the more promising private sector projects come from retail conversions in struggling Friendship Heights. Two projects announced in the D.C. portion of the neighborhood this year would bring a combined 700 units to the neighborhood, with more planned across the border in Maryland. The redevelopments would cut down on retail space and inject more foot traffic into the broader Chevy Chase community at the same time, developers said.

The city has targeted the area around the Friendship Heights Metro station for redevelopment in its Rock Creek West plan and plans to explore affordable housing options on the site of WMATA’s Western Bus Garage and the Lord & Taylor site. Those projects fall under the Wisconsin Avenue Development Framework, which the city plans to begin developing in earnest next year.

Other high-priority sites include the Wardman Park property, which affordable housing advocates consider to be a prime candidate for redevelopment. The historic Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel was bought out of bankruptcy by Carmel Partners in July for $152M, and advocates want the city to bring Carmel to the table to develop a plan for significant affordable housing by converting the property to residential.

The city also announced the Chevy Chase Community Center and Chevy Chase Neighborhood Library site would be redeveloped to include affordable housing, though the Office of Planning won’t release a detailed plan on that project until the spring, Bowser said.

Outgoing Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood and Hubbard flip through the Rock Creek West road map.

The mayor also highlighted other programs to incentivize affordable housing construction on individual sites, including a $1M faith-based zoning program that will provide technical assistance funding for houses of worship to construct affordable housing on their properties.

Last year, Bowser increased the city’s annual contribution to the Housing Production Trust Fund to $400M.

“Just as important as planning, you have to actually resource these plans and put tools in place to actually bring them to fruition,” Hubbard said. “If you know our budget this year, the mayor went very, very big.” 

Leveraging The Comprehensive Plan

The Comprehensive Plan changes proposed by the mayor two years ago, and approved by the D.C. Council in May, included mandating minimum density around Metro stations to accelerate higher-density transit-oriented development.

Bowser’s steps toward that goal include upzoning the areas around Metro stations like Cleveland Park and Woodley Park in Rock Creek West.

The changes she is making occur as she faces an election that is far more competitive than her first re-election bid, with White mounting a challenge focused in part on improving affordable housing.

Last week, his campaign called for office-to-residential conversions in Downtown D.C. in order to add more affordable housing in the region and awaken the struggling office and retail market in the neighborhood.

Bowser stole some of that thunder Tuesday when she opened up a request for information to solicit feedback from developers on ways to spur office-to-residential conversions downtown. The concept has earned support from the Downtown D.C. BID and may already have a new model project in Foulger-Pratt’s 1425 New York Ave. NW acquisition, which Bisnow first reported is being planned as an apartment conversion.

Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood, who helped usher the mayor's Comprehensive Plan amendments to adoption, recently announced he was leaving for the private sector. 

In his last event as a public official Thursday, Trueblood said the Rock Creek West plan, which clarifies the Comprehensive Plan’s impact on the area, provided a “clearer picture” of how to achieve the city’s housing goals.

“If the mayor’s goals are what we need to achieve, this is how we fill the gap to get there,” Trueblood said.

He cited other programs the mayor has developed in recent years, including expanded inclusionary zoning policies and tax abatement opportunities.

Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio presents the city's plan for affordable housing in the Rock Creek West planning district.

Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio, who has also helped bring Bowser’s equity goals closer to fruition, said at Thursday’s event that the Rock Creek West area was important for affordable housing development because of the retail, jobs and community amenities that already exist in the area.

He cited a study by Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights that found that a child who grew up in a low-income family in Cleveland Park (which is part of Rock Creek West) between 1978 and 1983 would grow up to earn twice as much as a child from the same economic background growing up in Anacostia.

“This is a high-opportunity area,” Falcicchio said. “So what we have to do is we have to make sure that we hit the mayor’s goal of 1,990 units of affordable housing by 2025, because it will make an impact on the families who will live here.”