An Interview With: Charles Barber
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Barber, a native Washingtonian, practiced law at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York, served as in-house counsel of Howard University from 1985 to 1996 (deputy general counsel for the final five years), then came to GW as senior counsel, focusing on the university’s real estate and business activities. He was elected December 1 this year to a two year term as President of DCBIA, where he has been a board member since 1995 and co-chair of its Governmental/Legislative Affairs committee for the last two years. He is a graduate of Howard University and Howard Law School. The DCBIA represents over 400 companies of all sizes who seek to promote real estate development as an engine of economic growth in Washington.
Bisnow: Which of the issues that you’ve been dealing with at DCIBA are you most passionate about?
Inclusionary zoning is a big one, and school modernization. Of course, we’re also involved with the Way to Work Bill, First Source, rent control, and baseball.
Tell me about inclusionary zoning.
That’s been the recent focus of the District’s response to the big problem of affordable housing. Given the increase in real estate prices, there has been a dearth of affordable housing, although the mayor should be given credit for developing a large number of affordable units. Unfortunately, the focus of the solution has been the mandatory and inclusionary zoning proposal, which would require a certain amount of affordable housing in areas wherever you’re building housing, with a additional bonus provided which is suppose to help offset the additional cost. That’s a proposal now before the zoning commission. As DCBIA representatives testified, we think that’s one piece of the puzzle. But it’s not likely to yield a large number of affordable housing units. And so we’ve been trying to shape that program to make it more effective in producing affordable housing, while also trying to ensure that it doesn’t negatively impact the housing market more generally. We’ve been part of the task force with the office of planning, and of course the devil’s in the details. The zoning commission is in the middle of the proposal; it has announced certain concepts. We’re waiting to see the language of that proposal that will address issues of implementation, such as when it will take effect, and how long these units are required to remain affordable. There’s been very substantive discussions over this program over the past six months.
Regarding what issues?
Well, if you have some units that are required to remain affordable for say, ninety-nine years, which is what the Commission has proposed, the people who live there, particularly those in condos, have no incentive to act like owners. They can’t trade up. They can’t build equity because there’s always going to be a cap on what they can sell that unit for. So they’re just glorified tenants, even if it’s a condo. On the other hand, some people don’t want a program that keeps units affordable for only a short period of time. Once that time period lapses, that unit would no longer be available for other residents of modest means.. So there has to be some balance. And we’re concerned about that. Those issues are of concern to the real estate community generally. And I’ve been involved not in my GW role, but trying to bring DCBIA developers to the table so the office of planning and the commission are informed about how this program would impact the real estate community. We’ve always tried to position ourselves as a partner to the city, realizing there are important issues to be dealt with like this. We want to be a part of the solution. I think sometimes DCBIA is inaccurately portrayed as being against affordable housing, or against a specific proposal. What we really want is a proposal that’s going to work and not do any harm. And so I’ve always tried to position DCBIA as part of the process of creating a solution, and I will continue to do so as president. We want to be at the table. We’d like to be consulted. We understand that there are important challenges facing the city.
How about school modernization?
Many of the schools are in terrible shape. And I see it first hand. I’m on the board of Duke Ellington School for the Arts as a GW representative. That school needs a new roof, new laboratories, and a whole new modernization. It’s not alone. So the real estate development community acknowledges that this is a big problem. GW in particular is attacking that problem in a specific way in terms of the School Without Walls. It has a proposal to do a public-private partnership, whereby the University would buy the back parking lot, plus extra density produced through a zoning process, and pay the D.C. Public School System approximately twelve million dollars to renovate the School Without Walls. There is a memorandum of understanding, which has been approved by both boards, that also provides for GW and the School Without Walls to work together on an enhanced programmatic relationship. So that’s one example of a school where GW’s trying to be helpful. But the broader issue of what to do with all of these schools is a serious problem. DCBIA’s position has been that we’re concerned about the amount and source of the new money that is to be provided for school modernization generally. Included in the current bill is an increase in property taxes. We’re concerned about the impact on businesses from this tax increase. If you continue to make it costly to do business in the District of Columbia, at some point you’re going to begin driving business out. And particularly as properties free up in nearby Arlington and Alexandria, as a result of base closings and other factors. But beyond that, we want to make sure that the school modernization effort succeeds.
Will new money be required?
Yes, there likely will be. But we think the school system and the city as a whole must make the hard decisions about consolidation, about school closings, before new money is provided. We would have preferred that DCPS complete its facilities master plan first before the city decides to raise a billion dollars in taxes. Instead, their proposal is to identify a billion dollars worth of taxes and have the facilities master plan to come in the spring. So we are at the table. We talked to Ms. Patterson. We talked to the DC public schools people. We want a bill that makes sense, that responds to the needs of rebuilding the school infrastructure but does so in a way that is prudent. In addition, DCBIA has signaled its willingness to work with DCPS. We have been impressed with the DCPS leadership, and we want to work with them, bringing developers to the table to perhaps give them a reality check – a sounding board as they develop their facilities master plan. They have some tough decisions to make. How do they best organize their facilities people? How do they beef up their internal facilities program? There are some who are advocating an independent organization to do this as opposed to trying to do it all in- house. And we in the business community have a stake in this. We all want the schools to succeed. When they don’t, we’re all impacted. So we try to have some say in how the legislation providing for school modernization is shaped and implemented.
What will your priorities be as president? Will any of your emphasis be different?
I think DCBIA is on the right track. We’re at an all time high in membership. We’re doing well as an organization by objective measures in terms of participation in the programs we run, and financially, and all the rest. I want to continue the position that DCBIA has taken, that is, to be a partner. To be a part of the process of finding solutions to tough issues, particularly where they have a direct impact on the real estate development industry. All too often there’ll be good intentions, there will be a bill, a regulation drafted to address what is clearly a problem. But we think sometimes the regulatory solution proposed is not fully thought out, and could end up doing more harm than good. We try to talk about a better way to approach the problem. Not being against a solution, but wanting to talk about a range of possible solutions. So we’d like to be consulted earlier in the process. We like to be viewed as a partner in achieving a better city. Where we have participated in that kind of partnership, we think there’s been good results. For example, the whole issue of inclusionary zoning. Linda Cropp brought the various parties together in a series of meetings that were chaired by the Office of Planning. And I think that resulted in a better proposal going to the zoning commission. We still have some issues there. But that kind of collaborative process has worked well.
What other issues do you feel are most important to DCBIA?
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is an agency that probably has the most impact on our industry. But it is an agency facing a lot of challenges right now. It can facilitate economic development, with the proper controls, or it can impede it if they don’t deal with things in a predictable and expeditious manner. And unfortunately, DCRA is struggling with its internal reorganization. They have a number of vacancies, which has slowed their processes down. This is not new. We meet regularly with DCRA officials to give them some feedback from the real estate development industry. Now, we’re just one of their constituencies. But I think both DCRA and DCBIA find those meetings to be valuable. And so we’re trying to be collaborative and work in a partnership. We want to give them feedback about what we’re seeing in terms of the time it’s taking to get permits, the difficulty of getting through the processes, how to make their regulations more transparent, how to standardize their procedures. Those kinds of issues. And then they tell us what kinds of things they’re planning to do in order to get some feedback on their proposals. I think the director’s very candid. He’s trying to do a number of things to improve the productivity of DCRA, particularly in terms of filling vacant positions and keeping good people, and in terms of injecting technology to make their processes more efficient. As well as ensuring the proper balance in terms of proper enforcement in the permitting and regulatory process. Those are important. But it’s not an agency that’s working particularly well at this time. And we’re interested in working with DCRA and doing what we can as they go through their reorganization.
Any other major issues in the near future?
Baseball is something we’re interested as part of the business community. We have been supportive of the mayor’s proposal to build a new stadium in the South Capitol Street area. And we look at that project as a catalyst to real estate development in that entire area. We’ve been supportive of organizations like NCRC and the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative that have been created to streamline and focus the development of key areas of the city. To have a quasi-governmental, quasi- private business organization take the lead to facilitate that development. We think that’s a good thing. So we want to make sure those kinds of organizations are nurtured and have the resources they need to succeed, including proper leadership.
How about the DCBIA membership? Who are the members, and do you want to change or enhance the membership in any way?
Our membership covers the waterfront of those businesses involved in the real estate development. General contractors, subcontractors, architects, lawyers who work in real estate development, developers, real estate agents, brokers. Businesses, whether they’re sole proprietorships, or partnerships, or companies. And we have a two tiered membership system. For smaller companies, we charge them less. We always want to branch out and include a diverse group, not just the major players and the bigger institutional types, but a broad membership. We think that through our various committees and programs we have hit a wide variety of interests where there’s commercial development, or the retail market, or housing. Some of our programs are very popular and widely attended beyond our membership. And we perform a service by bringing District officials to talk to our members about various initiatives. It provides those officials a forum as they get new programs launched, to get new procedures out to the real estate community, and to get them feedback on what’s working well and what’s not. And not least, DCBIA is a good networking organization, an opportunity to generate business which ultimately acts to benefit the city as a whole. This is a good time for the city and our industry. We’re know it is also a time of when economic prosperity is unevenly distributed. So there are issues that need to be dealt with. Affordable housing, and pockets of unemployment are serious issues. And again, we want to work with the city to address those issues. But in terms of where the city is as a whole and where the real estate development industry as a whole is, these are good times, and we’d like to see government policies that help that growth to continue, because that will help generate the taxes and the revenue for the District to be able to afford the programs everyone needs.
Just on a personal side: You and your family have long been involved in the city.
Yes. I was born in what was then the old Freedman’s Hospital that was a precursor to Howard University Hospital. It was called Freedman’s Hospital before Howard built a new hospital in 1974. I have strong roots with Howard. My father was chief of neurosurgery at Howard and later at DC General Hospital. He was a strong activist in terms of health care issues for the poor. And some of the people on the City Council and other parts of government know me through my father, since he was very much an activist in that regard. And as an aside, he and some other activists founded Healthcare for the Homeless, which later evolved into Unity Healthcare. I served as chair of the board of Unity Healthcare, which just had its 30th anniversary gala. I’m very proud of that family history.