EXCLUSIVE: Mayoral Contenders Muriel Bowser, Robert White Address The Issues Facing D.C. Real Estate
The Democratic primary in Washington, D.C., is one week away, an election that is likely to determine who will be the District's mayor for the next four years.
The race is the first serious challenge to incumbent Muriel Bowser since her first mayoral election eight years ago. Bowser faces two council members, Robert White Jr. and Trayon White Sr., and a former ANC commissioner, James Butler.
Bisnow reached out to all four candidates with questions that are of particular concern to D.C.'s commercial real estate industry. Bowser and Robert White's campaigns responded with answers, while Trayon White's campaign declined to respond and the Butler campaign didn't respond to repeated requests.
The campaign has revolved around issues percolating in D.C. throughout the pandemic, including housing, displacement and crime. The District saw real property tax revenue decline 4.5% from fiscal year 2021 to 2022, while struggling to bring back downtown businesses.
Meanwhile, Bowser has received criticism from the left and right on addressing an uptick in violent crime, and has responded by promising to bring the police force to 4,000 sworn officers and double down on existing violence-prevention programs.
Independent polling has been scarce, but Bowser held a large lead in the most recent independent poll, conducted by The Washington Post in February. Robert White's campaign released a poll Tuesday that showed Bowser with a 4-point edge, within the poll's margin of error.
Her campaign has also spent the most by far this election cycle — nearly $2.3M by June 10, according to a campaign finance report. White reported spending $1.5M.
Both White and Bowser, in their responses to Bisnow, said they support reforming the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act and want to make it easier for developers to convert empty offices into housing. White said he supports expanding rent control, while Bowser touted many of the programs her administration has launched in recent years to expand homeownership.
Bowser and White's written answers to Bisnow's questions are published below. They have been lightly condensed and edited for clarity and style.
Bisnow: The office and retail markets downtown are experiencing historically high vacancy rates, as older offices in particular become disused, and few workers return full time. What policies would you pursue to revitalize D.C.’s Central Business District?
White: We need to find creative ways to support our businesses. One idea I proposed five years ago when vacancy rates in the Central Business District were high even before the pandemic was creating incentives to convert empty office buildings into affordable housing, something the mayor was reluctant to implement. With offices empty, many downtown businesses are struggling to find customers. If we can fill those buildings with housing, we can provide a customer base for those businesses while creating desperately needed affordable housing, particularly workforce and affordable housing.
Bowser: Through prudent financial management, our economy is the envy of states and municipalities across the country. But, we must be honest and acknowledge that the pandemic has significantly and perhaps permanently changed the economy. At the same time, it has also sped up some of our thinking about interacting with the downtown and commercial corridors, and we are focused on filling spaces (attracting new businesses focused on tech, health and medical), changing spaces (transforming older office buildings to vibrant housing, transforming public spaces with streateries, open streets, parks and parklets, busways and bike lanes), and bringing people to the downtown (more partnerships with festivals like Something in the Water, conventions and remote workers). This is a precious moment in our city and it deserves a tested, proven leader.
Bisnow: Since 2019, the District has added 4,165 units of affordable housing, but most of the affordable housing produced in recent years hasn't been affordable to the lowest-earning Washingtonians. At the same time, construction costs have risen, making it more challenging to develop low-cost housing. What more should the District do to ensure new housing is produced that caters to people making 50% or less of the area’s median income?
White: As a council member, I introduced innovative approaches to housing, including pushing D.C. government to work with office building owners who own older, vacant office buildings to convert them into workforce and affordable housing. I also wrote and passed a bill to add unprecedented transparency to economic development projects by requiring public reporting of promises made on the front end of projects that get public money, and reporting of the outcomes on affordable units created, local jobs, and economic impact on the back end. As chair of the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities, I am pushing agencies to formally identify unneeded District-owned properties so that we can examine whether the buildings or land can be used for housing. As mayor, I will continue working with experts to come up with creative solutions and will move rapidly to implement these crucial strategies.
We will award contracts to the developers who are most committed to building the housing we need and won’t just rubber-stamp projects without working with developers to get as many affordable housing units as possible. As members of our community, we need developers to build the housing we need.
Bowser: Perhaps no jurisdiction in the country has tackled the issue of housing more aggressively than this one.
In 2014, I promised to invest $100M in affordable housing; a historic investment at the time. Since then, we’ve made history again and again. In March of this year, I announced a $500M investment, for a seven-year total of $1B. That’s money well-spent. We’ve had more housing growth than any other state. By 2025, we will deliver 36,000 new homes — including at least 12,000 affordable homes. D.C. will never be an inexpensive place to live, but it must always be a place that provides all families a pathway to the middle class.
I am proud of what we have accomplished, but I know too that more must be done to provide affordable rental and homeownership opportunities.
Bisnow: Wealthy neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park haven’t contributed nearly as much housing as other parts of the city in recent years. Do you think these neighborhoods should be upzoned to allow for a greater density of housing, particularly along commercial corridors and near Metro stations?
White: I do. We should have two primary goals when determining where to build new housing — moving away from our reliance on cars and creating housing in areas that have fought against denser development and contributed to exclusionary patterns in our city. Our transit centers and major corridors should be the first areas to build new homes. Doing so will also increase support to surrounding small businesses that have lost significant customer bases during the pandemic. We also need to direct more housing growth to areas like upper Northwest and Rock Creek East that have been historically low-density and have high opportunity for new units.
Bowser: When I first ran to be your mayor, I promised to invest more in affordable housing than any mayor before and that’s just what we’ve done. Importantly, we are also the only jurisdiction to have housing goals by neighborhood, including along commercial corridors and near Metro stations. That goal will also produce 2,000 units of affordable housing in neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park. There’s more to do and my commitment is to continue to push so all families can afford to live and thrive in the most dynamic city in the country.
Bisnow: Recent studies have indicated that the complexion of D.C.’s neighborhoods has changed as they developed — areas like Shaw and Southwest D.C. have seen declining Black populations since 2000. What will you do as mayor to address the risk and fear of displacement in the District's growing neighborhoods?
White: This is an issue that is very personal to me. Nearly my entire family has been priced out of D.C. We need to protect existing affordable housing so people are not pushed out or displaced. I have passed innovative legislation to place affordability covenants on apartments so they can be rented out at affordable rents, but the mayor has failed to execute. As mayor, I will make this program a reality while exploring other options like expanding rent control. I also will invest in making sure Black residents are able to afford the cost of living in our city by expanding job training and employment.
Bowser: Last year, we launched a new one-stop-shop to connect current and future homeowners in the District to more than 50 resources that help residents thrive as DC homeowners. The site, frontdoor.dc.gov, makes District resources more accessible so that residents can prepare to buy a home, get help paying their mortgage, make home repairs and improvements, save money on their property taxes, and navigate the requirements of homeownership.
We are also investing in housing for residents of color. With a $40M package of Legacy Initiatives, we can help more Black residents who, right now, are wondering whether they need to move out of D.C. to afford rent; and how we can support their wealth-building. And we know the best way to do that is through homeownership. We can also help seniors age in place by lowering the cap on property taxes. And by providing legal assistance to families, we can help more Washingtonians pass on their homes to the next generation — keeping families like mine, who have lived here for generations, in Washington, D.C.
Bisnow: During the pandemic, developers blamed extensions to the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act for halting the sale of multifamily buildings in D.C., depriving the city of transfer tax revenue. Nonprofit housing operators have also said TOPA makes it difficult to acquire and preserve naturally occurring affordable housing in the District. Would you look to make changes to TOPA? If so, what changes? If not, why not?
White: Right now, we have a law that does not have a clear intent, which leaves us with vague language and a confusing process. When you have vague laws, they will rarely be applied evenly. Tenants and landlords each deserve a chance to negotiate and bargain, so long as the process is fair. We should reform the law to better reflect the objective of increasing protections for tenants and preserving affordable housing.
Bowser: I believe that TOPA is a valuable tool in our affordable housing toolbox because it not only preserves affordable housing for families here today, but also creates homeownership opportunities for people of color. We know that homeownership is a critical path to building Black wealth, yet 50% of Black households own their homes compared to 70% for White households. While TOPA is an important affordable housing tool, the rules and processes can be too time-consuming to achieve its preservation goals while also encouraging needed housing investments. I will fix TOPA so that we preserve more affordable housing and create more homeownership opportunities for Washingtonians.
Bisnow: The city owns several major vacant properties that can be redeveloped, and there are still two outstanding proposals to remake The Reeves Center at 14th and U streets. How would you weigh competing priorities for those sites, including housing, office, retail and community space? Where do you think the District’s redevelopment process could be improved?
White: We are the midst of an affordable housing crisis and the mayor has failed to use our public land or properties to address this dramatic need. I will use every tool and opportunity available to us to make sure all D.C. residents can afford to live in our city. In addition, I am concerned by how few proposals major projects like the Reeves Center are getting. That suggests that developers know projects will just go to the mayor’s friends and allies and it is not worth submitting proposals. This stops us from getting the best possible proposal and wastes taxpayer dollars.
Bowser: When I first came into office, I pulled back on a number of development projects that the prior administration had awarded. I did that because I believed that our scarce property assets are valuable and that we must also be sure that we are developing them to get the most value. Since then, we have developed new processes to ensure the achievement of that goal. For instance, we announced a new process, “Our RFP,” a Mayoral Initiative that will incorporate community engagement early in the request for proposals (RFP) process. Early engagement with the community will ensure that the public’s perspective and priorities are understood in conjunction with the District’s goals when crafting and issuing the RFP for this District-owned parcel.
We have also announced another strategy, Equity RFP, for enhancing equity and making D.C.’s prosperity more inclusive: an equity inclusion prioritization in RFPs that will increase access to development opportunities for entities or organizations that are owned or majority-controlled by individuals determined to be part of a socially disadvantaged population.
We are committed to making our city’s prosperity more inclusive, but that won’t happen by chance — it will happen because as a government and as individuals, we are intentional about how we invest and who we make opportunities available to. By ensuring that the growth of our city is driven by and more representative of those who make up our city, we can both expand opportunity and advance D.C. values.
Regarding the Frank D. Reeves Center, when built, it was at the heart of Marion Barry’s vision to revitalize the 14th Street and U Street Corridors. Now, we have the chance to take his vision further and reimagine this iconic site in a way that honors Black history and culture and gives more Washingtonians a fair shot. With the NAACP’s new national headquarters anchoring this exciting project, we look forward to putting equity at the forefront of the site’s revitalization. That’s why our RFP to redevelop the site sought proposals from respondents with 100% owned or controlled by minority individuals.
So, we have requested proposals that will transform the large site, consisting of over 2 acres (97,600 SF) of land area, into a transit-oriented, mixed-use development with office space, affordable housing, and neighborhood-serving amenities in a way that reflects the site’s history and culture. Given the U Street Corridor’s role in African American identity, culture and life, DMPED will prioritize proposals that acknowledge the parcel's historic significance and honors both the legacies of Marion Barry Jr. and Frank Reeves.
Bisnow: Would you support a plan to bring the Washington Commanders to the site of RFK Stadium? Are there particular terms such a plan would have to meet in order to be acceptable to you as mayor?
White: I would not. We need to use the RFK site to provide the housing we crucially need. A stadium not only takes space away from housing, but it will drive up prices for the surrounding housing, making it less affordable.
Bowser: I would support the team’s return to RFK, however, I have been very clear about following the model we used for DC United at Audi Field at Buzzard Point. That is, I would prepare the land but the team would have to fund and build their own stadium. Preparing the land would also allow us to build housing, recreational sites, green spaces, retail, and more at the site — all of which we will do whether there is a stadium there or not.
Bisnow: The vast majority — 71% — of D.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings and energy. While the city appears to be on track to meet its emissions goals, recent reports from the UN's panel on climate change indicate the world is not acting fast enough to reduce emissions. What policy tools would you support to encourage a reduction in building emissions?
White: Part of my environmental platform is to advance a Green New Deal for Housing. I am a proud supporter of Council Member Janeese Lewis George’s Green New Deal for Housing Amendment Act. I recently introduced a bill to require all new or substantially renovated government buildings to be net-zero emissions. I also introduced and funded the Renewable Energy Future Amendment Act, requiring the District to evaluate all government properties to determine whether they can generate renewable energy through solar panels, small-scale wind turbines, or other means. I will retrofit D.C. public housing units to promote the construction of renewable energy generation systems and improve residents’ health and comfort through weatherization and other upgrades such as LED lights, low-flow fixtures, low-emissivity windows, reflective roofing, and insulated walls.
Bowser: Climate change is here. While Washington, D.C., is already taking steps to prepare for the impacts of climate change, it is critically important that we also reduce our own contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. In December 2017, in recognition of the importance of local action to achieve the Paris Agreement goal to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5° C, I pledged to make the District carbon neutral by 2050. We cannot wait to take action if we are to achieve this goal. The Clean Energy DC climate and energy plan we published a few years ago is our road map to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2032 and put us on a path toward carbon neutrality by cutting energy use and increasing the use of renewable energy, as called for by our Sustainable DC plan.
Bisnow: At our recent D.C. State of the Market event, multiple industry leaders expressed concerns over the rising crime in the District and its ability to keep people from moving to the suburbs. What is your plan to both reduce crime and restore confidence that D.C. is a safe place to live and work?
White: My top priority will be to curb rising rates of violence and ensure we all feel safe in our city. We need to focus our police resources on public safety, instead of using them as a catchall for every problem. This will allow our officers to patrol, respond to and close cases. Right now, they spend the majority of their time on non-crime-related issues. In addition, people who have good jobs, safe housing, and the mental health resources they need generally do not commit violent crimes. I will take a proactive approach to eliminate the conditions that lead to crime, such as unemployment, homelessness, mental health and drug addiction. I will expand and coordinate our violence interruption efforts. I will professionalize, train and adequately compensate violence interrupters who are trusted community members and can help target the people most likely to become involved with violence and get them on a safer, more productive path. As violent crime rises for the sixth consecutive year, we cannot continue with single-track efforts. I will take a whole government approach to crime.
Bowser: Your safety is my No. 1 priority. I want you to know that we will curb the number of guns in our community; arrest people using guns in our community; and work with all our partners to make sure we are preventing crime before it happens, but also holding people accountable who are making communities less safe for women, our children, our brothers and sons, and our families.
Some elected officials support defunding police. Know that I am committed to throwing every resource at the rise in violent crime in D.C., and we will keep pushing on all fronts until we see positive results.
The Covid-19 pandemic has upended so much in our lives, including the very fragile public safety ecosystem in our community. Getting back to normal operations in our courts, jail, parole and probation agencies, and job training programs will also tilt the scale toward safer communities. Know that I wake up every morning focused on the safety of our city and willing to create or expand any program that will make our neighborhoods safer.