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Mayor Bowser Unveils Wide-Ranging Road Map To Build Tens Of Thousands Of Housing Units Across D.C.

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The plan to address the housing shortage in the nation's capital came into clearer focus Tuesday, with the D.C. government releasing key documents aimed at guiding the city's development. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser and Planning Director Andrew Trueblood presenting D.C.'s new housing plans
Mayor Muriel Bowser and Planning Director Andrew Trueblood presenting D.C.'s new housing plans

The District is looking to spur the creation of tens of thousands of housing units in the coming years, and Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration released two separate planning documents Tuesday aimed at fostering that residential development in all parts of the city. 

"It is my responsibility to respond to the critical need, some say crisis-level need, for housing in our city and to make sure we have a plan to get there," Bowser said at an event announcing the plan, hosted at City Bikes in Tenleytown

A key element of the documents introduced Tuesday would increase the maximum density allowable for development in certain parts of the city through changes to the Future Land Use Map, part of the 1,600 pages of newly proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan

The map sets guidelines for the allowable level of density on properties throughout the District. The existing map has been seized on by opponents of developments who have appealed projects in court and caused lengthy delays.

"We need these units, these units have been held up for too long and we can’t continue to hear residents across our entire city be concerned about affordability without doing everything that we can to get more units," Bowser said. 

The Office of Planning's recommended changes to the land-use map came after more than 300 D.C. residents proposed edits. The D.C. Council still has the opportunity to revise the edits the administration made before the plan is adopted. 

Planning Director Andrew Trueblood, in an interview with Bisnow before the release, said that when selecting revisions to the map, his team focused on places where it could allow higher-density, transit-oriented development. 

"We took the view that if there is a Metro station, we should have a minimum amount of density around those areas," Trueblood said. "We looked at areas where there were transit stations with low density to find opportunities for higher densities of housing."

Beyond the map changes, the Office of Planning made a host of other revisions and additions to the 1,600-page document. Trueblood grouped the changes into four overarching categories: housing, equity, resiliency, and leveraging public resources and infrastructure. 

The resiliency changes aim to make sure the city can withstand man-made and natural disasters, such as climate change. They come after Bowser in April unveiled a citywide resiliency strategy that mandates widespread retrofitting of commercial buildings that could be vulnerable to climate threats. 

Much of the debate around the Comprehensive Plan is likely to center around housing, which has proven to be a contentious issue in the District. 

Residents in some D.C. neighborhoods have taken a NIMBY approach to housing development and could oppose the idea of increasing density near their homes. Trueblood said he hopes the administration can sell residents on the value of transit-oriented development policies that have long been considered important to smart growth-minded planners. 

"We're not implementing anything radical or unprecedented, we are finding opportunities to implement best practices," Trueblood said. "In addition, density can help with retail and can support other amenities. We hope to make the case that this can benefit everybody and I’m hoping that can help garner support for this proposal."

A map showing how much affordable housing D.C. aims to build by 2025 in each part of the city
A map showing how much affordable housing D.C. aims to add to each part of the city by 2025, including conversion of existing units into affordable housing

Bowser in May set a goal for the District to add 35,000 new housing units by 2025, including 12,000 affordable units. The second document her administration released Tuesday, in addition to the Comprehensive Plan, details exactly where it wants those units to be built. 

The report, titled the Housing Equity Report, aims to provide a road map to create a more even distribution of affordable housing across the city. It says the current affordable housing landscape reflects a legacy of racially discriminatory policies, with the vast majority of affordable housing built in historically low-income neighborhoods and not in more affluent areas, particularly in Northwest Washington.

"This distribution of housing, which is also a distribution of opportunity, is not the result just of natural forces beyond our control, it is not just the result of implicit bias or de facto acts of individuals and governments, rather it is a result of over a century of racially discriminatory policies designed to segregate our city," Trueblood said at the event. 

The administration aims to level the playing field by bringing the share of affordable housing in each of the District's 10 planning areas to at least 15% by 2050. 

This would mean creating a significant amount of new affordable housing in the neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park that have not kept pace with the rest of the city's affordable housing production. The Rock Creek West area had 470 affordable units as of 2018, according to the report, and the District aims to add 1,990 new affordable units in the area by 2025. 

The nearly 2,000 new affordable housing units in Rock Creek West would not all be new construction, the report says. It would also include conversion of existing housing into subsidized housing and allow more voucher recipients to live in housing that doesn't have affordable restrictions. 

The District also aims to add 1,500 affordable units in the Rock Creek East neighborhoods and 1,400 units in Capitol Hill, two other areas it says have contributed less than their share of affordable housing.  

The far Northeast, Southeast and Southwest neighborhoods that sit east of the Anacostia River have historically built the lion's share of the city's affordable housing. Those parts of the city combined to total over 25,000 units of existing affordable housing as of last year, and the District aims to add about 1,600 new affordable units East of the River by 2025. 

While the affordable housing production goals don't represent entirely new construction, the report does lay out the amount of newly produced housing, including market-rate units, it aims to see in each area by 2025. 

The Lower Anacostia Waterfront & Near Southwest area, which includes the booming Capitol Riverfront and Buzzard Point neighborhoods, leads the way with 7,960 newly built housing units. The Upper Northeast areas, including the growing New York Avenue and Rhode Island Avenue corridors, has the next highest share with 6,900 new units. 

The Rock Creek West and Rock Creek East neighborhoods have the two lowest goals for net new housing production with 1,260 and 1,580 new units, respectively. Each of the remaining six neighborhoods fall between 1,850 and 4,210 new units. 

D.C. Council Comprehensive Plan hearing crowd
The D.C. Council's Comprehensive Plan hearing in March 2018 drew hundreds of residents to testify.

The release comes one week after the D.C. Council approved the amendments to the Comprehensive Plan's Framework Element, a 100-page document outlining the plan's overarching goals and defining key land-use categories. 

The process to approve the Framework Element took 21 months from when the Office of Planning originally introduced its proposed changes in January 2018. The council held a public hearing in March 2018 during which over 250 people signed up to testify, arguing passionately with a wide range of perspectives for how the city should guide its future development. 

The Office of Planning has sought to use the Comprehensive Plan amendment process to help mitigate the significant delays caused to dozens of D.C. developments by the wave of appeals opponents have filed in court.

The D.C. Court of Appeals has upheld the Zoning Commission's approval or dismissed appeals in a series of recent cases that give planners hope the judges may have changed their handling of the issue. But multiple projects have been stuck in limbo after the court vacated their Zoning Commission approval, including Menkiti Group's 901 Monroe St. NE development and the enormous Barry Farm redevelopment. 

The appeals have caused an untold number of developers to avoid the planned-unit development process, which grants extra density in exchange for community benefits, but has been seized on by opponents to appeal projects. Developers bypassing the process and building projects within their existing zoning ultimately build fewer units than they could have if they filed a PUD application. 

While Tuesday's proposed changes to the land-use map and the remaining elements of the Comprehensive Plan could help prevent appeal-related delays, Bowser said the already passed Framework Element represented a significant step in addressing the issue. 

"We have been working for the last several years on addressing ambiguities that the courts pointed out in some decisions and some processes that held up thousands of units that we needed to get moving," Bowser said in response to a Bisnow question during Tuesday's event. "Part of the benefit of having the framework approved now, we think that many of those ambiguities have been addressed."

Bowser also recommended that developers re-engage in the PUD process. Bypassing a PUD could lead to fewer units than possible being built on development sites and make it more challenging for the city to reach Bowser's 36,000-unit housing goal.

At an Urban Land Institute event last month, Bowser said that the city is going to run out of space to build housing, and it needs to make the most of its undeveloped land. She also previewed one method of handling with residents who oppose any new housing, potentially previewing the battles to come as the city aims to add thousands of units to historically low-density areas. 

"You have to give people real, finite targets that they can relate to," Bowser said at the September event. "I'm not going to go to Rock Creek West and say 'I need you to help me solve the affordable housing crisis.' We have to come up with another way to explain what we're doing that they can embrace, or at least if they don't embrace it, they will look shameful."