Contact Us

Robert White, D.C.'s New Housing Committee Chair, On Socialized Housing, Conversions And Fixing DCHA

Robert White is assuming the chair of the D.C. Council’s Housing Committee at a time of profound change. 

A day after he was sworn into his new post, White spoke with Bisnow about his priorities leading the body and the housing crisis facing the city.

Council Member Robert White speaks to residents during a walkthrough of ANC 8A.

White, who was first elected to his at-large seat in 2016, said he is looking to take a more active and community-oriented approach to the committee’s proceedings than his predecessor, Council Member Anita Bonds. As for the housing challenges facing the District, he said that no solution is off the table.

White backed the D.C. Green New Deal for Housing, which is expected to be reintroduced this term with a majority of the council’s support, and is backing Mayor Muriel Bowser’s push to bring an additional 15,000 residents to downtown D.C. after he ran against her in last year's mayoral primary. He told Bisnow he thinks public-private partnerships can help unlock office-to-housing conversions at scale. 

“I’m going to push the private sector on the percentage of affordable and workforce housing, but I’m looking forward to having those conversations because I think our end goals are similar,” White said. “I don’t think any of us have the full plan. We only make the progress we need by all sitting down at the table.”

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Bisnow: As chair of the Housing Committee, you'll have a variety of issues to contend with this term, including the D.C. Housing Authority, the Green New Deal for Housing and plenty of other issues, but what will be your first priority?

White: First priority is stabilizing the D.C. Housing Authority to make our public housing the most stable and habitable in the nation. We were able to get a major step forward at the end of last year with a reorganized board, with significant expertise, with significant residents' involvement as well. Now we need to work on stabilizing the agency from top to bottom and making sure that the agency has the funding it needs to deal with deferred maintenance.

Bisnow: With the emergency legislation that you helped pass at the end of last year, some said that it gave too much power to the mayor and removed critics of the way that DCHA had been run. I'd like to hear more about why you felt that particular solution was the best way to bring needed changes to DCHA.

White: Within 48 hours of receiving and reading the most recent HUD report in early October, and talking to people much smarter and more experienced than myself, my conclusion was that we needed a reorganized board. One, to avoid a federal receivership, which would be bad for the District and bad for our public housing stock and two, to stabilize the agency because the previous board has not been able to make the progress that we need. Rather than focusing on blame on the council and elected positions, I know that we need to focus on stabilizing housing because that's what the people living in public housing need us to prioritize. So when the mayor proposed a reorganized board, I went to work making that proposal into something that I thought was better for public housing, but also more palatable to my colleagues on the council.

Bisnow: In the new year, what indicators will you be looking for to determine whether that board is making the changes necessary to improve conditions for public housing residents and voucher recipients?

White: One of the many things I did in the bill that the council ultimately passed, was create mandatory check-ins from the agency to the board and from the board to the council. Both of those check-ins require specific updates on every single HUD recommendation. That will be what I use to measure progress. The other thing I'm going to do is very soon sit down with the agency director, and with the reconstituted board, to talk about shared priorities and expectations to make sure we are all on the same page, that our sole mission here is improving the agency and improving public housing. I think that we will all be on the same page, but I think it's important that we have those conversations early and check in incrementally, and then we will track progress through the housing committee.

Bisnow: A big part of that HUD report was the current condition of the public housing owned by DCHA. I'm sure that's something that you'll be checking in with the agency over, but holistically, how big of a role do you think publicly owned housing should play in addressing Washington, D.C.'s affordability crisis?

White: It plays a necessary role. There are a lot of people for whom market conditions priced them out of the housing market. You cannot, with a minimum wage salary, even two minimum wage salaries, afford market-rate housing here in the District. So for better or for worse, public housing is part of the necessary housing continuum. That is why we have to make sure that it is the type of housing that is dignified and gives people the opportunity to continue to climb the ladder, but also that that housing is not jeopardized down the road, because for as far into the future as we can see, there will be a need for public housing.

Bisnow: Last term you endorsed the Green New Deal for Housing, which would create the Office of Socialized Housing responsible for developing publicly owned housing where a third of the units are held to deeply affordable income levels, a third to moderately affordable income levels and a third market-rate. Some developers have argued that such an income mix couldn't be self-sustaining and may be unattractive to market-rate renters. How do you respond to those criticisms of the bill as it stands?

White: The criticisms are fair, but what I remind people is that New Communities anticipated mixed-income and most of us believe that mixed-income communities are beneficial. That's what studies show us. What we are arguing about here or debating is not underlying philosophies but rather details, the exact percentages. What I want to make sure we don't lose sight of in our efforts to redevelop and build new housing in the city is the people like my own family, who had been displaced from the city, who grew up in the city, who want to be here but at a certain point can no longer afford to be here, or the people who want to come here but can't afford to be here. That creates a significant vulnerability for our economy, not to mention pushing out folks like my family. So I'm going to push the private sector on the percentage of affordable and workforce housing. But I'm looking forward to having those conversations because I think our end goals are similar, but we need to have very serious conversations about how we add more housing for people with lower incomes and middle incomes.

Bisnow: What do you envision the role of the private sector will be in addressing this idea? In the current bill, there's some provisions for private sector management companies, for instance, being involved in running these socialized housing buildings. But holistically, how do you want to see the private sector engage with you on this idea?

White: We want all thoughtful people at the table in the work that we're doing in housing. I don't think any of us have the full plan, we only make the progress that we need by sitting down together at the same table, by challenging each other, by pushing our ideas and listening to others. What people will find of the housing committee as I chair it is a thoughtful committee that welcomes and invites different perspectives but that is clear on outcomes so that we all know where we are going.

Bisnow: In terms of that bill, would you be supportive of funneling other subsidies to socialized housing in order to ensure the program is sustainable, like voucher recipients or even using a portion of the Housing Production Trust Fund to finance some of this socialized housing development?

White: Nothing is off the table. The reason I'm interested in exploring the Green New Deal for Housing and social housing is because the District right now is using every known tool on housing and we're still losing the battle, which means we need new tools. Social housing is an idea that has shown that it can work in other parts of the world, and it's an idea that has some promise here. I think we have an obligation to explore it. 

Bisnow: In terms of the timing for an idea like that, do you think that the bill could be passed this year? And do you expect alterations or amendments before its final passage?

White: I can't say at this point in my first 24 hours as chair of the Housing Committee what the timing of the bill would be. But I would also say, the next three months are going to be spent in a deep dive on housing and homelessness issues, so you'll see me out in the community a lot talking to people. I'm not just hearing from agency directors, I'm looking at housing conditions and public housing myself so that I'm not just reading reports. In addition to that, [I’m] reading reports and talking to agency directors and organizations to really do a deep and thorough dive so that we appropriately as a committee identify and lay out our priorities. What my experience with the council and the Attorney General's Office and Capitol Hill has shown me over and over again, is that if you don't develop an affirmative agenda, you will be bowled over every single day with everybody else's agenda and will not make progress. So for me, it's really important to spend time being very thorough and thoughtful in developing our agenda so when we move a bill, if we move a bill like social housing, it will be within the agenda that we've created for the committee for this year. 

DC Council Member Robert White speaking at a rally in 2017.

Bisnow: I want to change gears a little bit here. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced that she wants to add 15,000 new residents to downtown over the next five years. Are you supportive of that goal?

White: I am supportive of that goal. I started pushing the idea of adding residents downtown and converting commercial space to residential in 2016. At that time, I was not able to get a lot of support, folks didn't take it seriously enough. But I did manage to push a study through the council. This is an idea that I have been keenly interested in for several years now and I see an opportunity to get that done. I think it is time to look to the next chapter for the District of Columbia, and that chapter includes a vibrant 24/7 downtown, which can only happen with people living downtown. We have an opportunity to transform downtown — lord knows our commercial vacancy rates are indicating that we need to do something with this glut of office space — so we have an opportunity, we just need to figure out how to make this work. As we do it, we also need to make sure that some of the housing that we're building downtown is affordable for people with lower incomes who work many of our jobs downtown and people with middle incomes who are also working downtown. 

Bisnow: How big of a role do you think housing should play in the revitalization of downtown, and especially now, what can you do to facilitate that role as the Housing Committee chairman?

White: Housing plays a pivotal role in revitalizing downtown because neither the private sector nor government workers are coming back to the office in the way that they were pre-pandemic. So if we want our downtown and our citywide economy to thrive, we've got to figure out where we are pivoting with our downtown and then other office markets as well. Within the Housing Committee, we can and will do work to understand which conversions are possible and what it will require both of the private sector and the government. I believe that we will have to enter into some public-private partnerships in order to make this concept work on a large scale and work in a way that we are creating some affordable housing along with market-rate housing.

Bisnow: When you were campaigning for mayor last year you had proposed some ideas in order to see more of these types of conversions. But are there particular ideas now in terms of zoning or other changes that you would explore to make office-to-residential conversions more feasible for developers downtown?

White: Everything is on the table. I will be discussing with building owners what it would require of them to convert or consider converting their buildings to residential. I also think the private sector needs to come to terms with the fact that they have to be partners in creating more housing in our city, one, because we have to reduce the commercial vacancy rate but two, because we are seeing some businesses not locate in the District of Columbia because of the lack of housing that their employees could afford. So we all have a vested interest in making sure we're building more housing and more affordable housing in the city. This can't be just an initiative of the government, with the private sector kicking and screaming, this has to be a road that we go down together, recognizing the benefit to the broader city, but to the private sector as well.

Bisnow: Last summer, you said the Housing Production Trust Fund was ‘misused and underutilized’ by the Bowser administration. Could you clarify those comments and how you would like to see the HPTF used?

White: The Housing Production Trust Fund has had issues at various stages. First, it didn't have enough money, then it wasn't getting money out the door. Now we're seeing Housing Production Trust Fund money utilized in a way that I believe is not yielding enough affordability. Where we have to focus with the Housing Production Trust Fund, but also with disposal of and redevelopment of public lands, is maximizing affordable and workforce housing when we're utilizing public dollars. I introduced late last year, and we'll be reintroducing likely next week, a bill called the Common Ground Act, that increases the number of affordable units and multibedroom units when we redevelop public lands into housing.

Bisnow: So you're saying that it would increase the minimum number of affordable housing units that you would need to see when you're redeveloping on public land? 

White: That's right.

Bisnow: It's interesting, I was looking at some of the previous legislation you've sponsored, and there was an amendment to the District Opportunity to Purchase Act that was passed in 2021 where you could expand the opportunities for the District to purchase multifamily buildings directly as they go up for sale. It sounds to me like philosophically, you're still thinking about ways for the District to get involved in more directly, either purchasing or owning housing, is that correct?

White: I don't immediately have a desire for the District to be a bigger landlord than it is. But what we would do in that bill that you had mentioned is the city would purchase units and put an affordability covenant on those units as a way to more quickly and less expensively create affordable housing, because housing that is already built is going to cost less and we're going to get it quicker. This also has an added benefit of giving us a tool to create affordable housing in parts of the city that traditionally haven't seen it because of the cost of building, so I'm thinking about Wards 2, 3, 4, for example.

Bisnow: Getting back to the Department of Housing and Community Development, Mayor Bowser has just named Colleen Green as acting director of DHCD, which administers the Housing Production Trust Fund. Prior to Green, Drew Hubbard served as interim director of the agency without getting confirmed by the D.C. Council for over a year. So have you had any discussions with the Bowser administration about bringing forward Green to be confirmed? And would you support her should she have her nomination go before the council?

White: No, I think the administration knew that I was lined up to chair Housing, but I found out about the change in the agency in a press release, like the rest of the public. So I don't know Green. I can't say at this point how I feel about her nomination.

Bisnow: Nonprofit affordable housing providers and for-profit owners of multifamily housing have said that the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act is a challenge for them when acquiring properties in the District because the timeline for tenants to organize can take longer than buyers can keep their financing together. In previous years, they've advocated for changes to TOPA to address those concerns. Are you open to re-examining TOPA and potentially amending it?

White: I am open to it. We have to be clear about our highest priorities and one of the highest priorities as a city is creating more housing that everyday people can afford. So whatever we have to do to get there in a way that cuts against displacement and exclusivity we have to do. 

Bisnow: Is there anything else that you think that folks should know about your priorities and about the way that you intend to lead this committee?

White: I would say that people should expect my approach to the Housing Committee to be different than things they've seen from the council before. I don't see a way to be effective on housing and as chair of the Housing Committee without being deeply integrated into the community, including having many hearings in the communities that we're discussing. So if we are taking a well-rounded approach to policymaking, then we are creating space for agencies, for expert organizations and for residents. And if we do that well, we're going to get a lot of things right. My focus is getting things done and getting things right, and I think a lot of people will find this to be an exciting time for housing because of the challenges we take on and the way that we'll take them on.