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How To Build More Housing In Upper Northwest? Change Policies, Minds

D.C. leaders are looking to encourage more housing development in the wealthy enclaves of Upper Northwest as part of the city's goal of increasing residential supply across the District, and they now have a lengthy list of new ideas to consider.

The ULI panel of Ginko Residential's Philip Payne, Minneapolis Long Range Planning Director Heather Worthington, David Baker Architects' Brad Leibin, Austin City Council member Chris Riley, Abacus Impact's Brian Rajan Nagendra, CKG Advisors' Keith Harris, Greensfelder Commercial Real Estate's David Greensfelder and ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing's Christopher Ptomey

A panel of eight nationwide housing experts convened by the Urban Land Institute presented a report Friday morning with a series of recommendations for increasing the housing supply in the area west of Rock Creek Park by changing a host of city policies and altering public attitudes.  

The report was the culmination of a weeklong research process that included the review of hundreds of pages of background material from the District, interviews with 80 stakeholders and a tour of the neighborhoods in Upper Northwest D.C.

The panel included experts from Charlotte, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Austin, Philadelphia and Illinois with backgrounds in a variety of housing-related professions. Several D.C. leaders attended Friday's presentation, including Director of Planning Andrew Trueblood, Director of Housing and Community Development Polly Donaldson and Mayor Muriel Bowser's chief of staff, John Falcicchio, who is also serving as interim deputy mayor for planning and economic development. 

Bowser's administration set a goal of building 36,000 new housing units equitably across the city by 2025 to address the region's housing shortage and help improve affordability. The Rock Creek West area's piece of that goal includes 2,500 new units, a tall order in a part of the city that has not contributed its share of new housing development in recent years. Since 2015, just 53 of the city's 9,285 new affordable homes have been developed in Ward 3, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. 

To change this dynamic, the panel said D.C. will need a variety of strategies and must work to achieve community acceptance of new housing. Some of the strategies would take long-term efforts, but it specified several initiatives that could be achieved with immediate action.  

"The mayor's call for there to be equitable distribution of affordable housing across the District poses significant challenges in Rock Creek West," said Ginkgo Residential CEO Philip Payne, the panel's chair, who is based in Charlotte. "Our intention is to propose actionable policies to accomplish the mayor's goal of putting a fair share of the planning increase in housing units, both market-rate and affordable, in Rock Creek West."

Public opposition remain one of the main impediments to building affordable housing in upper Northwest D.C, and the panel said working to address opposition and change attitudes needs to be an immediate priority.

That opposition made an appearance during the panel’s question-and-answer session, with multiple audience members raising issues with subsidized renters in their buildings. Sedgwick Gardens Tenants Association President Carren Kaston said voucher users in her building include people with criminal records and suffering from mental illness, and she said loud noise and vandalism have been frequent problems. 

“The way D.C. is distributing vouchers is out of control. There’s almost nothing you can do and not be given subsidized housing,” Kaston said. “Affordable housing will not be accepted in Ward 3 as long as the city does not get its act together in the way it is trying to increase affordable housing. The ward will not accept the way it is happening.”  

To build support for new housing development, the panel recommended a wide-ranging educational campaign from the District. It suggested efforts such as social media campaigns, exhibits in public facilities, book clubs and community meetings to teach residents about the importance of building new housing and the racial disparities in housing that still exist today. 

“There is a long history in cities of racialized housing policy,” Minneapolis Long Range Planning Director Heather Worthington said. "This history is important in understanding why cities look like they do today. There is a certain gap in knowledge because we have not taught this in our schools. People are not aware of this history."

A map showing the distribution of new (blue) and preserved (yellow) affordable housing projects across the District since 2015

Another impactful step the panel recommended taking immediately was promoting the development of accessory dwelling units. D.C. passed a law in 2016 allowing homeowners to build additional units on their properties in many residential zones, but the panel found fewer than 100 ADUs have been completed.

The Rock Creek West area has 17,700 single-family lots, and Abacus Impact founder Brian Rajan Nagendra said it could meet its entire 2,500-unit housing goal if 14% of those property owners added an accessory unit. The 14% figure was ambitiously high and used for illustrative purposes, but the panel said there are steps the city can take to promote more ADU development.

It recommended the creation of an ADU assistance program, incentives to encourage ADU construction, a review of the regulations with a goal of streamlining the process and a campaign to promote the program. 

“We believe accessory apartments are one of the best opportunities for housing production in Rock Creek West,” Rajan Nagendra said. "It’s driven by individual decision-makers, homeowners taking advantage of a new asset that’s available to them."

In addition to building individual units on single-family lots, the panel focused on ways to encourage high-density, multifamily development around the Metro stations and commercial corridors in the Rock Creek West area. 

Neighborhoods such as Cleveland Park, Glover Park, Tenleytown, Chevy Chase and Friendship Heights all have commercial centers or transit hubs with opportunities to build dense residential development. The panel zeroed in on some specific sites that could be developed with multifamily, such as the WMATA garage in Friendship Heights, the adjacent Pepco substation and the property that Fox 5 will soon vacate when it moves to Bethesda.

But in order for large amounts of housing to be built in these areas, the panel said D.C. would need to make significant changes to its development process. 

The recent wave of litigation that has delayed developments across D.C. has acted as a major impediment to building new housing in Rock Creek West, the panel said. To counter these appeals, it recommended revising ordinances to ensure parties filing lawsuits have a demonstrable interest in the project, requiring the posting of a legal bond prior to the filing of a land-use lawsuit and creating a legal defense fund to counter the economic power of wealthy residents who seek to block affordable housing projects. 

"There is an extreme amount of litigation occurring in the District with regard to the construction of multifamily and affordable housing," Worthington said. 

The panel also recommended ways to work around the development process that leads to these lawsuits. It said D.C. should upzone certain areas to allow higher-density development to be built by-right, shortening the approval process. It said the city should focus on creating Small Area Plans that give communities a say in the future development of the area and allow individual projects to move forward quicker and with more certainty. The District should also review its historic preservation policies to ensure they are not helping opponents block development, the panel said. 

"D.C. and other cities we've worked in are starting to see what I call the 'weaponization of historic preservation,' where historic preservation tools and regulations are used to block and slow development," Worthington said. 

Religious groups in D.C. have increasingly partnered with developers to build housing on sites of existing churches, and the panel said the District should increase its outreach to the faith community to find more opportunities to partner on housing projects.  

The city also owns several properties in Rock Creek West that could be redeveloped with housing, the panel said, such as the Friendship Heights and Chevy Chase libraries. 

"Making use of city-owned properties would be especially helpful given the high land-acquisition costs throughout the study area," ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing Executive Director Christopher Ptomey said.