by Kesh Ladduwahetty
Ward 3 has come under particular scrutiny recently for its egregious lack of affordable housing, as well it should. But the Mayor’s proposal to address the issue, which the DC Council has very slightly modified, has carefully avoided the 800-pound gorilla: racism. In failing to define the actual problem, they have failed to propose real solutions.
Mayor Bowser’s Housing Equity Report, published last fall, brought needed attention to the fact that Ward 3 is an outlier with regard to the amount of dedicated affordable housing found here. The report pointed out that “Rock Creek West” (which approximates Ward 3) hosts only 470 dedicated affordable units – defined as those restricted to households earning 80% or less of the Median Family Income (MFI). That compares with 6,960 units in “Mid-City” (approximately Ward 1) and 15,760 units in Far Southeast and Southwest (approximately Ward 8). While the statistics are undeniable, they hide the more meaningful reality: the racial imbalance in Ward 3.Centuries of racist policies in housing, education and employment have pushed Black DC residents out of Ward 3 and kept many more from living here. The Housing Equity Report does not mention race once, despite the skewed demographics of Ward 3, where 72% of residents are white. As a Ward 3 resident of 30 years who is not proud of the moniker “Upper Caucasia,” I long for a housing policy that increases the racial diversity in our Ward.
The Mayor’s report recommended building 36,000 new units of housing citywide, with 30% (12,000) being affordable at the 80% MFI level or below by 2025. The highest number of “affordable” units – 1,990 – are proposed to be in Rock Creek West. Much of the public debate around the proposal has centered on zoning and density. But these arguments miss the more important point of racial diversity. Since 70% of the new units would be market rate, our racial mix is not likely to change, given the correlation between income/wealth and race in the US. And since the report fails to specify numbers of affordable units by specific MFI brackets, even these would be at the 80% MFI level ($77,650 for a two-person household), which skews towards white families. Despite the high sounding language about equity and affordability in the report, the proposal is bound to further accentuate the racial imbalance in Ward 3.
To promote this wrong-headed policy, the Mayor calls for investing $4 million annually in the form of tax subsidies for real estate developments in four “high-need” areas, including Rock Creek West. The tax subsidies would start in Fiscal Year 2024, last 40 years and be available for developments with 350 or more units where 30% or more of the units are “affordable”. In other words, let’s forfeit $4 million in tax revenue to subsidize for-profit developers to bring white families to Rock Creek West!
On July 7th, the Council made a slight modification to the Mayor’s proposal, eliminating the requirement relating to the number of units, but did not change its basic nature: using the public treasury to subsidize profitable real estate developments that preserve the racial demographics of Ward 3, all under the rhetorical cloak of equity and affordability. Despite the PR ploys, however, people are not fooled. Amber Harding of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless called the proposal a “developer giveaway.” At-Large Council member Elissa Silverman said during a Council housing committee meeting, “If we are going to put public money into these projects, I think we need deeper affordability to justify the incredible investment of our taxpayers’ dollars.”
We need a housing policy in our ward that is grounded in the historical and current reality of racial segregation and the displacement of Black DC residents, and promotes solutions that actually provide housing for Black families. Upper-income workers and families rely heavily on low-income service workers for everything from janitorial, food service and landscaping services to child care and health care. A study last year by the Coalition for Smarter Growth found that eight of the 20 most common occupations in DC pay less than $30,000, and not a single one of those occupations was between 50% and 80% of MFI.
We need to focus taxpayer subsidies to build housing below 50% of MFI, with specific targets at the zero to 30% level and 30% to 50% level. If private developers won’t agree to those terms, then we need an alternative developer. After watching the DC government fail to meet its own benchmarks for twenty years, continuing the same failed policy of subsidizing private developers means we’ll remain stuck with Upper Caucasia.
Kesh Ladduwahetty is a Sri Lanka immigrant who has lived in Ward 3 for 30 years. She is a graphic artist/designer who spends a great deal of time on political activism, primarily through DC for Democracy.