There’s a phrase that emerged from the Great Depression that I think is important to bring up today. In 1939, James Crowther described the problem of “a breadline knee-deep in wheat.” Millions in the country were going hungry at the same time farmers were struggling with a massive agricultural surplus.
When it comes to resources like housing, the District of Columbia has its own breadlines knee-deep in wheat. We are living in a time of immense prosperity for the District, but we still see far too many of our own struggle with housing, homelessness, and displacement.
Despite a growing population and tax base giving us ample resources and amenities, the district has lost a great deal of its truly affordable housing since 2006, along with many of its long-time residents that stuck with the city even in times of economic distress.
Another legacy of the 1930s that is unfortunately still with us today is a consistent pattern of racial and economic segregation. This is a direct and intentional result of policies like racial redlining and restrictive housing covenants. The legacy of these policies can still be seen today, even in comprehensive plan language, which can give ammunition to exclusionary neighborhoods and direct all development to low-income neighborhoods.
This has led to our “bread lines”: an acute and ever-growing need for homes for low- and middle-income households; and our “wheat,” areas – even near metro stations – that have benefited from ever-rising property values while drastic neighborhood changes occur elsewhere. Areas west of Rock Creek added only 3 percent of all new housing units built since the Comprehensive Plan was released in 2006, and 0.6 percent of all affordable housing since 2015.
This is one of the primary engines of gentrification and displacement, and perpetuates patterns of segregation in our neighborhoods and our schools. Just as these patterns were created through intentional policies, it will take thought and intentionality to undo them. The Comprehensive Plan is one of the strongest opportunities we have as a Council to articulate a vision of inclusive and equitable growth.
Projections see the District reaching a population of 1 million by the year 2045. Whether or not that figure is exactly correct is less important than the fact that the District will continue to grow and attract new residents. Unless policies like those in the Comprehensive Plan are crafted correctly, that growth will come at the expense of pushing out low-income families and people of color. If we don’t plan for enough housing – and the right kind of housing – it will also mean less space for families, as larger units are subdivided into smaller rooms and the District tries to fit more people in the same amount of space.
The Comp Plan is a way of directing the Zoning Commission and other levers of decision-making to take seriously the concerns of the community when it comes to affordable housing, displacement, and neighborhood benefit. The displacements and evictions that happen every day across the District show that these patterns will continue to happen unless we pass a Framework Element of the Comprehensive Plan that clearly articulates our priorities.
Allowing for already-planned units to move forward while strengthening the affordable housing and anti-displacement priorities of Planned Unit Developments is one part of this equation. But I believe in a “Yes, and” approach to housing policy. Creating market-rate housing and the Inclusionary Zoning units that come with it are an important piece of the puzzle, but it is an incomplete solution if we don’t address problems of real estate speculation and the view that housing is little more than a financial asset. This mentality contributes to rising costs for families in need of shelter. Community Land Trusts, strengthened rent control, limited-equity cooperatives, and tools like the Tenant and District Opportunity to Purchase Acts must all be essential components of our housing vision.
I look forward to hearing public testimony from the DC community, and exploring as a Council how we can, as my colleague Robert White said in an earlier hearing, “steer the ship” towards a more inclusive and equitable District for past, present, and future residents."