The nationwide focus on racial equity — intensified by the coronavirus pandemic and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody — has trickled down to the realm of the local zoning board. Advocates in D.C. are invoking the need to correct past wrongs as they demand subsidized housing in affluent neighborhoods where low-cost apartments have always been scarce.
The fate of their campaign rests with the D.C. Council, which in the coming weeks will vote on Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s proposed changes to zoning policy. The revisions would allow taller apartment buildings on key corridors, potentially catalyzing the construction of tens of thousands of housing units, a portion of them subsidized.
Bowser’s push for more housing echoes efforts in Portland, Ore., Minneapolis and Sacramento, where leaders seeking to lower costs have moved to relax zoning laws to allow more building in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes. Across the Potomac River in Virginia, Fairfax County officials are considering similar changes.
As in the past, talk of altering D.C. vistas is triggering opposition from preservationists and fierce debate on neighborhood listservs. Business leaders and developers say additional requirements for below-market units would discourage post-pandemic projects.
And a chorus of voices — left-leaning activists among them — say Bowser’s plan would add mainly to the city’s stock of luxury housing, while doing little for the poor.
“We should be welcoming everyone,” Sauleh Siddiqui, a professor and a newly elected advisory neighborhood commissioner, said before voting for a resolution that passed supporting the changes. “I fear if we don’t make space for everyone, there’s really no way we can say we’re going to be an inclusive and diverse community.”
Another proponent of the zoning changes, Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel Congregation in Cleveland Park, recently urged congregants to place their desire for social justice above concerns about traffic congestion and overcrowding.
“This might sting a little bit — it stung me,” he said in a sermon, recounting what he has learned from advocates and developers during discussions about building affordable housing. “Those most likely to put signs on
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