DC zoning

How DC’s Comp Plan Promotes Segregation… And What We Can Do About It

“Development [near transit] must not compromise the integrity of stable neighborhoods…”

That’s the kind of bland, boiler plate language that a local coalition of housing-minded groups says helps keep DC segregated. It’s from the District’s Comprehensive Plan, a document that provides guidance to DC’s Zoning Commission.

That document is chock-full of references to “stable” and historic neighborhoods that don’t need anything built there. In effect, that ensures they remain predominantly white, wealthy, and low-density.

The group, which includes everyone from affordable housing advocates to for-profit developers, was brought together by local blog Greater Greater Washington around a common grievance: a city zoning code that keeps people from building what needs to be built.

The group saw an opportunity for impact with the Comprehensive Plan being open to amendments this year, something that only happens about twice a decade.

Overcoming traditional divisions in DC housing, the group of activists, housing nonprofits, and developers came together to set out a list of goals.

Among these were a desire to increase the availability of affordable housing, meet the housing demand, and to equitably distribute that housing. That’s in line with the federal government’s recent rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which requires local governments to take an active hand in desegregation efforts.

And a big way that segregation perpetuates itself is through declaring that “stable neighborhoods” are closed for development. These neighborhoods are almost always whiter and wealthier than the city as a whole, often with considerably less density to boot. The current language helps them slam the door on affordable housing developments that could diversify and in-fill these neighborhoods in a number of ways.

GGwash comp planExample of proposed additions in green and deletions in red to the current Comprehensive Plan, along with an explanation for the changes. (Pg. 5 of link)

At the same time, as the city continues to gentrify, development ramps up in long-time communities of color. While investment in these communities is often needed (and deserved after years of public and private neglect), all too often it heralds the arrival of wealthier, predominantly white newcomers, rising rents, and a subsequent cultural and physical displacement.

After the dust settles that could well be a newly stable neighborhood, in Comprehensive Plan speak—no more development or affordable housing needed.

At the very least, the stability that the current Comprehensive Plan talks about is correlated with whiteness. More likely it’s a subconscious piece of the underlying definition.

That’s why the GGW group has painstakingly gone through, line by line, and offered suggested amendments that reflect DC’s responsibility to affirmatively further fair housing. Affordable housing and new development, the amended document would say, need to be spread more evenly throughout the city.

With the right vision for the future, hopefully one day “stable neighborhoods” can be more than just a euphemism in DC.

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