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Time for a bolder affordable housing approach in DC

EARLIER this month, the DC Council begins scrutinizing Mayor Muriel Bowser’s $17.5 billion Fiscal Year 2022 Budget and Financial Plan, holding a series of public hearings slated to continue throughout June. One of the areas expected to receive much attention is her proposal to spend more than $400 million to build and preserve affordable housing over the next two years.

Most of the money will be routed through the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), the city’s primary vehicle for delivering low-cost housing. As part of a competitive process, nonprofit and for-profit developers can get low-interest loans or other incentives for construction projects with the agreement that a select number of units will be set aside for low-income or working-class families.

No one should be surprised that results from HPTF projects have been insufficient to meet the growing need for inexpensive housing. There is, after all, a distinction to be made between a financing vehicle and a bold, innovative delivery system.

DC lacks the latter. Its affordable housing program is locked into an antiquated, staid 20th-century model, even as we approach the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. The government seems too timid to avail itself of technological advances, business innovations and large-scale opportunities that could expedite critical improvements.

Consider, for example, that the Bowser administration seems to have quickly dismissed a proposal for the city to purchase and transform the former Marriott Wardman Hotel into a mixed-use complex featuring 500 units of affordable housing, including three- and four-bedroom apartments for medium- and large-size families. The 16-acre campus in Ward 3 went into bankruptcy earlier this year — one of the many casualties of the coronavirus pandemic. It is steps away from the Woodley Park Metro station and a stone’s throw from Rock Creek Park and the National Zoo.

“We could make an investment to buy-down affordable units … in line with our vision for having more affordable units in more neighborhoods in the city,” the mayor said during an appearance earlier this year before the Woodley Park Community Association.

“It’s usually a very costly option in neighborhoods like yours … but it is possible,” Bowser added, according to a member of the Wardman Hotel Strategy Team present at the community meeting.

John Falcicchio, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, essentially restated the administration’s position in an email to me. He said the Wardman is “entangled in a legal dispute” and there are “several bidders for the eventual sale” — about a dozen, according to the most recent reports. The administration’s approach “will be to set the conditions and express our desire to maximize the residential potential of the site with an emphasis on affordable housing and attainable, middle-income housing.”

See what I mean about timidity?

What would have happened if the city had assumed that same posture with the construction of Nationals Park, Audi Field or the Walter E. Washington Convention Center? Each of those projects involved legal disputes, eminent domain fights and settlements. Each was critical to the development of an area that was either blighted or thirsty for economic investments.

The Woodley Park community, even in a post-pandemic environment, may not be as dismal as parts of Southeast were before the Nationals arrived. However, DC officials should take a clue from President Joe Biden’s philosophy that Americans — not just brick-and-mortar buildings — constitute infrastructure. Therefore, it’s smart to invest in residents, especially low-income individuals, who with quality, aggressive supports could be a key element in turning around the local economy.

“We just can’t let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip through our fingers,” said Margaret Dwyer, a member of the Ward 3 Housing Justice group. “When will we ever have a large building with the infrastructure ready for an imaginative and humane repurposing as housing for those most in need?”

The idea for transforming the hotel into a thriving, diverse — racially and economically — community with residential, retail and entertainment facilities began last July as word circulated that the hotel might be in trouble, according to Caitlin Cocilova, volunteer coordinator of the Wardman Hotel Strategy Team. I met recently via Zoom with her as well as Dwyer, Meg Maguire and Gail Sonneman — all strategy team leaders.

A staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Cocilova said she began organizing citizens through the group People Power Action, which subsequently connected her to individuals in Ward 3 like Dwyer, Sonneman and Maguire who were already considering how to realize Bowser’s goal of more affordable housing in their upscale neighborhoods. Their efforts push back against the perception that wealthy homeowners in predominantly white communities aren’t interested in having low-income residents as neighbors.

Cocilova said the group, which now has members across the city, is focused on a fundamental question: “How do we create something that’s different than what we have seen? What we have seen so far has not been effective — as effective as it needs to be in order to assist those [who are] the most in need.”

While there has been no formal vote of the Woodley Park Community Association or the advisory neighborhood commission, Nancy MacWood, a veteran ANC 3C commissioner, said she supports the proposal and is “actively working with both groups to facilitate a project that will benefit the neighborhood.”

Armed with a thoughtful and impressive design that includes the addition of a new tower that would accommodate dozens of large apartment units, the team has reached out to elected officials including at-large DC Council member Anita Bonds, chair of the Committee on Housing and Executive Administration.

During a recent appearance on WAMU’s “Politics Hour” show, Bonds called the Wardman Hotel proposal a “dream-type” project and promised to look into it “seriously.” Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh told me, “I have not committed to anything yet but am interested in seeing what may be possible.” She is expected to tour the property later this month.

Council Chair Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie has taken a more decisive step. Earlier this year, in a letter to Mayor Bowser requesting allocations for his priority projects, he asked that she set aside $140 million in the 2022 budget to purchase the site. She didn’t.

It’s hard to teach bureaucrats new tricks.

Hotel conversions aren’t as risky as some think. In fact, they are happening around the country, with Virginia Suites in Arlington, Virginia, and Embassy Suites in Philadelphia among the most recent examples. Housing at the Wardman could include opportunities for ownership and rental. The advocates propose allowing for street-level retail that would include conference or meeting centers as well as a variety of resident amenities, such as athletic or recreational facilities. All of those could generate income that would sustain the project. The team also envisions the possibility of expanding DC Public Schools’ popular Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, which has its original campus on the same square.

“We think that there are incredible opportunities for bold, original, creative thinking to make a difference for all of our neighbors,” said Dwyer. “We think that something like the Wardman is a win-win.”

She’s right. The city has enough money to purchase the property; some units could quickly be made available to people desperately in need of an affordable place to live. The biggest obstacle isn’t any of that, however. The challenge is helping elected officials overcome their myopia and then pulling them into the 21st century with the rest of us.

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