GREATER GREATER WASHINGTON: How the DC government shot itself in the foot at Brookland Manor

By Pete Rodrigue (Contributor)

May 1, 2017 

Brookland Manor Image by the author.

This post is part of an ongoing series about Brookland Manor, a controversial development project just east of the Rhode Island Metro station that epitomizes the complex dynamics around building housing— especially affordable housing— in DC. Read the introduction to this series hereHere is the first post, which outlines what’s currently at the site, what the owners want to build, and what that could mean for affordable housing.

MidCity, the company that owns Brookland Manor, wanted to build a much bigger project at the site than what it’s currently proposing to the Zoning Commission. The original plan included more total units and more affordable units. But once different agencies from the DC government weighed in, despite mandates from our political leaders to address DC’s affordable housing crisis, a new proposal with far less less housing— and less affordable housing— emerged. Here’s how that happened.

First, a recap of the current plan

MidCity is currently applying for a Planned Unit Development, which, by going before DC’s 5-member Zoning Commission, would allow the company to build more densely than the base zoning allows. In return, it would be required to provide public benefits, like affordable housing. Today, after reductions in the project plans, MidCity says it plans to build 1,760 total units: 114 townhomes and 1,646 apartments. Of those, MidCity plans:

MidCity representatives say that’s far more than will be required of them once the company’s HUD contract expires and the use restrictions on the property abate. Critics say that these promises aren’t adequate to prevent displacement of the current low-income renters, or to help address DC’s pressing need for affordable housing.

Before this plan, MidCity proposed something different

MidCity’s original 2014 redevelopment plan called for 2,235 units total. In a January 2015 follow-up document, the company proposed that 436 of those units would be affordable: 424 apartments and 12 for-sale townhouses.

The 12 townhouses would’ve been affordable to low-income families between 30% and 50% of AMI through DC’s inclusionary zoning program (that’s roughly between $29,000 and $49,000 for a family of three).

373 of the apartments were to be subsidized through HUD’s section 8 program, basically a continuation of the HUD contract that’s currently in place until the mortgage is paid off. Section 8 apartments are affordable even to families with virtually no income.

That left 51 affordable apartments (424-373). MidCity said they planned to work with DC’s Housing Authority, which administers the city’s housing voucher program, to increase its voucher subsidies in Brentwood. A large enough increase, if DCHA were to grant it, would cover the higher rents in the new apartments, making them affordable to very-low-income families with vouchers.

436 is less than the 521 subsidized and “market affordable” units (naturally cheap units that historically have been rented by families with vouchers, see this earlier post for the distinction) that have been at Brookland Manor for decades (the project contains 535 units, but MidCity leaves 14 of them off the market, either vacant, used as offices or by staff. That leaves 521 to rent). And at last count on April 9th, 2017, 431 families still lived at the complex.

How (specifically) the current plan is different from the original

The change from 424 affordable apartments to 373 was partly precipitated by limitations on density in the Comprehensive Plan—and the Zoning Commission’s reluctance to loosen those limitations.

In early 2015, MidCity scaled the project downcutting the total number of units by 20%. This was in part because its original plan required that the Zoning Commission allow more density on its property, but the Zoning Commissioners were reluctant to grant the full request.

Below is a rough overview of the current zoning, which is low-to-moderate all high density residential R-5-A with a small portion mixed-use commercial (C-2-A). One thing to note is that there has been a zoning update since 2015, but since this PUD process predated that, the graphics use the old zone names.

Image by DC Office of Planning.

MidCity’s original PUD amendment plan proposed a C-2-B portion, which would’ve let them build up to 90 feet in height along Rhode Island Avenue (the brown part in the image below):

Image by DC Office of Planning.

But MidCity’s revised PUD amendment plan, which is the one being considered right now, dialed the density back considerably, from C-2-B to C-2-A along Rhode Island Ave. This means they can only build up to 65 feet now:

Image by DC Office of Planning.

Why didn’t the initial plan go forward?

For a PUD application to get the Zoning Commission’s approval, the proposal has to satisfy the commissioners; more specifically, it has to be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan as both the commission and the DC Office of Planning (OP) interpret it. Long story short: hesitant to allow more density outright, the Office of Planning and the Zoning Commission gave MidCity a choice between trying to amend the Comp Plan to allow more density (which could have meant a long delay) or moving more quickly, and with more certainty, with a downsized plan. MidCity chose expediency.

Both OP and the Zoning Commission take the dictates of the Comp Plan seriously. As DC’s 600 page-guide about how the city should develop, it sets legally-enforceable bounds on the types of development they can approve. And OP and the commissioners thought the proposed height of the initial proposal was prohibited by the Comp Plan.

From what I can tell, only three neighbors (one of whom lives a mile away from Brookland Manor) testified that the originally proposed buildings were too tall. In the fall of 2014, the Office of Planning said that the proposed heights, greater than those allowed in the current Comp Plan, would likely be appropriate for the site.

So while OP wasn’t opposed to greater density at Brookland Manor, it didn’t think the Zoning Commission should grant that height increase unilaterally. Instead, it recommended changing the Comprehensive Plan to allow a 90 foot tall building, because, as Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser said, “having Zoning set a preemptive type of policy ahead of the Comp Plan… undermines the assurance and transparency of the comprehensive plan process.”

To paraphrase, OP said, “We’re ok with your idea, but someone needs file an amendment in the Comp Plan to allow it, rather than asking the Zoning Commission to rezone the property through administrative fiat.”

But the Comp Plan hadn’t been changed yet (in fact it’s just now undergoing an amendment cycle). And during the 2015 zoning hearings, many Zoning Commissioners said 90-foot-tall buildings were not acceptable because they were inconsistent with the current Comp Plan.

Commissioner Peter May said that the proposal was so far beyond what the Comp Plan permitted that it was “a waste of our time.” Chairman Anthony Hood cited the Comp Plan and said, “our hands are tied.” Commissioner Marcie Cohen said,

“It’s very unfortunate because, again, preserving affordable housing and having the opportunity to expand housing in general is critical in our city… it’s a big dilemma because… the political desire to house people who are low-income and to ensure that they are retained in the city, does contradict what exists in the Comprehensive Plan.”

OP offered to work with MidCity to change the Comprehensive Plan, to allow more density at the site before construction started on those potentially-90-foot buildings.

MidCity didn’t seem thrilled with that idea. Its lawyer noted that the Comp Plan revision process was already a year behind, and seemed to want more certainty, even if that meant less density. Near the end of the hearing the lawyer said MidCity would “work on [their] financials” to proceed with the project “without that higher density, [without] waiting for the Comp Plan to catch up. And I think that’s truly what we’re talking about here. This is all about the Comp Plan catching up.” There was a hint of frustration in his voice.

That brings us to MidCity’s current plan

MidCity came back a few weeks later with a new proposal that lowered the total number of units to 1,760 and the number of affordable apartments from 424 to 373.

Before, a MidCity representative told me, the company had considered cross-subsidizing those 51 non-section 8 apartments using the project’s greater density. In its new plan, MidCity seemed to drop that idea. There’s no mention of those 51 apartments being affordable in the “offer of public benefits” submitted to the Zoning Commission in July 2015. Nor do they appear in the Zoning Commission’s September 2015 order on the case, which tells MidCity which benefits it must legally provide.

The DC Housing Authority alone, the new plan suggested, would have to pay to subsidize any apartments beyond those 373 if the city wanted more apartments to be affordable to low-income families.

Image by MidCity.

In other words, it might have been easier to accommodate the existing families at Brookland Manor if the Zoning Commission and OP not felt duty-bound to uphold the Comp Plan and had MidCity not subsequently changed its proposal.

Commissioner Cohen asked about this tradeoff at the May 7th 2015 PUD hearing: “Can you tell me how many units, then, we’re losing in this proposal by reducing the zoning?” A MidCity representative explained the reduction. Cohen then commented, “We all know we have a housing — you know, especially an affordable housing crisis in the city. So I was curious as to what we were going to lose.”

One part of DC government got in the way of building more affordable housing even though other parts say we need more

City leaders keep saying we have an affordable housing crisis, and keep pledging to do more to address it. In 2015, the Mayor created an 18-member “housing preservation strikeforce.” It set big goals, including “preserving the affordability of 100 percent of the District’s existing federally- and city-assisted affordable rental homes.” Participants in that process told me that this goal includes preserving “market affordable” units, like those non-section 8 units at Brookland Manor.

This is why Councilmembers Elissa Silverman and David Grosso urged the Zoning Commission to push MidCity to preserve all 500+ affordable units. OP did the same in March 2015. This is also what the Brookland Manor Resident Association is asking for.

Housing advocates think that asking for no net loss of affordable units is modest, given DC’s housing situation. As Will Merrifield, the lawyer representing the residents before the Zoning Commission said in an interview,

“If you ask me, personally, what the right amount of affordability is—it would be a hell of a lot more than 535 units… 735 instead of 535. [MidCity is] tripling density [at this site] in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, when families are living in DC General… there’s a scabies outbreak in DC General right now… we think our ask, of just keeping [the affordable housing that’s] there, is exceedingly reasonable.”

The tenant advocates also say that even though MidCity is about to be free of its previous affordable housing contracts, it still owes a debt to lower-income renters. They point out that some of MidCity’s current wealth derives from that low-interest government mortgage they had for 40 years, and the steady rents the company enjoyed through the section 8 program, even in the depressed rental market of the 80s. They also note that PUDs must “protect and advance the public health, safety, and welfare” of the community—which they say means not displacing current residents.

MidCity representatives might counter that they’re a for-profit company that is providing roughly double the amount of affordable housing that DC legally requires on privately-owned land (inclusionary zoning requires 8-10% of newly developed units be moderately affordable; MidCity is offering to make 22% of the units affordable through the IZ townhomes and the continuation of the section 8 contract). Their representatives say that although the company has done good work in affordable housing, its bottom line is profitability.

As Jamie Weinbaum, MidCity’s executive VP told me: “We need to make sure we have a project that, as a for-profit company, it’s still investible and financeable, and will have a feasible return.”

DC government seems unsure about how much affordable housing it really wants, and it’s losing ground

The same is true of the many owners and developers in this city. If the DC government wants to meet its ambitious goals and do 1-for-1 replacement of affordable housing undergoing redevelopment, it can’t expect these private actors to do all the work for them. Instead, DC government needs to use some combination of incentives, sanctions, requirements, and oversight to enlist the private sector in meeting these goals.

Brookland Manor is a good example of how DC government is struggling to do that. Two councilmembers and OP both said MidCity should do 1-for-1 replacement. But as far as I can tell, no DC government agency proactively approached MidCity to collaborate on a plan that would provide enough affordable housing to avoid displacement, let alone provide the higher levels of affordable housing the tenants and advocates want. When I asked the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) about this (in the context of Housing Production Trust fund disbursements), its response was basically that it’s on the developer to come to them with these deals.

Meanwhile there’s the PUD process, which can unlock increased density that developers want and that they could use to subsidize more affordable units. The gatekeepers of the PUD process, the Office of Planning and the Zoning Commission, have incredible leverage to get developers to provide affordable housing. But they have been lackluster affordable housing watchdogs, because affordable housing is only one of many priorities buried in their 600-page policy playbook: the Comprehensive Plan. That document encourages affordable housing preservation, but the language is often vague, and other sections put forward potentially conflicting goals, like moderating density or increasing tax revenue. It’s also hard to change quickly.

So at Brookland Manor and elsewhere, the city is fumbling an opportunity to preserve affordable housing. How many affordable homes could actually end up at Brookland Manor? See the next post.

A spokesperson for the DC Office of Zoning declined to comment for this post, and said the commissioners prefer not to discuss ongoing cases outside of the hearing room.