To Be True to its Heritage, Georgetown Must Open its Doors to Affordable Housing

This week, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced an ambitious effort to establish 12,000 new affordable housing units across the District. A central conviction of the plan is that too much of the city’s current affordable housing has been concentrated in its poorer, eastern corners. The wealthier, westerly corners must pick up the slack. And that includes Georgetown.

To carry this out, the Office of Planning divided the city into ten districts. Georgetown is in “Near Northwest”:

And then it set goals for each section. Here is how many affordable units each district currently has, and how many the administration wants to establish:

Near Northwest currently has 4,010 affordable units. The Office of Planning wants to add 1,250 more by 2025. The Near Northwest district spans Georgetown, and parts of Foggy Bottom, Dupont, and Shaw. So if the new units were evenly distributed within the planning area, only a portion would be in Georgetown. (However, most of the existing 4,520 units are located in the Dupont/Shaw area, so if the overall numbers were to be equally distributed, Georgetown would be expected to carry more of the weight of the new units.)

The immediate questions of how these units would come to be remain unanswered. The city currently has only a couple tools to create affordable housing. It can use public money to take “naturally occurring” affordable housing (i.e. already cheap housing) and make sure it stays that way. It can use inclusive zoning or planned unit developments to incentivize the creation of new affordable housing. It can dispose of public land in a manner that requires the construction of affordable housing. Finally, it can increase funding for housing vouchers. These existing tools, funded at current levels, have failed to prevent the evaporation of affordable housing across the city. So more innovations (and/or funding) will be necessary to make a serious dent in the problem.

But setting aside the question of funding (and make no mistake, it’s a big question), the attention quickly turns to how powerful and rich residents will react to the prospect of more affordable housing in their midst. Some (at least those willing to go on record) have come out in favor of the general proposition that a more equal distribution of affordable housing across DC is good and just. (And look back at that chart; even if this whole plan came to fruition, affordable housing would still be disproportionately located in the poorer, eastern neighborhoods).

Early optimism, though, can quickly come crashing against rocky cliffs of opposition. Nimbyism, that is. Of course Nimbyism has learned to adapt to the modern era. No longer does it simply say “not in my back yard”. It says “this is a great initiative, but it just happens that due to the residential nature of my particular backyard, it is not the best location for this great initiative.” Vague threats of school overcrowding will also somehow just edge out the agreement that otherwise, yes, they would totally be in favor of this. Others will lament trees, or parks, or whatever public good that they can’t bear to share.

And that brings us to Georgetown.

Georgetown, lovely Historic Georgetown, is a lie. It was a lie concocted to put forth the idea that the neighborhood was and shall remain quaint and beautiful. It was a lie established at a time when Georgetown was not beautiful, but rather ragged. The sidewalks were concrete. The streetlights like something from a highway. Poverty abounded:

Before the beautification of Georgetown in the middle of the 20th century, the neighborhood had been for centuries an economically and racially diverse neighborhood. But after the beautification it became economically and racially homogenous. The Old Georgetown Act used the power of federal law to enforce an aesthetic preference over the entire community, with terrible results for the poor and middle class residents. The powers-that-be decided that preserving in amber the architectural state of the neighborhood circa 1950 was more important that keeping the communities that made up the heart of the neighborhood. Some would argue that getting rid of those folks was the whole point. You can decide for yourself whether that’s true or not.

But it is undeniable that Georgetown became what it is today by way of the same process that made the neighborhood inhospitable to the poor and working class blacks and whites. So it will be both unsurprising and sad when that same historic preservation process inevitably gets wielded by a few loud voices if and when the city comes knocking with a plan to create affordable housing in Georgetown.

Too tall. Too dense. Not consistent with the historic character of the neighborhood. These will be rallying cries of the Nimbys. But they will never acknowledge that Georgetown as it is now–rich and almost entirely white–is more out of place with the historical character of the neighborhood than any building could possibly be.

These voices will be present, there is no doubt. The only question is whether others will step forward and reject this perversion of the process and welcome the return–albeit in a tiny way–of the true historic character of Georgetown.




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8 responses to “To Be True to its Heritage, Georgetown Must Open its Doors to Affordable Housing

  1. georgetowncitizen

    Historic Georgetown may be a “lie”, but it is now an aesthetic “lie,” as the result of a great deal of investment over time in property improvement and renewal. And THAT is worth preserving. The article almost suggests that we should retrograde the place part way back to the “not beautiful but rather ragged” community it was before those improvements, which began with the arrival of the New Dealers in the 1930s–well before the passage of the Old Georgetown Act. Admittedly, that Act has upped the costs of living here by creating mandates which boost the cost of home repair/renovation (and which, sometimes carried to extremes, irritate even the more affluent of us now). But many of the lower income people who lived here moved simply in order to “cash in” on the increasing values of their homes as Georgetown become a more desirable place to live and/or to reduce their property taxes.
    As a practical matter, given the dense concentration of historic (or quasi-historic) properties in Georgetown, it’s difficult to see that much space would be available to create affordable housing (which normally means apartment blocks) other than by knocking down large numbers of those historic properties to make room for affordable apartment blocks. That is objectionable on aesthetic grounds. And given current real estate values, the cost to the city of acquiring those properties would be enormous, as would be the city’s legal costs when (as it would have to) the city asserted eminent domain, which the current residents would surely (and quite likely successfully) challenge in court. I could see “infilling” affordable housing into portions of Georgetown if there were unoccupied and reasonably priced land available. I just don’t see much, if any, unless one proposes to do away with our public parks and build on them. (And, of course, some of those parks are controlled not by the city, but by the National Park Service.)

  2. zm

    Thank you for this! It’s one of the most insightful articles I’ve read on your blog. And I disagree with “georgetowncitizen” about there being few options in our neighborhood. For example, I can think of a number of properties along Wisconsin that could — and I’d say, should — be converted into affordable housing. That would be a much, much better solution all-around, than pretending they have historic value only to rent them out to boring big banks at exorbitant rents (e.g. Chase deal). In fact I’ve often wondered, why does Wisconsin even need to be historically zoned? It’s a busy shopping street, and there’s no clear esthetic purpose served there. A lot of those commercial buildings could have a couple of floors of apartments added above, why not? Sadly the Safeway debacle from a few years ago suggests we are a long way from that being a realistic option

  3. georgetowncitizen

    I agree with zm that, if we were looking for space for affordable housing in Georgetown, Wisconsin Ave. (esp. some of the perennially “dead commercial blocks” there) would be a good place to start. And most of the buildings on that stretch have absolutely no historic or aesthetic value. But I suspect it still would be a very expensive proposition for the District (meaning us taxpayers) to buy up those buildings or to rent out their upper floors at rates far higher than DC then could charge to the affordable housing tenants. It would be subsidized housing to the 10th degree.

    There is no easy answer to this. DC does need more affordable housing, and I understand why our mayor–for political reasons– seeks to “distribute the burden” so that it’s not only the poorer areas of the city that host affordable housing. The problem is that history has given us a fait accompli in the form of some VERY expensive neighborhoods (including Georgetown) for which it would be very expensive and possibly legally contested for the city to secure space for affordable housing. You mentioned Wisconsin Ave. as a possibility. A fair portion of Wisconsin Ave. architecture is undistinguished, if not ugly, but I suspect it’s still pretty expensive real estate. Still, if the city were prepared to pay the price, I think your suggestion of Wisconsin is well taken. But still, even if it does not seem “fair” geographically, the city could build a lot more for its money and ultimately do more social good if it sought areas other than the most expensive quadrants of the city. I don’t think that’s Nimbyism (although I unashamedly confess to a bit of that): I just think it’s doing the most good one can within the financial constraints one faces.

  4. Topher

    Maintaining a regime of historic preservation is itself rather expensive, both for residents and the government. But we bear the cost because we decided that the results are worth it. What I’m suggesting is that having a more economically and racially integrated neighborhood is also a desirable goal, and one that would bring about a truer preservation of our neighborhood’s past. We should be willing to bear the cost to achieve it.

  5. georgetowncitizen

    Our fellow commenter “zm” has identified at least one area of Georgetown (namely Wisconsin Ave. north of M St.) which has some parcels which could be used for affordable housing without any loss of aesthetic or genuinely historic values. So the question, it seems to me, comes down to how much the taxpayers are prepared to pay in order to put affordable housing in G’town rather than in less expensive parts of the city.

    Topher in his recent comment seems to think it’s a worthwhile social goal. I think one could build a lot more affordable housing units for many more people for the dollars available if it were not located in an area of sky-high real estate prices (and that includes Wisconsin Ave. in G’town). This is something people can debate in generalities but not really decide unless/until we ever get a reasonably ballpark figure from the city of the price per affordable housing unit of acquiring that real estate and then re-building on it. But I suspect the resulting numbers would be breathtaking.

    One more “fly in the ointment”: the Old Georgetown Board. It takes a very broad view of what is historic and thus worth preserving. E.g., when the mansion at the corner of Wisconsin Ave. and R St. was remodeled some years ago, the new owners (co-owners of a prominent architectural firm in the city) sought permission to remove two plug-ugly garages (probably of only 1920s/30s vintage) which separate the house from its frontage on R St. The Board denied that request. The garages were plug-ugly, but they were “historic” and thus remain there to this day. So I would have no aesthetic objection to seeing a number of the commercial buildings on Wisconsin Ave. come down (as some probably would have to, being probably unsuitable for conversion to housing), but the Old Georgetown Board might. And, as I recall, their chain of command does NOT include the city, but ends up in the Fine Arts Commission, which is a federally appointed body. So they might pose a very formidable obstacle, especially if they were feeling “heat” from Georgetown residents who just didn’t want to see more affordable housing units here at all.

  6. georgetowncitizen

    Let me offer one more observation about bringing low-cost housing units to G’town. Are we doing our possible new neighbors a favor? Because, I suspect that most stores use “dynamic pricing.” They charge what they think the neighborhood will tolerate. So more affluent neighborhoods get charged higher prices. For example, have you seen how high the prices are at the Exxon gas station at Wisconsin Ave. and Q St.? Higher than in other parts of the city. I don’t know what the “social Safeway” on Wisconsin Ave. (where most of us G’town residents depend for groceries) charges in comparison with Safeway stores located in less favored areas of the city, but I suspect it is more. So housing low-income citizens in G’town could save them on rent, but expose them to higher prices for groceries, gas, etc.

    This is a complicated issue, so we should not leap to conclusions about trying to “do good” before we take the whole social/economic picture into consideration. The law of “unintended consequences” really applies here.

  7. zm

    Fact-check: I’ve spent time in lower income neighborhoods so I happen to know that food prices there are typically even higher. Not quite Dean & DeLuca levels (RIP) but much higher than Safeway. This is a well-documented aspect of the food desert phenomenon. And gas prices have everything to do with competition, not neighborhood affluence.

    The larger point here is that we are ALL better off when we live in more diverse areas. So many of our neighbors put up those ubiquitous signs: “all are welcome here” – so lets really mean it, and be true to that welcoming spirit.

  8. georgetowncitizen

    Hi zm. Thanks for your fact-check regarding higher costs for groceries/etc. in more affluent vs. less affluent neighborhoods. I will not dispute your assertion that less affluent areas pay more, because if you’ve spent time in lower income neighborhoods, I have not, and so I accept your point. But that is really a minor side-issue.

    The real issue is how expensive it would be to erect affordable housing in a high-cost area like Georgetown. And as to your “larger point,” I’m afraid that we humans are NOT necessarily better off (if by that you mean happy, as vs. “instructed” by those who presume to instruct us) when we live in more diverse areas, if by the latter you mean economic diversity. Diversity has become a modern mantra (dare I say shibboleth?). The truth is that most human beings prefer not diversity but congruency within their neighborhoods, which gives them a sense of comfort, safety, and immediate empathy with neighbors. We as a species are not all that venturesome when it comes to our home turf. And that is why efforts to place low-cost housing into G’town are likely to evoke fierce and very well-financed opposition. I will not be among them, but I will understand where they are coming from.

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