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.