Is Shame The Antidote To NIMBYism In The Washington Region?
A crane stretches across the sky above a basketball court in Northwest D.C. Like the rest of the region, the District has a housing shortage. But development can be a political third rail.
The subject of the panel was how to build more affordable housing in Washington's wealthiest neighborhoods. But in front of a recent gathering of real estate developers at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser was sounding off about sidewalks.
The mayor said that while knocking on doors on the campaign trail, she came across a house that stood out: it didn't have a sidewalk, unlike every other home on the street.
Whoever lived in the house had apparently fought against the sidewalk's installation. It wasn't clear why or when, or whether the resident still lived there. But the gap in the sidewalk remained — and it would probably stay there for a long time.
"It was just a very simple illustration to me," Bowser said, "of how one person can affect the infrastructure of a city for 50 years."
Now, the mayor is grappling with a gap on a much larger scale: Like the rest of the Washington region, D.C. is facing a severe housing shortage, and efforts to address it are regularly stymied by residents who want to insulate their neighborhoods from change.
Without more homes, officials say, congestion will worsen, poverty will deepen and employers may decide against doing business in a region where their workers can't afford to live.
The supply shortage can be traced to multiple factors, including a recession-induced housing slowdown, high land costs and local zoning that privileges single-family homes. But a formidable and constant political challenge is found among homeowners who appeal zoning decisions in court, testify against development-related legislation or find other ways to impede or shut down residential projects.
Housing opponents often contend that multifamily development looks out of character, generates noise, tightens gridlock, erases parking, crowds schools, causes drainage issues, ruins views, casts shadows or turns suburban hamlets into slums.
It's a situation that has elected officials scratching their heads — or perhaps banging them against the wall. So at last week's convention, Mayor Bowser proposed two potential fixes to the problem of NIMBYism, or "not in my backyard."
"We have to come up with another way to explain what we're doing that they can embrace," the mayor said. "Or at least, if they don't embrace it, they will look shameful."
Her remark drew chuckles, but the mayor didn't appear to be joking.
"[Opponents] have to explain why they're not behind this very good thing for all of us who live in the city now, and for the next generation of people who will live in the city," she said. In other words, get with the program — or get called out.
But is there a better way?
'Those People Are Not Welcome'
During her 15 years with the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, Executive Director Michelle Krocker has yet to see shame dissolve opposition to new housing.
Northern Virginia may be increasingly progressive, she says, but homeowners there don't always view residential development as a larger economic or social equity issue. They're more likely to see it in personal terms, centered on their quality of life.
"In this hierarchy of who should matter, [homeowners] see themselves as the top," Krocker says.
Often, prejudice lurks just below the surface — or right on it, says Robert Goldman, president of the nonprofit Montgomery Housing Partnership.
When Goldman's organization was planning a mixed-income housing project in Rockville, Md., a decade ago, he says, "Folks came out to the initial planning board meeting and were very upfront about it. They said, 'We don't want those people in our community. They're drug dealers ... those people are not welcome."
Officials weren't receptive to that argument, Goldman says, so opponents switched strategies. "They shifted to size [and] shape of the building. And parking, and the schools and the traffic," he says. The project was ultimately scuttled in court after an expensive, two-and-a-half-year legal battle.
Appeals to ideology aren't likely to change anyone's mind, either, former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams said last week. Sharing a stage with Mayor Bowser, Williams described an apparent cognitive dissonance at play within many housing fights in the city's wealthier neighborhoods.
"You go to the people in Northwest [D.C.] and you say ... 'Do you believe we've got to combat climate change and global warming?' Yes. 'You believe in smart growth?' Yes. 'You think that every city should play a part?' Yes. 'You think density is a big part of this?' Yes. 'You think we should have more density down the street?' No," Williams said. "That's the problem."
Blocking Opposition Before It Starts
As far as Bowser's top planner is concerned, the same old arguments against new housing are no longer welcome.
"In the past, it's been OK for people to say, 'Well, I believe in [density and affordable housing], but not here,' " says Andrew Trueblood, who heads D.C.'s Office of Planning. "And what we're saying is, as soon as you say 'but' — as soon as you start qualifying it — then you're not fully living up to what we think we need as a city."
At the mayor's request, a panel of experts recently produced a list of recommendations for how to do that. The panel, assembled by the Urban Land Institute, advised city officials to consider soft measures like educating residents about the history of racism in land use, or even starting a book club centered on texts like The Color of Law and The New Jim Crow.
But the panel also suggested more assertive means of stopping anti-development efforts before they gain momentum. The city should consider modifying the historic preservation process, the panel said, which "is being used as a tool to block and slow development;" update zoning regulations to limit opportunities for litigation; and establish a legal defense fund to "counter the economic power of wealthy residents filing lawsuits against affordable housing."
According to Trueblood, the city is already taking steps similar to the panel's recommendations, including tweaking language in the city's Comprehensive Plan to make it harder for parties to appeal zoning decisions in court.
"Do we want to completely shut off people's due process? No," Trueblood says. "But I think there's a lot we can do."
Signs Of Change
Officials in the Virginia suburbs have been less proactive on housing than the Bowser administration, says Michelle Krocker with the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance. The political will to increase density and significantly invest in affordable housing just isn't there in places like Fairfax County, she says.
"[Fairfax officials] absolutely do not want to have this conversation. At all," Krocker says. "They're wary, because they know this is such an entrenched, embedded notion among the population."
That's why a recent vote from the Montgomery County Council was viewed by "smart growth" proponents and affordable housing advocates as an act of political courage.
The body's unanimous decision to allow more accessory dwelling units in the county — over intense objection from civic associations — is a sign that officials may be willing to take political risks to get more homes built, says Robert Goldman of the Montgomery Housing Partnership.
But it's not shame that's going to change the conversation around housing supply, he says — most likely, change will come as more leaders set ambitious housing targets and push back against their own constituents.
"D.C. is serving as an example for the rest of the region," Goldman says. "Bit by bit, that puts pressure on elected officials to do more."