A Winning Campaign

Housing advocates in Washington, D.C., marshaled four strategies for achieving inclusionary-zoning policies designed to protect affordability in a rapidly gentrifying city.

When Pocahantas Outlaw looks around her Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C., she is overwhelmed by the rapid change she sees. “It’s as if every morning a new building is going up,” she says. “I can’t keep track anymore. Prices are skyrocketing, new people are moving in and long-time residents are being pushed out.”

According to Outlaw, a former board member of D.C. ACORN, residents living in the district’s Capitol Hill and Columbia Heights/ Shaw neighborhoods have seen their property-tax assessments double as $750,000 luxury condos sprout up. This tale is becoming more common all across the nation’s capital.

Washington, D.C., is at the forefront of older cities that are experiencing a resurgence of economic investment and is emblematic of a new era of urban growth that is producing robust central-city revitalization after decades of decline. But Washington’s lower-income residents now face the possibility that they will be victims of the city’s success, as economic prosperity increasingly has threatened housing affordability.

Around the country, community advocates are using inclusionary zoning as a mechanism to redress gentrification’s negative fallout for neighborhoods and to protect housing affordability. In late 2006, Washington joined the growing list of cities and counties that have adopted inclusionary-zoning policies. It was the culmination of a complex, three-year effort spearheaded by a diverse, community-driven coalition of more than 50 groups.

It Was the Right Moment

In 2003, the convergence of several forces prompted Washington’s community leaders to work together on inclusionary zoning. Tension was mounting over new residential and commercial development that residents and community groups feared would force them out of their homes and neighborhoods. The incomes of Washington’s residents had not kept pace with housing prices: from January 1999 through March 2003, the price of homes rose four times faster than incomes, and the price of rentals rose three times faster. A Washington household needed to earn $85,052 to afford the average home and $72,160 to afford the average rental. Yet the city’s median household income was only $52,300.

Then-Mayor Anthony Williams had set an ambitious goal of increasing the district’s population by 100,000 in 10 years, primarily to increase the tax base and strengthen the district’s fiscal health. This goal begged the question: What about families currently living there? What would happen to them?

There was growing momentum for affordable-housing advocacy and inclusionary zoning in many communities. The Affordable Housing Alliance – a coalition of housing advocates, tenants, homeless families and developers working together for affordable housing especially for low-income residents – had been successful in getting the district’s long-defunct housing trust fund fully funded to the tune of $22 million. It had also formed a working group to analyze inclusionary zoning. The local ACORN chapter was collaborating with the Metropolitan Washington Labor Council-AFL-CIO and DC Agenda to educate community residents about the benefits of inclusionary zoning. The D.C. Office of Planning had formed a task force to consider adopting a voluntary, incentive-based, inclusionary-zoning policy. To capitalize on these various efforts, a broad spectrum of community groups from around the district decided to form the DC Campaign for Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (CMIZ).

The CMIZ advocates had two things in their favor: political momentum and fortuitous timing. And they succeeded in channeling them into tangible change through four crucial strategies: fostering community engagement in the policy process, building a strong coalition, navigating a tough political climate and committing to the long haul.

Fostering Community Engagement

Too often policy decisions take place exclusively in a land of politicians, lobbyists and policy experts. This is no different with inclusionary zoning, where the policy debate is filled with dry talk of zoning regulations, density bonuses, pro formas, confusing acronyms and, often, excruciating details. Sadly, the voices of people who will be affected by those policies-especially low-income communities and people of color-are frequently absent.

The CMIZ was different. From the beginning, the bargaining table not only included housing and land-use policy experts, but also residents from grassroots organizing groups like ACORN and Empower DC. The active involvement of these lower-income residents-who were threatened by rising rents, increased property-tax assessments and displacement pressures-led to the development of a stronger and more equitable ordinance.

Community residents were involved in the discussions about the income-targeting guidelines that were to be included in Washington’s inclusionary-zoning policy. Few jurisdictions around the country have asked developers to target incomes below 50 percent of the AMI (area median income). But, because residents who had incomes well below 50 percent of the AMI were at the negotiating table, the coalition developed creative solutions for the income-targeting component of the policy.

The end result: The district’s inclusionary-zoning policy requires that half of the units be built at 50 percent of the AMI and half at 80 percent of the AMI, except for high-rise development in mixed-use commercial zones where all units will be at 80 percent of the AMI. To reach deeper levels of affordability, the housing authority or a third party (including a community land trust or another qualified nonprofit organization) can purchase up to 25 percent of inclusionary units for the purpose of renting them to lower-income households. (This strategy has been successful in Montgomery County, Md. Indeed, because IZ program there initially required only short-term affordability for its inclusionary units, the only units that remained affordable after thousands of IZ units had been lost to the market were those that had been purchased by the local PHA.)

Building a Strong Coalition

So often in policy campaigns we emphasize the importance of building broad and diverse coalitions. What we don’t often talk about is how much time, energy, dialogue and commitment to consensus-building it takes to build and sustain them over the long haul.

The diversity of the DC Campaign for Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning was impressive. The organizations, all active and engaged, represented different interests and populations. For example, the Metropolitan Washington Labor Council, AFL-CIO-which represents more than 50,000 residents in the region-was one of the earliest coalition members.

It was important for Jos Williams, president of the Labor Council, to be involved in a sustained and visible way. “Labor can have all the success in the world at the bargaining table, but unless our members can find a quality home for their families, are they really more economically secure? Have we fulfilled the vision of the labor movement?” he asks. “While housing wasn’t the traditional domain of our organizing, as labor leaders we had to get engaged. We couldn’t stay silent on the issue of affordable housing.”

One of the premier smart-growth organizations in the region, the Washington Regional Network for Livable Communities (now the Coalition for Smarter Growth), was also deeply invested in the passage of the inclusionary-zoning policy. According to Stephen Wade, program associate for the organization, “We see inclusionary zoning as a fundamental piece of a regional smart-growth strategy-it encourages balanced housing choices at a range of income levels, and in the case of the policy we won in D.C., it provides housing opportunities in growth areas of the city that would have previously only offered housing affordable to the highest earners.”

So how was such a diverse and committed coalition established? It happened partly because coalition members established core values and ground rules up front and prioritized goals and step-by-step plans to achieve them. One fundamental goal was that the IZ policy be mandatory for all developments above 10 units, despite political pressure to implement a voluntary, incentive-driven approach.

CMIZ members were also honest in assessing their relative strengths. This led to the development of a highly effective political strategy where some members were able to work with the office of planning and the zoning commission and city council members. Other members were skilled in getting people out for meetings or engaging the media by holding press conferences and writing letters to newspaper editors. This kind of coalition bench strength was essential to winning the inclusionary-zoning policy.

Navigating a Tough Climate

Over the course of the inclusionary-zoning campaign, there were tensions among the groups that revealed the complexity of coalition politics. One major point of contention was determining how to balance the goals of long-term affordability with creating wealth-building opportunities through homeownership.

Coalition members and other nonprofits vigorously debated how to strike this balance. It was ultimately decided that each inclusionary-zoning unit will have a lifetime affordability control while also creating an opportunity for homeowners to build savings and wealth. IZ homeowners will build assets by benefiting from mortgage-related tax deductions and by recouping their down payment and payments made toward principal, the value of home improvements and a portion of the home’s appreciation based on an established formula.

Bob Pohlman, with the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, says “We need to recognize that wealth-building for today’s low-income homebuyers and preservation of affordability for tomorrow’s low-income homebuyers are both important. The compromise struck in the district’s policy takes this into account.”

Technical Savvy and Organizing

Inclusionary zoning is a highly technical policy-one that requires changing land-use or zoning laws to promote the production of

affordable housing. Having members with land-use, zoning and legal expertise was integral to the success of the CMIZ campaign. For example, Nina Dastur, a lawyer with the Center for Community Change, led the drafting of a crucial text amendment that the coalition submitted to the zoning commission.

It was equally important that coalition members were skilled at organizing and building power. Coalition members such as Jews United for Justice, Affordable Housing Alliance, Jobs with Justice and the Labor Council hosted numerous press conferences, political actions and other advocacy events that punctuated pivotal moments of the campaign effort. Roberta Hantgan with Jews United for Justice says, “The faith community has an important role to play in educating and mobilizing our constituents to support important housing campaigns. The interfaith participation in the D.C. inclusionary-zoning effort brought an important, and much needed, moral dimension to highly technical discussions about zoning.”

Implementation Matters

An inclusionary-zoning campaign doesn’t end when legislation is passed, or, in this case, when the zoning commission adopts a regulation. Coalitions can and should be involved in the implementation of any legislation and also in crafting the administrative procedures. Especially important is the issue of what happens to the inclusionary units long after they are created. Durable controls over the units’ affordability, occupancy and eligibility must be imposed, monitored and enforced, either by the municipality or by a nonprofit partner acting on the municipality’s behalf.

For instance, in the district, the zoning commission ruled on the broad parameters of the policy, but it was the city council that decided such issues as who would administer the policy and how income targets would be established and enforced. Consequently, just as the zoning commission concluded its deliberations, the campaign shifted its advocacy and organizing energies to the city council, thus ensuring that key tenets of the inclusionary-zoning policy weren’t compromised.

Linda Cropp, chairman of the D.C. City Council, championed political support for inclusionary zoning. “We adopted mandatory inclusionary zoning in order to ensure continued diversity of economic levels in the city. We believe that inclusionary zoning can help maintain this diversity through the provision of affordable housing,” Cropp says. Now that the city council legislation has passed, attention is shifting to the D.C. Office of Planning, as it develops and implements workable inclusionary-zoning practices in the city.

Long-term Commitment

Obviously, staying power is crucial in multi-year campaigns that face political obstacles. Inclusionary-zoning campaigns require long-term planning that represents a challenge to many coalitions whose constituents can become disillusioned when tangible progress isn’t evident, funding dries up, staff turns over, organizations close or priorities shift. But persistence pays off.

The campaign for inclusionary zoning in Washington had a little bit of everything: racial and economic politics, a roaring housing market and plenty of bureaucratic hurdles. But in the end, the strengths of a strong, cohesive, goal-oriented coalition were able to overcome all these challenges. And it will be the working families of our nation’s capital that will reap the rewards.

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