jonetta rose barras: Steamrolled in Ward 8?

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Mayor Muriel Bowser threw down two legislative proposals last week that could escalate economic development at Reunion Square in downtown Anacostia in Ward 8 and at Ward 5’s Brookland Manor on Rhode Island Avenue NE, an apartment complex where residents have been fighting to ensure units are retained for large families. By proposing the use of what is called Tax Increment Financing (or TIF), the mayor has signaled her commitment to each project without regard, it seems, for potential displacement of longtime residents.

TIFs allow developers to borrow money from the city against future projected tax revenues. The mayor’s proposal would provide a $110 million subsidy for two developers — $60 million for Four Points/Curtis Investments, which is building the project in Anacostia, and the rest for Mid-City Development RIA.

Photo by Bruce McNeil

Residents in both communities, but especially Anacostia, should get ready: Market forces are headed toward them at warp speed.

Homeowners may be protected by caps on property taxes. But renters can forget about it. They are the most vulnerable — although the Bowser administration has asserted that construction of affordable housing will keep tenants in place.

“TIFs have been very successful in producing economic development. But for TIFs, Gallery Place wouldn’t have gotten off the ground,” said Ward 2 DC Council member Jack Evans, chair of the Committee on Finance and Revenue. The city also provided TIFs for the Mandarin Hotel and Union Square, among other projects.

Evans told me he probably will support the mayor’s package, acknowledging that passage of the proposals could mean “in the end everything around it is going to be more expensive.” As an example of the swift advancing change, he noted JPMorgan Chase is expected to open two Chase Bank branches east of the river.

Meanwhile, Mike Austin, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 8, said he doesn’t want to cramp development and doesn’t object to the recently opened $65 million Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA) at St. Elizabeths, where Mary J. Blige and Wale had concerts over the weekend. Still, he fears displacement of his constituents, particularly low-income families and senior citizens.

“Have we forgotten what history has taught us about what happens with these kinds of monumental developments?” Austin asked during an interview with me.

In a Sept. 13 letter to Evans and Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, Austin requested that their committees hold hearings on two pending legislative proposals that could help protect Congress Heights residents by offering tax credits and providing grants for law school clinics or other nonprofits to help residents in specified “economic development displacement zones.” These bills — the Displacement Prevention Amendment Act of 2017 and the Displacement Prevention Assistance Fund Establishment Amendment Act of 2017 — were introduced Jan. 10, 2017, by five and six council members, respectively. The sponsors included Allen and Ward 8’s Trayon White, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the arena and possible displacement of the residents he represents.

“Too often, hard-working men and women who contribute to our communities are displaced,” Austin, one-time legislative director for former Ward 8 Council member LaRuby May, wrote in his letter, a copy of which he provided to me.  

“Now, we can be intentional about preventing our mistakes rather than correcting them later,” Austin added. “We need progress on these bills because the ESA cannot etch itself into the Congress Heights community at the expense of long-term residents.”

I have long advocated for a plan that broadens the demographic mix east of the river, allowing for more middle-class and upper-income professionals to balance out the population of working and low-income residents. Further, if there is one District government entity whose leadership I admire, it’s Events DC; its director, Greg O’Dell, is top-notch. Nevertheless, like Austin, I embrace managed economic development. I believe, consequently, that the government is obligated to develop a reasonable program that does not cause the collapse of the tenuous economic status of homeowners and renters who helped stabilize their communities during difficult financial conditions.

“If there is something that makes sense that we can do to help people, I’m all over it,” said Evans. His comments came with a caveat: “We’re running into the end of the [legislative] session, and the chance of getting anything done doesn’t look good.” The proposals “may have to be re-introduced next session.”

That’s what happened in 2017, said Austin. The original legislation was introduced in 2016. Then it was reintroduced in January 2017. Now, if the session ends in December 2018 without any hearing or vote, the legislation will have to be re-introduced in 2019.

That kind of legislative history raises questions about whether council members are serious. Or whether, once again, they are speaking out of both sides of their mouths.

LaToya Foster, the spokesperson for Mayor Bowser, said the administration already presented a host of programs designed to ensure residents are not pushed out. She cited, as examples, the construction of 252 affordable housing units adjacent to the arena, the launch of homebuyers’ clubs to “ensure residents are ready to purchase homes when they come online,” and the creation of financiallyfitdc.com “to help residents improve their financial health and well-being.” Foster said the mayor also has opened the DC Infrastructure Academy in Ward 8 and expects to expand the funding in order to provide IT training and apprenticeships.

She added: “[The mayor] has a heart for the people. She gets it. It’s not just lip service from her.”

Except many of the programs on the list Foster provided to me, by her own admission, are for residents “all across all eight wards.” That’s not good enough. If Bowser can introduce TIFs for specific developers, then she ought to have an anti-displacement solution specific to residents who are in the eye of development that could become a wholly destructive storm in their lives.


jonetta rose barras is a DC-based freelance writer and host of The Barras Report television show. She can be reached at thebarrasreport@gmail.com.

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