Washington, DC, zoning officials have a plan to foster racially equitable development by making the city’s approval process a little more complicated.
The district’s zoning commission is currently working on a new “racial equity tool” that it will use to guide its decisions when reviewing zoning code changes, rezoning properties and approving certain projects. majors.
The idea of incorporating a greater focus on racial equity into planning decisions has broad support within the district. In May 2021, the city council supported unanimously compel the zoning commission to assess its actions through a “racial equity lens” as part of a larger set of DC’s overall plan amendments.
To implement this requirement, the commission issued a racial equity tool project in April 2022 that will ask applicants needing commission approval to answer a long list of questions about how their proposed project might impact racial equity.
The draft tool suggests that applicants provide information on the impact of their project on the direct movement of residents, the city’s housing stock, its physical environment and “access to opportunity”. And this list is not exhaustive. The tool says applicants can produce information on these topics “and any others that apply as well”.
The vague and open-ended nature of these questions has some housing activists concerned that the tool will prove too cumbersome, if not impractical, for landlords trying to do something as simple as rezoning their lot from residential to commercial use.
The tool has “a very ambiguous language and tries to verify the second and third order effects” of a project, explains Michael Starnes, with the DC group YIMBYs (yes in my garden). “Doing this on an individual lot basis is very difficult.” He added on Twitter, a candidate might need to hire a sociologist, historian, and data scientist to answer all of the tool’s questions.
Performing such an in-depth analysis would not necessarily guarantee approval of a project or relieve the applicant from investigating their project further.
In an email, DC Zoning Commission Director Sara Bardin said the commission could potentially reject a project for failing to advance racial equity in accordance with the goals of the overall plan. Less drastically, it could also condition approval of projects on the provision of certain amenities or public benefits to offset any negative impact on equity it may have.
During the approval process, the commission might also request more information from a candidate, Bardin said.
Worse, says Starnes, is that existing zoning regulations like single-family neighborhoods that exclude apartments and mixed-use developments aren’t necessarily racially fair. But only a project developer seeking to evade these regulations should perform the racial equity analysis mandated by the tool.
In a public comment letter to the commission, DC YIMBYs advocates making the tool and process generally as simple and certain as possible to avoid delaying new development or giving cynical NIMBY activists (not in my backyard) the ability to shut down projects .
On the other hand, some DC activists have argued that the tool doesn’t go far enough to involve community members in zoning decisions and extract concessions from developers.
“Racial equity is as much a process as it is an outcome,” said Parisa Norouzi, executive director of local group Empower DC, in a public comment letter to the zoning commission. The tool needed to collect qualitative, not just quantitative, data through strong community outreach, she said.
Norouzi suggests that developers be required to conduct door-to-door dialogue with the surrounding community about their project and establish a hotline to answer questions about their project.
Norouzi, in a September Zoom Meetalso said it would be unfair for the zoning commission to make decisions that could relieve developers of the need to go through this project-by-project community contribution process.
“The idea is that developers won’t have to go back to zoning and making demands for each building, which prevents residents from commenting in a setting where they could negotiate community benefits,” Norouzi said.
She gave the example of currently in progress Barry Farm Project – which involves the redevelopment of a former social housing complex into a mix of affordable, market-priced apartments and commercial space. The Commission approved a rezoning of the Barry Farm area which allows redevelopment of the area to proceed without each individual building within it requiring commission approval.
Alex Baca, DC policy director for the nonprofit Greater Washington city planner, says the main problem with the proposed racial equity tool is that it’s not clear what the commission is asking or what his standards would be for a racially fair project.
“Having clear goals: what do we say is racially fair in a discretionary project? Nobody answers that question,” she said. Raison. “I think that should be the question. I’m not sure what the commission is asking.”
Baca says YIMBY’s concern that the tool slowing or stopping development in the city is overdone, in part because only a certain number of projects have to go through the Zoning Commission process in the first place. But she also criticizes the idea that racial equity can be meaningfully advanced through DC’s flawed discretionary approval process.
“I think the feeling that ‘Let’s have racial equity in this permit’ is a laudable goal, but it’s not going to be possible on a project-by-project basis,” she says.
In a public comment letter, Baca recommends that the commission replace the open language in the draft tool with a definitive list of impacts that applicants should provide information on. It also recommends that the commission identify a single theme to elevate above the others and that, among the current themes, an analysis of direct displacement takes precedence.
A public roundtable on the tool project was held at the end of September. Bardin says the Zoning Commission will hold another meeting in November to discuss and respond to public comments on the tool. She said additional public roundtables are possible, but the goal is to release a final version of the tool “as soon as possible.”