Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Government

Politics


Bummed DC isn’t a state? Here are 5 reasons local politics are still worth your time

If you live in DC, it can be pretty easy to become disenchanted with national politics—especially in this election cycle. National is the operative word, though! Here are five reasons it's worth engaging in DC's local politics, from the ballot box to the community forum.


Photo by justgrimes on Flickr.

1. Voting in DC still matters

Washington, DC attracts people from all over the country. However, even if people stay here for a number of years, a lot of them choose to hold on to the voting privileges of their home state.

The District's lack of voting representation in Congress and its three electoral votes in Presidential elections might seem like fair justification for voting in another state (even though that's technically illegal)—especially if you come from a Presidential swing state.

But doing so deprives you of power in DC's local elections for Mayor, City Council, ANCs, and more. Though they may not be on national news every day, the people sitting in those positions make decisions that are much more likely to impact your day-to-day life and shape the city you live in.

Many local elections—particularly for ANC, where the candidate may very well be your nextdoor neighbor—are won by only a handful of votes, which means a single vote can have much more sway locally than in even the most competitive swing states.

DC even makes registering to vote relatively easy. Most of the registration process can be done online, and there's even same-day registration if you provide nearly any kind of documentation.

2. Important referendums are coming up

In fact, the coming months may prove to be one of the most consequential times to be a DC voter.

Just last week, Mayor Bowser announced a plan to put the question of DC statehood up to a vote. While the fight for statehood is decades-long, the idea is now gaining new momentum: the DC government's has strongly asserted budget autonomy over Congress, and national support for statehood is at an all time high. Though the struggle is far from over, there is no doubt that a plebiscite this year on statehood would be significant.

In addition, the path is now clear for a vote this November on a $15 minimum wage, the results of which will have a lasting impact on the district's labor force and economy.

3. You can be an expert

Issues in national politics can sometimes be extremely complicated. Wonks and academics spend lifetimes studying things like healthcare or foreign policy, while partisans spend lifetimes reframing them.

There's also a learning curve to local politics, but many people who have no background can become fluent much more quickly. After all, it tends to be easier to understand the ins and outs of an issue when it involves the people around you, the sidewalks you walk on, the schools in your backyard, and so on. A good place to start are many of the local and hyper-local blogs on the sidebar of this very site.

The other thing about DC is that relatively speaking, it's a small town. You can get to know political lineage, like Muriel Bowser coming up under Adrian Fenty and now Brandon Todd under Bowser, and the history is both accessible and fascinating (think Dream City). Also, the Washington City Paper has a reporter dedicated to the local beat, and there are lots of blogs that can help give you a complete understanding of what's happening in DC.

4. Meeting your neighbors

Getting involved in local politics is a good way to make new friends who care about the same things as you. Even when you disagree with folks on issues, you often find out that you share a lot in common.

Because of my attendance at events like the DDOT Crosstown Study and Ward 1 shelter meetings, I've gotten to know a few of my direct neighbors—folks I most likely wouldn't have gotten to meet otherwise. Especially if you're new to the city or just new to a neighborhood, involving yourself in the local and hyper-local level is a stellar opportunity to interact with people around you while learning about the issues that impact you.

5. You can make a difference

The biggest, most important reason to get involved in local politics: you matter. The number of donors, activists, and voters in local elections (even those in large cities) is small, both in raw terms and percentage terms. Your voice, your volunteer time, and your campaign donations matter. Organize 50 people for a presidential rally and you have a poorly-attended rally for media to laugh at; organize 50 people for a local organization and you have a powerful force for Council Members to pay attention to.

So if change is what you want, turn your eyes local, get out there, and make it happen!

A version of this post originally ran on Austin on your Feet.

Development


The first two efforts to turn Petworth's Hebrew Home into housing failed. Will the third time be different?

Just a few blocks from the Petworth Metro, a District-owned apartment that most call the Hebrew Home has been vacant since 2009, and DC is asking for resident input on its latest effort to redevelop the land (the first two fell through). The end result could be 200 new units of mixed-income housing, along with retail and park space.


The Hebrew Home, looking west on Spring Road. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Located at 1125 Spring Road, the Hebrew Home's name is a reference to the building's original use serving the elderly Jewish population with housing and health care. From 1925 to 1969, the property grew to include an array of social services available to young and old within a community that both understood and supported the specific religious, linguistic, and cultural needs of its clients.

When the Hebrew Home determined it could no longer adequately serve the needs of the local Jewish population by remaining on Spring Road, it sold the property to the District government and moved into a new facility in Montgomery County.


The Hebrew Home and the adjacent Robeson School building, at 10th and Spring NW. Image from DMPED.

This isn't the first effort to redevelop the Hebrew Home

From 1968 until its closure in 2009, the District used the Hebrew Home site as a mental health facility for the homeless. Since it closed that facility, the District has attempted to breathe new life into the building without success.

In the fall of 2010, the DC Department of Human Services proposed using the site to shelter families instead of sending them to DC General. That plan would have cost an estimated $800,000 to renovate the building for 74 families. However, the site was removed from consideration due to then-Councilmember Muriel Bowser's concern that the immediate area had an "inordinate amount of group homes" and two homeless shelters within a two-block radius of the site.

More recently, efforts in 2014 to redevelop the historic structure and the Robeson School (which sits immediately adjacent, to the east) resulted in a plan to create approximately 200-units of housing with 90% designated as affordable, including a senior preference for 25% of the units.


The Robeson School building. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Development stalled again, however, when the District learned that it wouldn't be able to transfer ownership to the DC Housing Authority without a formal Request for Proposals process. Moreover, Bowser expressed reservations about the plan being weighted so heavily toward affordable housing. Due to these factors, the District restarted the process to develop the site in April with what it's calling OurRFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

The Hebrew Home could become much-needed housing for all incomes

The first of two OurRFP workshops to decide how to redevelop the Hebrew Home was earlier this month. There, officials from DC's office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) shared some key data:

  • The lot is 144,400 square feet in size.
  • The site includes three buildings. The development will not include the small building at the western edge of the site.
  • The former Hebrew Home structure is historic, but the Robeson School is not and can be razed.
  • The property has good access to transportation. It's near the Georgia Avenue Metro station, numerous bus lines, and Capital Bikeshare stations.
  • The site has a walk score of 93 and a bike score in the 80s.

A map of the transit options surrounding the Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

Workshop attendees split into 13 working groups to discuss what they would like to see happen with the Hebrew Home.

The site has tremendous potential to provide a significant amount of housing in an area with ready access to public transportation and where housing prices and displacement are of great concern. Within my working group, there was general agreement that the RFP should start from the position of including a strong affordability component, with the financing then driving the configuration of affordable and market rate housing to a balanced level. There was an understanding that the economics of development will have an impact on what can be financed and that, at the end of the day, the development must become a reality for any housing to exist.

With regards to the living units, there's a need for both family-sized units and apartments for seniors. I would like to see every unit (if possible) be ADA compliant; as units become vacant in the future it would be ideal if any resident in need of housing would be able to move into the building and not be prevented due to the unit's configuration.


A map showing existing affordable housing surrounding the Hebrew Home site by location and number of affordable units. Image from DMPED.

As for the type of building that goes up, it is clear that people want the new construction to fit into the neighborhood context. Whether the building was traditional, modern, contemporary, or something else, the materials, massing, and architectural detailing's ability to make it fit the character of what's around it certainly exists.

We also discussed the massing of the new construction on the Robeson site. Some suggested that a by-right approach would be more in keeping with the neighborhood and better fit in. I countered that I would prefer a Planned Unit Developmentwhere a developer provides the community with benefits in exchange for a zoning exception— for three reasons:

  1. A PUD would allow for a slightly larger building. The existing Hebrew Home building is one story taller than allowed by by right, and I think that an additional story on the new construction that matched the height of the historic building would not be out of place, especially as it would be located between the Hebrew Home site and the Raymond School & Recreation Center.
  2. A PUD would also result in more oversight and community opportunities to participate.
  3. As zoned, the building is residential. But the existing Hebrew Home building has a space on the first floor with a separate entrance that could support a small store or possibly another use such as an early childhood development center.
I think the community would benefit from vetting these options to see if they're a good fit rather than not discussing them at all.

One of the last things the group discussed was the public space and sustainability. As part of this discussion, we talked about trees, benches, green roofs, and other possible uses for the existing green spaces. As this is an opportunity to enhance our natural environment, I also mentioned that we should advocate for all trees and landscaping to be native plantings. The green space between the small building at 1131 Spring Road and the Hebrew Home is also large enough for a small park or other type of public space.

There will be another OurRFP workshop in May, and DMPED anticipates releasing the RFP solicitation in June 2016.

A version of this post originally ran on Park View, DC.

Links


National Links: Hillary talks housing

Hillary Clinton is articulating her vision to help Americans with housing, what happens when people making decisions about transit don't know what it's like to depend on it, and a look at where row houses fit into the national landscape. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Veni on Flickr.

Hillary's housing hopes: Hillary Clinton wants living near quality jobs, schools, and transportation to be easier, and she's making affordable housing part of her agenda. Her proposal would boost funding for both programs that help people buy homes as well as public housing. (Virginia-Pilot)

Get the board on the bus: Given how much they influence how people get around, perhaps transit board members should ride the busor at least know details about the system they work on. Some recent applicants for the DART Board of Directors in Dallas are clueless when it comes to transit-oriented development and taxpaying riders. (Dallas Observer)

Reliant on row houses The row house is the workhorse of dense older cities around the country, but it's becoming less popular. It's possible that row houses could be the "missing middle" that can help address the country's housing needs. (Urban Omnibus)

Questioning King Car: Cars are a large part of American culture, like it or not. But they also cost a lot of money, time, and lives. Since September 11th, 2001, over 400,000 people have died in automobile collisions. Is that a worthwhile price to pay for convenience? (The Atlantic)

Bridges of Amsterdam city: Amsterdam has far more canals and bridges than the average city, but only one bridge runs across the large river that separates the more industrial side of the city from where most people live. There is a tunnel and a number of ferries, neither of which is idea for walking or biking. But as more development happens and free ferries are overwhelmed, a bridge may be the next step. (City Metric)

Struggling city streams: In the midwest, streams in urban places are rare. Detroit, for example, has lost 86% of its surface streams. That worries ecologists because streams regulate water flow and keep wildlife healthy. (Great Lakes Echo)

Are we building boredom?: Buildings designed like boxes are bad for us. Research shows that human excitement wanes on streets with boring facades, causing stress that affects our health and psychological wellbeing. (New York Magazine)

Quote of the Week

"I think it's important to remember that these are serious crimes with emotional consequences. It's interesting nonetheless to watch how burglars use architecture, but that isn't enough reason to treat them like folk heroes." - Architecture writer Geoff Manaugh discussing his new book, A Burglar's Guide to the City in Paste Magazine.

Support Us