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Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, explained

DC has a small, hyperlocal form of government called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Commissioners, who are elected by their neighbors, help with neighborhood problems and weigh in on how places should (or shouldn't) change, but can't actually make laws or regulations. Still, despite having little formal power, ANCs have a lot of influence over how the District does or doesn't change.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

What are Advisory Neighborhood Commissions?

Each Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) represents a region in each of DC's eight Wards. Within each ANC, commissioners are elected to two-year terms to represent Single Member Districts (SMDs) of approximately 2000 residents. A commission can have anywhere from two SMDs (which would mean two commissioners) to twelve. ANCs are identified by their ward and a letter.

For example, I'm a commissioner in 7D, which is Ward 7's fourth (hence the letter D) ANC. I represent Single Member District 07, which covers neighborhoods called Paradise and Parkside. Some commissions represent a single community, such as 2B, which is the Dupont Circle ANC, whereas others, like my own, represent a number of neighborhoods.

Commissioners come from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like myself, are relative newcomers recruited by community leaders to serve their neighborhood while others have lived in their neighborhoods their whole lives. Even within a single ANC, commissioners can be very diverse; my own commission includes a teacher, a lawyer, government contractors, and a lifelong community advocate.

On the map below, the yellow lines represent DC's wards, the thick red lines represent the ANCs within them, and the thin red lines represent the SMDs that make up each ANC.


A map of DC's Wards and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Ward 7 ANCs are tinted blue, ANC 7D is green, and Single Member District 07 is highlighted in red. Map by the author. Data from DC Open Data.

ANCs weigh in on many of the decisions that the District's governing bodies make. For example, many ANCs wrote letters to the Office of Planning with comments or proposed amendments for the zoning code re-write, and most restaurants work out agreements with the ANCs on things like when they'll be open and whether they can play live music in exchange for ANC support of their liquor license applications. Commissioners can also offer resolutions and testify before the DC Council.

In practice, beyond laws about liquor licenses or zoning, government agencies consult ANCs as a way to get community buy-in for a project. For example, the District Department of Transportation often presents new plans to the public at ANC meetings, giving the community a chance to weigh in and provide feedback. Recently, ANC 6B worked with DDOT to get a pedestrian crosswalk on 11th Street SE between I and M Streets, and ANC 2B urged DDOT to reopen a bike lane at 15th and L which is closed due to construction.

Also, developers pitching new projects often seek ANC approval before going before the Zoning Commission or Board of Zoning Adjustment, as ANCs get a say with these agencies (more on that below…). The result of these interactions is often a contract between a developer and the neighborhood, called a Community Benefits Agreement.

Commissions can also provide avenues for greater community involvement and input by establishing committees that focus on certain issues, like transportation or planning and zoning.

What kind of authority do ANCs have?

The type of authority that ANCs have can vary. In some cases, they have legal standing. ANCs are automatically granted "party status" before the Zoning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Alcohol License Review Board for new businesses and developments in their communities. Party status gives commissions easier access to information, notifications about upcoming hearings, and the right to cross examine participants.


Bars in DC often work with ANCs on things like hours of operation in exchange for the ANC's endorsement. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

In other areas, commissions can only make recommendations that city agencies have to give "great weight" to when making decisions. Great weight requires a government agency to respond, in writing, to concerns raised by a commission. While great weight demands that agencies explain their course of action, it doesn't actually require an agency to change its course of action.

Common critiques and shortcomings of the ANC system

ANC commissioners have complained that they are not given satisfactory explanations when agencies don't follow their recommendations; some commissioners say it's not uncommon for agency contacts to flat-out ignore them. Commissions have very few legal options to compel an agency to respond to their requests.

As a result, much of a commissioner's power is informal, coming from relationships built with government agencies, DC Council members, and the mayor's office. A motivated and skilled commissioner can draw district government attention to a neighborhood and even motivate agencies to bring resources to bear to solve a problem.

However, ANCs also reflect many of the inequalities and inequities of life in DC. Some commissions benefit from well-educated, well-connected commissioners who can afford to take days off work to testify at DC Council hearings, lobby agencies for action, and develop an in-depth understanding of how policy issues impact their community. Less wealthy communities do not necessarily have the privileges of as spare time and plenty of social capital. This places less affluent communities at a disadvantage when negotiating with developers or engaging with governmental agencies.

Commissions are also somewhat under-resourced. At most, a commission can afford to hire one part-time staff member, who usually acts as an office manager and assists commissioners with logistics, and supporting commissioners as they address concerns raised by the community.

In some cases, commissions have been accused of simply holding up any possible neighborhood change. For example, commissions have often devoted considerable time internally negotiating relatively minor adjustments projects. For example a commission can delay new development projects for months if not years. Such delays can be frustrating in a city like DC with a rapidly growing population and rapidly growing rents.

But ANCs can also positively weigh in on big neighborhood or citywide controversies by being thoughtful instead of knee-jerk. For the Hine project in ANC 6B, where a former junior high school is turning into a mixed-use development, the commission put together a task force that weighed the various interests really well and advocated for improvements instead of simply saying "no." Another example of 6B actively engaging is that with the zoning update, the commission studied and made smart suggestions while being supportive overall.

At the end of the day, ANCs matter

The fact that ANCs don't have formal power, plus that they can differ so much across the District, has led to some debates about the system's value. Some say ANCs should gain legislative powers and become a house of representatives for the District. Others say the whole system should be abolished since all it does is let hyperlocal politics trump good public policy by slowing things down.

No matter what you may think about these commissions, they do have influence over whether and how our neighborhoods will change and grow. Their importance in what gets built and what kinds of businesses can operate in the area means that they have influence in the community.

District residents should pay attention to what their ANC commissioners are saying in their name. At the end of the day, ANCs are supposed to represent the community's interests but they can only do that if the community pays attention to what they are doing.

You've got a chance to vote for your ANC commissioner this fall. Want to read and evaluate your candidates? Read candidate responses to Greater Greater Washington's ANC questionnaire here and learn where your commissioners (or potential commissioners) stand on important issues.

Transit


On Thursday, the WMATA board heard about why Metro keeps catching on fire. Then on Friday, Metro caught on fire.

At the height of Friday afternoon rush, an insulator caught fire at Metro Center, kicking off a meltdown on the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines. A smaller but similar incident hit the Red Line Sunday evening as well. The day before, the WMATA board received a briefing on the power system that both issues were related to and how problems with it continue to plague the system.


Photo by John Grant.

Friday's fire right around 5 pm at Metro Center on the Orange/Silver/Blue lines caused trains to halt service for around 40 minutes and then single-track until the system closed, delaying thousands and adding an hour or more to some commutes. Sunday's issue happened at a time where delays were an inconvenience for fewer people, but it was certainly a problem nonetheless.

Issues can crop up at various points in any power system, which makes routine maintenance so important. Substations that receive power from the supplier (Dominion and PEPCO, primarily) have cables that run to the third rail, which runs alongside the tracks that trains run on and which supplies power to the trains. Trains use this power, which is then fed back through the rails through the "negative return" back to the substation.

The likely culprit in both incidents is what's called stray electrical current, which can happen when a power circuit is created through a path that isn't the one intended. Instead of making a circuit from the power substation through cabling to the train then back out through the rails, an alternate circuit path could be created across insulators or through the stud bolts that help secure the tracks.

This unexpected path can create arcing, smoke, and fires, which cause harm to the equipment and are dangerous for passengers. Dirt, dust, and other contaminants, all of which aren't exactly uncommon in Metro tunnels, can increase the severity of stray currents.

When these mixtures stick to the third rail insulators, the insulator's function starts to break down. Instead of preventing the current from "escaping" the third rail through the trackbed, the debris lets the current travel to unintended portions of the system not meant for it. These stray paths can case bolts to heat up and glow, smoke, or spark, or cause the insulators to arc or even catch fire if they've broken down far enough. These side-effects are just a few reasons why proper maintenance of a power system and making sure insulators, supply and return cables, transformers and other components is important.

The stray current and other power issues aren't new to Metro; a current issue across an insulator led to an explosion at Federal Center in May, and arcing insulators are almost a common occurrence, especially on the Red Line.

Metro's General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, requested an American Public Transportation Association (APTA) peer-review of portions of its third-rail power system back in June, and the report was made available after WMATA's September 22nd board meetings. The peer review request was part of Metro's safety department's larger holistic review of the power system to try and help pinpoint and solve its various power issues once and for all.

The APTA review provided a list of observations about Metro's third rail system that could potentially cause issues. One of the primary ones (which isn't a new idea, or even new to Metro) is that the reviewers found "insulators seemed to be excessively contaminated" both in the rail yard they visited as well as on open track. This contamination, a combination including brake dust from train brake pads, oils, and various other types of dust and debris, can stick to the insulators that hold up the third rail which provides power to the trains.


A cracked insulator, which the APTA peer review noted. Image from WMATA.

APTA gave Metro two recommendations for the contamination. One, Metro should analyze what the deposits on the third rail insulators are to figure out where they come from, and determine how to cut down on how much is generated. Second, they suggest Metro develop and maintain an insulator cleaning program. A tunnel cleaning program did exist at Metro up through the early 90's, but was terminated.

APTA reviewers also found that Metro staff are "constantly in a catch-up mode" when it comes to the power system, so they don't have much time for preventative maintenance that might also help cut down on smoke/fire incidents.

Metro's Board of Directors has heard about many of these issues before

The lack of an active cleaning program was one issue the NTSB found that contributed to the January 2015 smoke incident that killed one passenger and injured dozens others. Metro's deputy general manager in May of 2015 told the Board that the agency was to reinstate this program, and wanted to become "so proactive that these incidents don't happen."

Smoke and fire incidents, many caused by stray or imbalanced current, continue to occur in the system—more have happened in 2016 than had up to this point and last year.

Metro is certainly more active now than it has been in the past regarding tunnel cleaning (said to be part of SafeTrack and partially restarted after the L'Enfant incident) and insulator replacement from ceramic to fiberglass within underground station limits is complete (but still needs to be done for above-ground stations and in tunnels), and many power cables and equipment have been replaced in the meantime as well.

But becoming a proactive organization requires hard analysis to detect issues and get to the root causes before they become larger problems, not simply when an outside organization finds them or when somebody gets hurt. It's a long road to walk down, but with the proper management it's an achievable goal and results in a safer and more reliable transit system for riders to use.

Politics


DC will have 300 hyper-local elections this fall. Can you help us sort through the candidates?

150 candidates for Advisory Neighborhood Commission seats in DC filled out a survey about their views. You can read their responses, and we'd like to hear what you think as we decide on Greater Greater Washington's endorsements. Can you help?


Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Every two years, DC voters elect Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners in nonpartisan races on the November ballot. An ANC is a neighborhood council of unpaid, elected representatives who meet monthly and weigh in with the government about important issues to the community.

ANCs are very important on housing and transportation; an ANC's opposition to new housing, retail, a bike lane, bus improvements, etc. can stymie or significantly delay valuable projects, while good ANCs give the government suggestions for positive ways to improve the neighborhood and rally resident support. Races often hinge on a small handful of votes.

Each district averages about 2,000 voters; there are 40 commissions citywide, 296 districts, and 401 candidates on the ballot (some unopposed, some districts with no candidates, and some with four candidates). In the past, we've given reviews and made endorsements for many of the races. This year, we'd like to do an even more thorough job of evaluating candidates, but need your help to sort through the hundreds of them.

We created a questionnaire with a combination of citywide questions and neighborhood-specific questions, sent it to all the candidates, and already have 150 responses. We'd like your help to evaluate the responses and give us feedback which a team of staff and volunteers will then collate into a final "scorecard."

Here's what you can do:

  1. Find your ward and ANC if you don't know them yet here.
  2. Open up the responses for your ward:
    Ward 1 ·Ward 2 ·Ward 3 ·Ward 4 ·Ward 5 ·Ward 6 ·Ward 7 ·Ward 8
  3. Read the responses for a candidate and give your feedback on this form.
  4. Repeat for as many other candidates as you want to do. Try other ANCs, other wards—all input is helpful!
(One caveat: We copied & pasted the responses from the survey into these PDFs, and some of the formatting got messed up, like if someone had “smart quotes” (such as from writing their replies in MS Word and pasting them) or other special characters, bulleted lists, etc. Please disregard any strange underlines or other formatting quirks; the idea here is for you to see their words, not their punctuation prowess. Thanks.)

This isn't a vote—we're not going to decide an endorsement by tallying up the ratings. Rather, the ratings and text together will help us understand things like whether a candidate is being honest about his or her views or trying to play both sides of an issue, help inform us about factors we might not be aware of (there are, after all, a lot of neighborhoods), and otherwise evaluate the candidates.

If you are an ANC candidate and haven't finished the survey yet, or you know someone who is, or you are or know of a planned write-in candidate, it's still possible to fill out the survey (but hurry!)

Please get your feedback in by Friday, September 30. We'll then publish reviews and endorsements by mid-October. Early voting starts October 22 at One Judiciary Square, October 28 at early voting centers around the city, and Election Day is November 8.

Poverty


As DC has grown, so has its racial prosperity gap

DC's economy has grown substantially since the Great Recession, but the number of residents below the poverty line is actually higher than it was in 2007, and people of color aren't making more money. That's according to US Census Bureau data that came out last week.


Photo by darius norvilas on Flickr.

The median income in DC reached $75,600 in 2015, an increase of about $4,000 over the previous year, and $13,000 above the pre-recession 2007 level, after adjusting for inflation. This gain follows the nationwide trend that median incomes are increasing.

Yet this growth has not reduced the city's poverty rate. Overall, 110,500 District residents lived below the federal poverty line in 2015 (income below $24,000 for a family of four)—that's 18,500 more residents living in poverty than in 2007. The city's poverty rate stands at 17 percent.

DC's black residents are bearing the brunt of the city's persistent poverty—moreover, they are the only racial or ethnic group to see an increase in their poverty rate since 2007. Some 27 percent of the city's black population lived in poverty in 2015, up from 23 percent in 2007. And nearly three-quarters of all District residents who live in poverty are black.

There also is a growing gulf between the incomes of white and black residents. The median income for white DC households was $120,000 in 2015, compared to just $41,000 for black households. While incomes have risen for white residents since 2007, the income of Black residents has been stagnant.

Education plays a huge role in shaping inequality

The large differences in poverty and income mirrors the city's racial disparity in educational attainment, which in large part reflects the history of discrimination and limited educational opportunities for African-Americans.

While nearly 90 percent of white DC residents have a college degree, just 26 percent of black residents do. Black residents are also much less likely to have a high school diploma: 15 percent of black residents aged 25 and older do not have a high school credential, compared to less than two percent of white residents.

Poverty is correlated with educational attainment, because without a high school diploma or a college degree, it is difficult to find and hold a good quality job. The poverty rate for DC residents with less than a high school degree was 33 percent in 2015, versus just five percent for those with a bachelor's degree, and twice the rate of the population overall.

These differences have been largely unchanged over time. DC residents without a college degree have seen falling wages, while college-educated residents have experienced an increase in pay, previous DCFPI research has found.

These data underscore the fact that the city's new and growing prosperity has left many poor residents and people of color behind.

What would help change all this?

DC should do more to ensure that all of its residents—including communities of color—share in the city's recent economic growth.

Potential policy changes could include:

  • Improving the quality of jobs for all working residents. This would mean mean requiring employers to offer additional hours to existing employees rather than hiring additional staff, giving workers advance notice of their weekly schedules, and creating a system to provide paid leave to workers who take time off for a personal illness or to care for a family member.
  • Expanding early childhood education subsidies. DC helps child care providers serve families who can't afford to pay full tuition rates, yet the subsidies rarely cover the full cost of high-quality childcare. Ramping up the amount of assistance will improve the ability of providers to serve infants and toddlers in DC while sustaining their businesses for the long-term. This will benefit low-income working families by helping to prepare their children for success.
  • Reforming the city's job training system. The District's education and job training programs must adapt to meet the growing need of DC residents and employers. Efforts should focus on offering entry-level jobs and career pathways for workers without advanced education. Given the large number of residents without a high school credential, reforms should focus on adult literacy as well as training and credentialing.
  • Take care of those who can't work. For people facing significant barriers to work, programs that give cash assistance, like Temporary Aid for Needy Families are extremely important. Right now, TANF has rigid time limits scheduled to go into effect next year. reforms are needed to keep vulnerable families keep from falling further into deep poverty.
Cross-posted from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute blog.

Housing


How can we know if DC is building enough housing?

DC could reach almost a million people in 30 years. What does that mean for the amount of housing DC needs? Or the amount you might pay to rent or buy a place to live? Current population forecasts still don't answer a few key questions that have to be answered to plan for the future.


Photo by E. Krall on Flickr.

DC planners are starting work to amend the city's Comprehensive Plan. Among other things, the Comp Plan sets basic policies for how much new housing can be built. And a recent court case blocked new housing because a map in the Comp Plan didn't show it. That means it's very important to get the plan right.

Everyone needs to live somewhere, so a very logical first step to understanding the city's needs is forecasting how many people want to live there. That's not quite so simple, however.

Forecasting is complex

Many variables go into population forecasts. Regional data analysts disagree about many of them. Still, they've had some success. When the current Comp Plan was first written, a decade ago, it estimated the city's population in 2010 and 2015. It got the 2010 population bang on the nosealmost exactly 600,000. But for 2015, it's wasn't so accurate; the Comp Plan guessed growth would continue to 630,000, but DC actually grew much more, to about 672,000.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) puts out annual growth estimates for all of the jurisdictions in the Washington region. Here's how the Comp Plan's growth estimates track with COG's past and most recent estimates and with reality.


Actual population data from US Census and American Community Survey estimates. Projections from DC Office of Planning, DC CFO, and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

The DC Chief Financial Officer also makes some forecasts. The last one tracks closely to COG's, but in 2013 the DC CFO thought growth was about to slow. It hasn't, at least not yet.

The current forecasts answer some questions, but not all

How does COG come up with its forecasts? It calls them "cooperative forecasts" because the first step is for each local jurisdiction to estimate its own growth. Then, COG planners tweak the numbers so the totals better match the overall regional jobs picture, trends about how many children people are having, and so forth.

Those individual jurisdictional estimates mostly come from looking at how much development is in the pipeline and how much room there is under current zoning. It makes some sense—someone is not going to move to DC unless they have a place to live. If 1,000 new housing units will be created and 90% of them will fill up in 2 years with an average of 1.5 people per unit (for example), that means 1,350 new residents.

That's a pretty good way to guess the population if you want to know what's most likely to happen under current policy. It helps with budgeting for the amount of trash pickup you'll need, say, or how many schools to build.

But if you use that number to set zoning policies, you'd be making a circular argument:

  • We think developers will build x housing units.
  • X housing units hold Y people.
  • Therefore, DC will grow by Y people.
[later]
  • We said DC will grow by Y people.
  • Y people fit in X units.
  • We're building X units.
  • Therefore, we're building enough units.

Photo by Tom Magliery on Flickr.

It doesn't work that way. Let's consider a hypothetical city that really doesn't want to grow much but has a booming job market. Call it Atherton.

Atherton has about 7,500 people and very little opportunity to add new housing under zoning. It's zoned for enough new development for 100 new people and that's it. If that policy continues, the new units for those 100 people will get built in the next five years, and then perhaps nothing for many years after that.

Atherton therefore estimates its population will be 7,600 in 2035. Is that right? Well, maybe. That doesn't mean that policy makes any sense if the surrounding area has demand for thousands of new jobs a year and prices in Atherton are going through the roof (as they are, because Atherton is real!)

DC isn't Atherton, and we shouldn't be—but needs more data to avoid it

DC is, of course, not trying to stop all growth, and its forecast predicts some substantial growth. But that forecast still primarily answers the question of what the population will be under current policies. It doesn't tell us a few key things we need to know:

  1. If we don't change current policies, will prices rise faster than people's incomes can keep up?
  2. If we did change policies, what would happen? Would more people move in?
  3. What policies should we pursue if we want both new residents and longtime ones to be able to live in DC, without too-fast price rises or displacement?
These are the questions that DC must explore for the Comprehensive Plan, because the Comp Plan is the ultimate font of the policies that create the pipeline that drives the population estimates.

There aren't official numbers on most of this yet, but I've talked to forecasters who are trying to figure it out. It's not easy. If more housing was getting built, some people would move to DC who otherwise would live in another county or region entirely. Some wouldn't be displaced who otherwise would be. On the other hand, some people might not like the changes and move out.

Will DC run out of room?

DC (and the whole Washington region) is highly desirable, and many people would like to live here but for high and rising housing prices. Others who have lived here for many years are finding themselves priced out through rising rents or taxes associated with swelling real estate appraisals.

There's a growing body of evidence that when cities don't build enough new housing to keep up with demand, that exacerbates the price rise. In DC, proposed new buildings constantly have floors and units slashed off or have strict limits on their size in the first place.

You don't have to believe that removing regulations will magically make housing suddenly affordable for all—I don't—to worry about all the people who can't live in the units that don't get built and the displacement it can cause elsewhere.

Beyond prices rising and displacement happening today, there's reason to worry it will get worse. DC does have a number of large undeveloped sites now, like Walter Reed, McMillan, St. Elizabeths, and Hill East, which can and hopefully will provide a large portion of DC's housing need for the next decade or so. But if demand to live in the city remains strong, these will fill with housing soon; what then?

An Office of Planning 2013 report warned that DC was approaching its maximum buildable limits. The city could run out of space for new housing between 2030 and 2040, the report said.


Graph from the DC Office of Planning's Height Master Plan report, 2013.

It would be helpful for OP to update this graph based on changes since then. The zoning update allowed people to rent out basements and garages ("accessory apartments") in some zones, which added some potential housing; at the same time, DC made zoning more restrictive in many row house areas and downzoned the Lanier Heights neighborhood, which might have moved the red dotted line down somewhat.

Where are the lines now? How has the city's growth tracked against the three scenarios in the above graph? Under various assumptions, how much time is left until the problem gets even worse than it is today?

DC needs an inclusive housing strategy

DC needs a Comprehensive Plan that ensures enough housing so that prices don't rise faster than they need to. Public policies must also ensure that new housing benefits a cross-section of income levels, from the very poor to the middle class and beyond, to prevent displacement and built a city welcoming to all—as Mayor Bowser likes to say, for those who have been here for five generations or five minutes.

To get the policies right requires good data. What do you see in the above analysis? Are there other data sets you think would be helpful? Are there other questions that an updated Comprehensive Plan should address?

Public Spaces


When you turn parking spaces into parks, it looks like this

On Friday, September 16th, greater Washington gave some parking spaces a facelift and converted them into miniature parks for Park(ing) Day, an imaginative international event to show what else could be done with curbside parking spaces.

Thanks to readers who tweeted pictures and uploaded to our Flickr pool. Here is some of what you submitted:


Photo by Joanne Pierce.

The Anacostia Waterfront Trust collaborated with the DC Council and several other organizations to create a superblock-long parklet at the John A. Wilson Building along the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue otherwise reserved for councilmember parking.


Photo by the author.

Councilmember David Grosso biked to eight DC parklets. Above, he's pictured at center, with Greater Greater Washington contributor and chief of staff Tony Goodman to his left. They're talking to BicycleSPACE co-owner Erik Kugler at the shop's Mount Vernon Triangle parklet while a staff member lunches.


Photo by @bestpixelco.

The National Park Service turned asphalt to water for imaginary canoe trips along F Street NW.


Photo by Payton Chung.

GGWash editorial board member Payton Chung enjoyed the Urban Land Institute's effort to strike the right balance between the natural and built environment.


Photo by Jim Chandler.

GGWash reader Jim Chandler took this picture to say aloha from Hyattsville's University Town Center, where the city created a "temporary tropical oasis."


Photo by Melissa E.B. McMahon.

Reader Melissa E.B. McMahon captured the fun and games at one of Arlington County's five parklets.

Our write-ups from throughout the years of Park(ing) Days are here.

You can also view more Park(ing) Day 2016 scenes in Washingtonian, the Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Channel 4, and Channel 7.

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