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Posts about Jim Graham


Hear the candidates: Ward 1 on housing

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about housing with candidates for Ward 1 on the DC Council. See all of the discussions here.

Images from the candidate websites.

The District is adding 1,100 people a month right now, and a GMU Center for Regional Analysis report estimates DC needs 41,000 to 105,000 new housing units over 20 years. Where will this housing go? Or will supply fall far short of demand?

I asked the candidates in DC's April 1 primary this question, and the answers from Ward 1 councilmember Jim Graham an his challenger, Brianne Nadeau, illustrated a clear difference in how we think about growth.

To start with, Graham and Nadeau both support building multi-family buildings along the ward's main corridors, such as 14th and U Streets where there has already been a lot of development, especially near Metro stations.

Graham said,

I'm an advocate for developing the core. The areas around our subway stations, areas with excellent bus transportation, should be areas where all of this is developed, because what we found is ... people are coming without cars and contributing to the fact that ward 1 has the fewest number of car owners per capita of any ward in the city.


We've watched key populations, such as our Latino population, be pushed out of the ward and over the border into other wards or even other jurisdictions because of rising costs. One of the things we have to do is increase density where it's appropriate. We want to maintain the distinct character of our historic neighborhoods, but what we can do is increase density around transit hubs.

Both also spoke up in favor of affordable housing programs, including providing more money to DC's Housing Production Trust Fund. Nadeau cited how the Home Purchase Assistance Program actually helped her afford a down payment on her own home 5 years ago. "Without that down payment assistance, I would still be renting," she said, "and what it's given me is long-term stability."

What income level should affordable housing programs serve?

Nadeau said she wants to ensure that enough affordable housing goes to people making below 60% of Area Median Income (AMI), and that there are enough units of appropriate sizes for families as well as singles. Graham was even firmer about the 60% threshold:

When we reach 60% of AMI, which I think is almost $100,000, everybody would like to have some kind of housing subsidy, but I can't bring myself to believe that they are as much in need as other income levels, particularly those who are at $60,000 or less. To give somebody a housing subsidy at $100,000 a year of income is puzzling. It's more than puzzling, it's unacceptable to me. I think that's too high of an income to merit a rental subsidy.
(Note: I believe Graham is confused about the AMI levels here. According to DHCD, the 2013 60% AMI level for a 3-person household is $57,960 and for 4 people is $64,540. 100% of AMI for a 4-person household is $107,300.)

Nadeau disagrees with Graham's bright line. "We talk a lot about people below 60% AMI because we recognize that there's a great, great need there. But once you get to 61% we can't be forgetting about those people either."

Many affordable housing advocates indeed push to ensure that our affordable housing programs benefit those significant below median income, especially 60% of AMI and even some at lower levels like 30% and 50%, but housing is a challenge even for people above the median income. What about those who have higher incomes and might not qualify for, or perhaps deserve, explicit government subsidies?

Increase the supply of housing? Where?

Even though there are some significant parcels of land, like McMillan, Saint Elizabeths, and Hill East where new growth can go, the Office of Planning estimates that in 10-20 years DC will hit a ceiling of how much housing can be built under current zoning and the Comprehensive Plan.

I asked Graham, "What do we do for people making 60% of AMI or more so they have the opportunity to live in neighborhoods in Ward 1?"

"They may not have that opportunity," Graham replied, though he did cite the Inclusionary Zoning program which creates some units at 80% AMI. Other than that, he pointed to neighborhoods like Brookland which is seeing significant new development to accommodate new residents.

If each ward grows comparably, that would be 5,000 or more units for Ward 1 and every other ward. Should Ward 1 find room for that much housing? Nadeau said, "I don't know what the percentage [of new housing between wards] would be, because we are the most densely populated ward so we need to control for that," but she suggested a planning process or and housing audit to identify needs for affordable and market-rate units, and "providing enough housing so we're bringing the market down."

To the same question, Graham said, "The answer to that question is we may not find those 5,000 units in Ward 1. ... I don't know whether Ward 1, with its current boundaries—we have so little vacant land left because we have wisely developed all of the major parcels."

Graham talked about how Anacostia is on the cusp of becoming a neighborhood many people want to move to, and how prior to 1965 it had large numbers of white residents as well as some long-time black residents. But, I asked, people in and around Anacostia are nervous about "overdevelopment" and "changing the character of the neighborhood" just as people are in Ward 1.

"I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face," said Graham. "If we wreck the historic character of the neighborhoods, we're just becoming a neighborhood that's closer to downtown jobs. That's not a neighborhood I want to move into. If we wreck all of that for the sake of more people, we make a poor bargain indeed."

See the whole discussion about housing:

We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood. Thanks to Martin Moulton for organizing the space and recording and editing the videos.


Get ready for Greater Greater politics coverage

Perhaps you've heard: there is a primary in DC on April 1. Over the next few weeks, Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education will be posting a series of video interviews with the candidates for DC mayor and the DC Council Ward 1, Ward 6, and at-large seats.

Photo by Larry Miller on Flickr.

I spoke with almost all of the candidates over the past 2 weeks, and Martin Moulton recorded the conversation on video. We'll divide it into a series of topical posts for each race, looking at what each candidate for a particular contest said about housing, transportation, education, and more.

As we post each portion, this post will include a link to that segment. Below is the list of races, candidates (arbitrarily, in the order they spoke to me), and topics for posts.

Ward 6 council: Charles Allen, Darrel ThompsonWard 1 council: Jim Graham, Brianne NadeauCouncil at large: John Settles, Nate Bennett-Fleming, Pedro Rubio (and see note below)Mayor: Tommy Wells, Jack Evans, Vincent Gray, Muriel Bowser, Andy Shallal (and see note below)All races:How did we select the candidates to speak to? We polled contributors on which candidates they wanted to hear from, and included anyone that contributors nominated.

Mary Cheh is unopposed for re-election in Ward 3. Kenyan McDuffie's Ward 5 re-election contest appears unlikely to be competitive, and contributors did not feel they needed to hear more about that one. There are no competitive primaries for mayor or council outside of the Democratic Party. Finally, we did not include races for Delegate, Shadow Senator or Shadow Representative, or state party.

Besides the candidates listed here, we reached out to Anita Bonds, Vincent Orange, and Andy Shallal. Shallal was scheduled to speak with me on Thursday, February 13, but the interview was canceled due to the snow and we have not yet been able to reschedule we were subsequently able to talk with him.

Orange returned one voicemail and expressed interest in the interview but never followed up from multiple subsequent attempts to reach him. We never received any response from Bonds to any of our inquiries. We would, however, still be happy to speak to any of these candidates before the relevant interviews go live.

We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood.


After hearing one-sided talking points against the zoning update, some residents are against the zoning update

This past weekend, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham convened a panel for several members of Committee of 100, a group that is actively organizing to fight DC's zoning update, to speak to residents of the ward. Nobody from the Office of Planning (OP) was a part of the forum, nor was anyone with a different point of view on the panel.

Photo by theunquietlibrary on Flickr.

A gloating press release from the Committee of 100 following the meeting claimed that "Ward 1 Residents Reject Zoning Changes." C100 spokesperson Byron Adams wrote:

The tone of the meeting was set by CM Graham. He pointed out that while the City Council is prohibited from participating in zoning decisions, more time is needed by citizens and elected officials to fully grasp the far-reaching, long-term consequences of OP's proposals.

Apparently Councilmember Graham missed the working group sessions in 2008 and 2009, or the hearings before the Zoning Commission in 2009 and 2010, or the series of meetings OP held in every ward of the city in 2012-2013, or the discussion at the DC Council oversight hearing for OP every year since 2008, or the multiple additional roundtables which Phil Mendelson has held since taking over as chairman, and so on.

We all know there is no housing affordability problem in the District. Clearly, there is no problem with simply putting off any changes year after year ad infinitum.

Adams continued:

Opposition increased as the C100 and the audience discussed the implications of the ZRR, including how developers and speculators were out-bidding potential residents for what are single-family homes and then carving them up to degrade the historic character of these buildings and neighborhoods.

As described by the C100 panel, the OP recommendations would invite creeping commercialization of residential property, including, taller garages and garage apartments, businesses in garages or accessory structures, multiple home occupations, conversion of housing for institutional uses and corner food markets. While making these changes easier, if not "by-right," the ZRR would dramatically decrease the opportunity for public participation, including by Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, in these zoning and land-use decisions.

A straw poll showed virtually unanimous opposition to the ZRR.

Really? When told that this crazy process which has supposedly happened without enough public input, which will "outbid" residents to "degrade the historic character" of neighborhoods, bring "creeping commercialization" and "decrease the opportunity for public participation," people who showed up to learn about the zoning update came away thinking it didn't sound like such a good idea? Really?

It seems that residents did not have a chance to hear about how people who live in houses bigger than they need could share some space with someone else, make a little money, and contribute to the 41,000 to 105,000 new housing units we need to meet demand.

It sounds like they didn't have a chance to have a serious discussion about how to find space for things like daycare for our children or pet care for our furry family members, uses which are already legal in residential areas after a public hearing but which some people at the zoning hearings raised as a specter of "multiple home occupations" and is what it sounds like the C100 panelists might have been talking about.

One C100 member suggested at the November 7th zoning update hearing that people taking care of children in our neighborhoods would damage our residential areas. She said, "Someone in a 2-story house on an 18-foot wide lot would be overwhelmed with the cries of 16 children outside in a daycare or a child development center if he lived in a 3-story area, or the cries of 25 children in a higher area," and went on to also oppose allowing senior living facilities of more than 8 residents.

When asked why he held an event with a panel made entirely of opponents of the zoning update, Graham wrote in an email that it was "just to provide some basic information to folks who largely were not informed." Unfortunately, most likely they are still not informed or are even less well-informed than before.

The Committee of 100 press release concludes by encouraging residents to testify at the Ward 1 and 2 public meeting on February 26. It definitely is important for residents who have actually gotten informed about the zoning update to show up.

C100 is also encouraging people to attend a mayoral forum they have organized on February 25, 6 pm at the First Congregational Church of Christ, 945 G Street NW. That will be a good opportunity to hear most candidates for mayor defend the God-given right for residents of the most exclusive neighborhoods to keep restrictive zoning that ensures their communities don't have to play any part in accommodating our housing needs, can remain devoid of younger people and less wealthy people, and won't be "begrimed" by local food markets or those loud and annoying children.


Councilmembers who rarely walk block shoveling bill

8 DC councilmembers tabled a bill this afternoon to enforce DC's law requiring shoveling sidewalks. This means that, for the umpteenth time, DC is doing nothing about the serious safety problem of unshoveled sidewalks after a snowstorm.

Photo by randomduck on Flickr.

Only bill authors Mary Cheh (ward 3) and Tommy Wells (ward 6), joined by David Catania (at-large) and Chairman Kwame Brown, voted against tabling the bill. Phil Mendelson (at-large) sounded like he favored the bill during the debate, but supported the tabling.

Listening to the debate, it was clear that many councilmembers just don't think there is a problem. Marion Barry (ward 8) said he has gotten few or no complaints about unshoveled sidewalks. Muriel Bowser (ward 4) spoke passionately multiple times about the burden on anyone for getting a ticket but said nothing about her residents' ability to walk to stores and the Metro.

Jim Graham also argued against enforcing this law, even though, as Mike DeBonis noted, he represents the (residentially) densest ward in DC. He introduced an amendment that would have restricted fines to only apply on streets which have already been plowed. One of the bill's supporters called the amendment a "poison pill." That sends the ironic message that if drivers can't get through a street, it's not important that pedestrians be able to either.

Kwame Brown, who did support the bill but also supported Graham's amendment, made the amusing comment that Mayor Gray has done a good job with snow clearance this year. We've had only 1.7" of snow this year, compared to an annual average average through January of 8.4" and the lowest in 124 years.

Graham insisted that he wants to do something about shoveling; he just wants to use incentives rather than fines. But he's never given a practical incentive-based proposal.

Many councilmembers opining on this issue would have more credibility if they actually walked to transit to get to work in a snow, or for that matter any other time.

During the years he chaired the council's transportation committee and sat on the WMATA Board, Graham came under periodic criticism for very rarely riding transit. He stuck up for low bus fares, but never addressed the problem of unsafe sidewalks after storm. Graham even bragged during today's debate about not moving bills like this one during his tenure as chairman.

Large numbers of DC residents have to get to work or school on foot and on transit after snowstorms, and unshoveled areas create serious safety hazards. Sidewalks are often completely impassable for people with disabilities or even just temporary injuries.

DC already has a law that residents and businesses have to clear their sidewalks, but it's not enforceable. The government has clear the sidewalk and then sue individual violators to collect up to $25. This bill simply makes the penalty for violating this law a straightforward ticket and fine, just like in most cities including Arlington, Alexandria and Montgomery County.

Cheh made many changes to the bill during the last few months to cut the fines even further from the original proposal, put in exemptions for poor and elderly residents, and more. Property owners get a warning before having to pay any fine until the end of 2013.

It's not clear if this law does enough to push the egregious violators, like the large parking lot in Mount Vernon Triangle, to actually take any action, but a majority of councilmembers have made clear that they don't really care to do anything about those problems.

The bill wouldn't have even taken effect until next winter. Now, we're likely to have to wait until yet another winter. If we get a real snow this year, will the councilmembers who voted to table this bill today try walking their neighborhoods and getting to work on foot or by transit? If they did, they'd very likely look at this issue very differently.


Brown criticizes GGW but still has no believable explanation

Kwame Brown criticized Greater Greater Washington to TBD, claiming we're wrong about his motivations for reshuffling committees. But his explanations continue to simply not hold water.

Image from TBD.

Brown claimed that the changes better unify subject areas in the same committee, like putting the environment with transportation and public works. There is indeed a lot of linkage, and those all were part of the same committee, under Jim Graham, before 2008.

But that's almost the only case where Brown's claim fits. He's keeping the Office of Zoning in the Committee of the Whole, while moving planning to Wells' committee. Planning and zoning go together like peas and carrots. In Montgomery County, they put planning and zoning together with the environment; that would have made even more sense and a great committee for Mary Cheh.

And what about alcohol licensing? Kwame Brown gave that to Jim Graham in January. It's widely agreed that this was compensation for taking away transportation. But it has little to do with human services. If rationalizing committees is so important, why isn't it in the same committee as other licensing bodies like DCRA?

I can think of no explanation other than that Brown didn't want to hurt Graham but did want to hurt Wells. Can you? And that's the problem. Brown keeps asserting that payback was not the motive, but almost all local reporters have pointed out that his explanation doesn't hold up.

Sadly, Mary Cheh has started parroting the same line:

CM Brown had to reshuffle things because newly elected Vincent Orange had to be assigned a committee and arrangements had to be made to account for Mr Thomas losing his committee. CM Brown reconfigured committees along better functional lines including placing transportation and public works under the comm on the environment.
No reshuffling had to happen with transportation, because the Thomas/Orange changes don't overlap at all with the Wells/Cheh/Bowser changes. And a transportation committee that has the environment but doesn't have WMATA is definitely not "better functional lines."

John Hendel wrote,

When questioning the Greater Greater Washington report, Brown also emphasized that he hadn't been able to weigh in properly, and that a proper news story needed to include all the different sides of a decision such as this. He told me that he likes the news site but that it has a lot of emotion, and that journalism needs to include multiple perspectives. Again, this sounds fair enough on paper but doesn't seem to harmonize with the increasingly loud sense of outrage over Wells' shift as well as what seems to be a growing consensus that yes, the SUV investigation may have played a role.
I'm sorry that Kwame Brown, citywide elected chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia, feels he isn't able to properly communicate with reporters who spend much of their time in his building. This underscores Alan Suderman's point yesterday that one of the clearest lessons from this saga is that Kwame Brown is bad at media relations. Or, maybe, the local press corps is just smarter and more penetrating than Brown would like.

If Brown is genuinely trying to improve the Council's function, Suderman makes another good suggestion: make committee staff more real professional staff rather than political hires of each councilmember.

When members switch committees, the expected convention in the council is that each member of the committee's staff just keeps working for the former chair in their new capacity. For example, in January Tommy Wells and Jim Graham swapped committees. But all the staff of Human Services kept working for Wells even though he didn't have human services oversight, and the staff of Public Works and Transportation kept working for Graham.

John DeTaeye, for example, had been handling DPW issues, and had become an expert on recycling and trash. He had some good ideas which he'd discussed with me for improving recycling rates. Suddenly, he couldn't implement those, and had to learn human services issues (though he also got promoted to committee director).

One uncommon exception was Jonathon Kass, the excellent transportation committee staffer who has a background in transportation. Graham let Wells hire Kass to be the new committee director. But will Mary Cheh do the same? Then what would happen to Jeremy Faust, the current Government Operations and the Environment committee director?

It's all crazy. This makes it less likely for councilmembers to hire people with deeper subject knowledge. As long as all staff are generalists, with backgrounds in law or public policy or something, they can generally shift, but still have to learn new policy areas from scratch, at great cost of productivity and institutional memory.

Kwame Brown shouldn't swap around committees lightly, with unbelievable explanations. Barring that, he should take steps to reduce the severe impacts that result when committees change hands.

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