Comp Plan Bill Is Improvement Over Existing Plan, But Racial Equity Still Needs Work Going Forward

As the bill to amend the District’s Comprehensive Plan nears its first vote next week at the DC Council, a report (page33) from the Council’s new Office of Racial Equity (CORE) has found that the bill falls short on disrupting “the status quo of deep racial inequities in the District of Columbia” even as it makes positive steps.

Among the many shortcomings CORE identified, it said the proposed legislation, “lacks an honest historical narrative and provides a selective view of the present. This approach normalizes structural racism, laying a faulty foundation for policymaking.”  It also notes that the bill “does not require planning decisions or implementation strategies to evaluate how racial equity is or is not being achieved.”

Of course this analysis would apply to the existing Comprehensive Plan.  The existing Plan uses phases such as “preserve neighborhood character” and “established neighborhoods,” which CORE says are “inherently biased and racially coded.” The report goes on to say, “Historically, such terms have been used to exclude Black residents in order to maintain ‘exclusively’ white communities.”  By all means, similar language in the current bill about neighborhood character should be deleted or modified by language about consideration of disparate racial impact.

CORE does applaud some changes made to the legislation that put more focus on racial equity, especially where it involves Small Area Plans and rezoning:

“Perhaps the Committee Print’s most important changes appear in the Implementation Element. Now, Small Area Plans should be conducted using a racial equity lens and consider the use of a racial equity impact analysis (or similar tool). In addition, the Zoning Commission must now develop a process to consider all cases through a racial equity lens.”

Given the call for robust planning prior to rezoning here in Ward 3, endorsed by Councilmember Mary Cheh, this new focus on racial equity will center community engagement on how to address past exclusion and the history that has led to deep segregation.  Preserving neighborhood character and history in this part of the District needs the scrutiny of a racial equity analysis.

Recently, Ward 3 Vision hosted an event on how the difficult task of adding affordable housing in the area is possible if we use all available tools in the toolbox.  Rezoning in our high cost/high opportunity neighborhoods to allow more homes is not a silver bullet, but it is a necessary part of the solution.

CORE acknowledges that to get it right, the Plan will need to be rewritten.  A full rewrite of the Plan is scheduled for 2026, and that work will likely begin soon.

The bill before the Council is not perfect, but it makes progress toward adding an additional capacity to build more housing, including more affordable housing, along our transit corridors.  Doing so opens up opportunities to add affordable housing, especially when preceded by finer grained planning that is racial equity focused, as the bill requires.  If the bill is flawed, the existing Plan is even more so.  We ask the Council to not make the perfect the enemy of the good: update the current plan and adequately fund the area planning and the Comp Plan rewrite so that the work can begin.

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