Testimony on Comp Plan update, Ward 6

Thanks to Councilmember Allen for this opportunity to speak. I’m Payton Chung, LEED Accredited Professional in Neighborhood Development, and I have 20 years of experience in urban planning policy, notably in urban design and affordable housing.

Comprehensive planning is how a city adapts to an inevitable future. No plan, and indeed no action a city can take, can prevent that future from occurring.

One inevitable aspect of the future that deeply worries me, as one of the three billion humans living near sea level, is climate change. I previously testified that the updated comp plan does an adequate job of outlining several of the challenges and forward steps that DC will need to take over the next decade to forestall and adapt to the climate catastrophe. If left unchecked, many of Ward 6’s most vulnerable areas, for example the James Creek corridor along Delaware Ave SW, will be uninhabitable within my lifetime. I also testified earlier that the next iteration of the Comp Plan should address this existential threat to DC’s future as its foundation, not as one element among many.

I’d like to briefly touch upon the price of housing. Increased rents cause new buildings, not the other way around. Once rents surpass a level that can pay the surprisingly high underlying cost to build new houses, then new buildings will get built. Stopping new buildings might avoid offending some people’s aesthetic sensibilities, but does absolutely nothing to change the underlying demand for new housing. We can see this in the fact that rents have increased faster in Capitol Hill, with almost no new housing construction, than in Capitol Riverfront, which has lots of new housing construction

I’m glad that the comp plan accepts that more houses are needed right here in Ward 6. Ward 6 residents enjoy many transportation choices, and so we produce far less carbon per capita than most Americans. The most effective contribution that neighborhoods like ours can make to the climate crisis is to let some more people in on our secret, and allow more neighbors to benefit from this fantastic location. To be clear, almost all of DC’s population growth results from babies that are born here, so growth is a matter of letting children stay here, not a matter of outsiders vs. insiders and us vs. them.

DC alone can’t change growing income and wealth inequality, or the fact that new houses are expensive to build – though it must continue to expand subsidies to help lower income residents access homes in high opportunity areas. But moderate- and middle-income residents could afford new construction on the private market, if only it were legal to build new homes everywhere, not just in a few tiny areas that I’ve called “instant neighborhoods,” and the comp plan calls Land Use Change Areas. This comp plan update begins to soften the distinction between Land Use Change Areas and Neighborhood Conservation Areas. That distinction has succeeded too well at comforting the District’s already comfortable single-family homeowners, sometimes overwhelming LUCAs with lots of change all at once, and pushing all new housing demand into high-rise apartments, which are the absolute most expensive kind of house to construct.

DC’s zoning makes it illegal to build all but the most expensive possible houses: detached palaces surrounded by huge yards in Ward 3, or high-rise studios surrounded by costly concrete and steel in Ward 6. Yet somehow, we act surprised that housing costs are out of reach. Allowing a broader variety of housing choices across the entire spectrum of housing types and neighborhoods, and particularly making it simpler to add new units in less costly low-rise apartments, will better balance the housing market and make sure that our housing dollars, whether private or public, go further.