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Three urbanism takeaways from D.C. Mayor Bowser’s 2019 State of the District Address

In the cards: free D.C. Circulator rides for the foreseeable future and more affordable housing dollars

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser talks with celebrity chef José Andrés during the federal shutdown (2019)
Phil Pasquini/Shutterstock

On Monday evening, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser delivered her annual “State of the District Address,” marking the first time she has done so during her second term. She sailed to re-election last year without confronting a serious challenger in the 2018 Democratic primary.

In a speech that ran less than an hour, Bowser touched on matters ranging from her recent visit to the White House and the 2020 presidential race to schools and D.C.’s financial well-being. (You can read her remarks, as prepared, here.) This address represented a change in tone from her State of the District last year, which came on the heels of education scandals.

“For the next year ... you will hear us tell you about how we are an urban jurisdiction getting it right,” the mayor declared a few minutes in. “You will hear us tell you that our policies are improving education, reducing crime, increasing employment, greening our infrastructure, welcoming diversity, and creating a city where everyone has a pathway to the middle class.”

Below are three takeaways about the city’s development and growth from Bowser’s speech.

1. Affordable housing (or the lack thereof) is still D.C.’s most pressing challenge.

Bowser called housing affordability “the no. 1 issue on the minds of Washingtonians,” noting that the District needs a 2020 Democratic candidate who “understands ... that the national housing crisis is not a Democratic or a Republican issue—it’s an American issue” that must be addressed with “urgency.” Locally, she said her administration would take several steps during her second term to relieve the burden housing costs impose on renters and owners.

One of those steps is proposing to increase the funding for D.C.’s “Safe at Home” program, which helps limited-income seniors and people with disabilities adapt their homes to their needs, by $2 million. Another is attempting to expand “Schedule H” tax credits, which help low- and moderate-income residents offset their property taxes, by raising the income cap and maximum payout for the program. The payout will be increased by $200, Bowser said.

In terms of homelessness, she added that D.C. will invest $26 million in the “Homeward DC” strategic plan and $11 million to support the new family shelters across the District. But the mayor’s biggest housing announcement was that in her upcoming budget proposal, which her administration is sending to lawmakers this week, she would pitch an increase in taxes on commercial real estate transactions to fund more affordable housing projects than now.

Bowser told the Washington Post that she would seek to raise deed recordation and transfer taxes on commercial properties valued at more than $2 million—from 1.45 percent currently to 2.5 percent. Some of the additional revenue would underwrite the District’s main fund for affordable housing, the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF). HPTF funding would jump to $130 million a year from $100 million, Bowser said. (Advocates have pressed for at least $200 million a year to go into the fund, in part because construction costs have ballooned.)

The mayor also said she would pitch putting $5 million more in D.C.’s Housing Preservation Fund, which leverages private investment to preserve existing affordable housing. And she is proposing a new “Workforce Housing Fund” for civil servants, to be seeded with $20 million.

Bowser then pointed to ongoing zoning lawsuits that are holding up thousands of affordable and market-rate units from being built across the city, calling such suits “frivolous litigation.”

But activists who protested before and during her speech said, fundamentally, the city must put more money toward affordable units. In a statement following Bowser’s address, Bread for the City Advocacy Director Aja Taylor said D.C. minimally needs $400 million in annual affordable housing investments “to address an out of control affordable housing crisis that sees Black and other people of color displaced at alarming rates.” “This budget isn’t a fair shot, it’s a bullet to the heart of people who pinned their hopes on a native Washingtonian mayor who sold them out to developers,” she said, referring to Bowser’s “fair shot” slogan.

At a few points during the mayor’s speech, activists shouted “stop the war on the poor” and “this is our home,” causing Bowser to pause temporarily. Authorities removed some of the activists from the venue, the Theater of the Arts at the University of the District of Columbia.

2. Transportation issues need to be addressed creatively, but Metro is essential.

If you enjoy taking the D.C. Circulator, you’re in luck: Bowser announced that from now on, the red buses will remain free, as they have been since February. The mayor said in recent weeks, workers had waylaid her to praise the free bus service. “We may not think about it, because it’s just $1 each way, $2 a day, but for a working person it adds up,” Bowser noted.

She also said the city would invest $122 million in a new transit way on K Street NW, one of its primary east-west routes, to “ensure that buses, bikes, and cars can safely share the road and move through downtown D.C.” She did not mention a possible K Street extension of the D.C. Streetcar, which would link H Street NE and Union Station to Georgetown.

Still, strengthening Metro remains a priority for the mayor. “As much as we love the Circulator, Streetcar, and Capital Bikeshare, we also know that they are no replacement for Metro,” Bowser said. She called, as she has done recently, for a commitment from the transit agency to return to late-night service, and also warned against Metro “becom[ing] a system that only caters to white-collar workers commuting from the suburbs.” “We’re not going to replace Metro with Uber and Lyft,” Bowser said, “because we can’t move our region forward by further clogging our roads.” Metro is currently planning to offer subsidies to ride-hailing and taxi companies that could give late-night rides to workers.

3. The District remains beholden to the feds apropos of land use and statehood.

“We cannot afford to let any untapped land in our city go to waste,” Bowser noted during her speech. “That includes the campus of the shuttered RFK Stadium, which now, as most of you know, is nothing more than a vast and desolate parcel of asphalt. It may be the only national park dedicated to asphalt.” Over the coming months, the stadium grounds are anticipated to improve somewhat, but the federal government yet controls the underlying 190 acres of land.

This could change with a new congressional bill that Bowser said D.C. House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton would soon propose. The bill would “fully convey” the RFK campus to the District “at fair market value,” Bowser said. D.C. United departed the stadium in fall 2017.

“To be clear, there is no deal to bring a professional sports team to that site,” Bowser said. “Whether a stadium or sports arena is included in the reimagined RFK campus is a debate for a future date, which we as a city should decide by, and for, ourselves.” (Previously, she has said she hopes the Washington NFL team comes “home” to D.C., presumably to RFK.)

The mayor started and ended her speech by talking about D.C. statehood, an issue that has gained momentum in 2019, with Democrats holding a majority in the House, but is still far from a reality, given that Republicans hold both the Senate and the White House. “We will continue to demand our fundamental rights as American citizens,” Bowser stated. “We will, once and for all, fix the great American injustice happening right here in the nation’s capital.”