Washington, D.C., zoning officials have a plan to further racially equitable development by making the city's approval process a little more complicated.
The district's Zoning Commission is currently workshopping a new "racial equity tool" that it will use to guide its decisions when considering changes to zoning code, rezoning properties, and approving some major projects.
The idea of incorporating a greater focus on racial equity into planning decisions has broad support within the district. In May 2021, the City Council unanimously supported requiring the Zoning Commission to evaluate its actions through a "racial equity lens" as part of a larger set of amendments to D.C.'s Comprehensive Plan.
To implement that requirement, the commission released a draft racial equity tool in April 2022 that will ask applicants needing the commission's approval to answer a long list of questions about how their proposed project might impact racial equity.
The draft tool suggests applicants provide information on how their project will impact the direct displacement of residents, the city's housing stock, its physical environment, and "access to opportunity." And that list is nonexhaustive. The tool says that applicants may produce information on those themes "and any others that also apply."
The vague and open-ended nature of those questions has some housing activists concerned that the tool will prove overly burdensome, and even unworkable, for property owners trying to do something simple like changing their lot's zoning from residential to commercial use.
The tool has "language that's very ambiguous and is trying to check second and third order effects" of a project, says Michael Starnes, with the group DC YIMBYs (yes in my backyard). "Doing this on an individual lot basis is very hard." He added on Twitter an applicant could have to hire a sociologist, historian, and data scientist to answer all the questions in the tool.
Performing such a thorough analysis wouldn't necessarily guarantee a project's approval or relieve the need of an applicant to further study their project.
In an email, D.C. Zoning Commission Director Sara Bardin said the commission could potentially reject a project for failing to advance racial equity in line with the Comprehensive Plan's goals. Less drastically, it could also condition approval of projects on providing certain amenities or public benefits to offset any negative equity impacts it might have.
During the approval process, the commission could also request more information from an applicant, Bardin said.
Worse still, says Starnes, is that existing zoning regulations like single-family-only districts that exclude apartments and mixed-use development aren't necessarily racially equitable themselves. But only a project sponsor seeking relief from those regulations would have to perform the racial equity analysis mandated by the tool.
In a public comment letter to the commission, D.C. YIMBYs argues for making the tool and the process generally as simple and certain as possible to avoid delaying new development or giving cynical NIMBY (not in my backyard) activists the ability to stop projects.
On the flip side, some D.C. activists have argued that the tool doesn't go far enough in involving community members in zoning decisions and extracting concessions from developers.
"Racial equity is as much a process as it is an outcome," said Parisa Norouzi, executive director of local group Empower DC, in a public comment letter to the Zoning Commission. The tool needed to collect qualitative, not just quantitative, data through robust community outreach, she said.
Norouzi suggests developers be required to conduct door-to-door engagement with the surrounding community about their project and establish a hotline to answer questions about their project.
Norouzi, in a September Zoom meeting, also said it would be inequitable for the zoning commission to make decisions that might relieve developers of the need to go through that community input process on a project-by-project basis.
"The idea is that the developers will not have to go back to zoning and make applications for each building, which forecloses the ability for residents to comment in a setting where they could negotiate community benefits," said Norouzi.
She gave the example of the currently underway Barry Farm project—which involves the redevelopment of a former public housing complex into a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments and retail space. The commission approved a rezoning of the Barry Farm area that allows redevelopment of the area to proceed without each individual building within it needing commission approval.
Alex Baca, D.C. policy director for urbanist nonprofit Greater Greater Washington, says the primary problem with the draft racial equity tool is that it's unclear what the commission is asking or what its standards for a racially equitable project would be.
"Having some clear goals: What are we saying is racially equitable in a discretionary project? No one is answering that question," she tells Reason. "I think that should be the question. I'm not sure what the commission is asking."
Baca says YIMBY fears that the tool will slow or stop development in the city are overblown, in part because only so many projects need to go through the Zoning Commission process in the first place. But she also offers some criticism of the idea that racial equity can be meaningfully advanced through D.C.'s flawed discretionary approval process.
"I think the sense that, 'Let's have racial equity in this permit,' that's a laudable goal, but it's not going to be possible on a project-by-project basis," she says.
In a public comment letter, Baca recommends the commission replace the open-ended language in the draft tool with a definitive list of impacts applicants would have to provide information on. She also recommends that the commission identify a single theme to elevate above others and that, of the current themes, an analysis of direct displacement should take precedence.
A public roundtable on the draft tool was held in late September. Bardin says that the Zoning Commission will hold another meeting in November to discuss and respond to public feedback on the tool. She said additional public roundtables are possible, but the goal is to release a final version of the tool "as soon as possible."