DC Mayor Muriel Bowser addresses Southwest residents at Arena Stage before sitting down with Southwester editor Mike Goodman, right. Courtesy of Southwester Staff.
By Matthew Koehler
Kicking off April (though not on the most foolish day of the month) DC Mayor Muriel Bowser sat down for a conversation with Southwesters as the featured guest of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly’s Community Meeting.
Over the course of an hour at Arena Stage, she discussed important community concerns and what her office is doing, or will do, to address those concerns. The last time Bowser came to the neighborhood to discuss neighborhood issues was back in 2021. (Honorable mention goes to Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who provided a warm up introduction, explainer on his budget plan, and some comic relief ahead of the Mayor’s arrival.)
Community members submitted questions online, which were read aloud by moderator Mike Goodman, Editor-in-Chief of The Southwester. Topics ranged from the biggest concern of affordable housing and equitable development – especially family-sized housing, community land trust (CLTs) models of ownership and development, to transit – bike lanes being a big concern in DC, to crime, houseboat tenant rights, and even the tree canopy.
Throughout the evening, Goodman issued several reminders that the questions and topics were sourced from the community – there was no prompting by the newspaper or organizer of the event, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA). These were direct community concerns, or at least a cross section of people who responded to the call for questions.
Ahead of the Q&A section of the evening, in her introduction, Bowser touted the yearly $100 million she’s put into the affordable housing trust fund, the $400 million she put into the fund in 2021, and $1.4 billion her administration has put in the fund overall. She also brought up her investments in DC Public Schools, including charters, early childhood education, and childcare subsidies. Going into her third term, she promised investments into medical care to get people out of medical debt. And, she talked about increasing enrollment of Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) without sacrificing the standards.
“We’re strong. The state of the city is strong. The state of our finances is strong,” Bowser said in her introduction.
Throughout the forum, affordable housing was an imminent concern of the community. Southwest and Navy Yard have been among the fastest developing areas of the city since 2010. The combined areas currently host two professional sports stadiums, multi-billion dollar redevelopments of both Navy Yard (though not part of Southwest and no longer in Ward 6) and The Wharf, where Phase II recently came online. Housing has exploded throughout the quadrant over the last several years and from an outsider’s perspective, especially if you’re in the right tax bracket, it is that way. But history and reality complicate that narrative.
The community has changed a lot in the past 12 years, but the same could be said of the little quadrant that could throughout its history – specifically, the great urban renewal of the 1950s and 1960s. The neighborhood was a test subject for the national urban renewal plan, and while many newcomers today would look at Southwest as having evolved, urban renewal started with the displacement of 23,000 mostly Black residents and the destruction of hundreds of businesses and homes. Vast swaths of Southwest were bulldozed to make way for a newer, richer, and whiter neighborhood.
Many have equated the rapid development of the past decade or so to a modern urban renewal – the end result being the removal of lower income residents and more generational families, especially Black families. And recently, there has been some smoke billowing around the voucher program where an internal investigation uncovered conflicts of interest and impropriety with several DCHA employees. Adding insult to injury, questions remain over another internal investigation from last year detailing how $82 million in Housing Production Trust Funds (HPTF) intended for the lowest income residents were used for higher income residents.
Despite this history and the growing concern of displacement and racial gentrification in Southwest, in her comments, Bowser looked to all the new development and amenities and expressed bafflement that so many community members were concerned with affordable housing and equitable development. She said there was a disconnect between the range of questions the community sent in and what Southwest looks and feels [emphasis added] like to her. She incorrectly assumed the community would be more concerned with parking and crime, not affordable housing, though she did acknowledge that her office needs to be better engaged on the issues the community raised.
Referencing all the new development and vibrancy in the neighborhood, Goodman pointed out that much of that housing is 1-2 bedroom apartments that are not affordable and livable for many families making under a certain income (a family of four needs an income north of $105,000 to live comfortably). Mayor Bowser, again, said her office should be more engaged with neighborhood stakeholders.
When pressed what her office is doing to address homelessness and affordable housing, Bowser said, “A lot.”
She touted closing former citywide shelter DC General and her plan to put emergency housing in all eight wards, even quipping that in Southwest “people fought [her] tooth and nail” over emergency, or bridge, housing that eventually became The Aya along I (Eye) Street SW. In her third term, her office will invest more on bridge housing, Bower said, noting that to accomplish her goals on affordable housing, her office is also looking to buy units throughout the city, or even buildings, but she provided no specifics or timeline on either.
The future of Greenleaf Gardens weighed on the hearts and minds of Southwesters. The public housing complex is old and dilapidated, and is rife with pests, mold and structural issues. It has been deemed unhealthy and unsafe for residents. The redevelopment of Greanleaf was slated to be a “build first” model where residents would move to alternative housing within the same community to prevent displacement during construction of new units. But after transparency issues, miscommunication, and the community feeling left out of the process, and no build first in the plans, the previous plan fell through.
While Bowser reiterated her commitment to a build first model, no firm plan is currently in place. Community members wanted to know if the Mayor could, at least, bring the housing complex up to code.
Mayor Bowser said her administration is overseeing repairs, including inspecting all units and prioritizing repairs needed to make vacant units habitable. She did offer two big carrots over concerns of the future of Greenleaf and pointed to the Fire & EMS repair station and the DMV along 4th Street Southwest. The two parcels are city-owned and officials have thrown around the idea of using them for affordable-mixed rate housing, including build first. According to the Mayor, a new facility for the repair station is supposed to be finished in Fiscal Year 2028. All the equipment can then be moved and the 4th Street facility, she suggested, could be the new Greenleaf site.
Other housing-related questions included several focused on CLTs, supported and likely sent in by members of a local activist group, SW DC Action, who showed up in force and sported red and white at the community event.
SW DC Action has been advocating for the land trust model of development for the two parcels at 4th and M Streets SW for the last several years. One community member raised the issue of the millions of dollars being used on other community development projects, and asked why the mayor couldn’t use city dollars to purchase land for the community. Here, Bowser didn’t have much in the way of a prepared answer, or a candid response, saying that the “financial timeline” is not good right now.
However, affordable housing on the aforementioned parcels aren’t the only community concern.
For years, the southwest parcel (in front of All About Burger and Station 4) has been used for a farmer’s market on Saturdays (that goes through November) and a night market every other Friday night during the warmer months. The open space has also become a casual, no cost spot for community members to hang out and eat lunch during the workweek and on weekends. Should the two parcels of land be developed by the private developers who own the land, both markets will have to move or disappear. The open space the community uses would also disappear for good and be replaced with private venues.
On the topics of both Greenleaf and the use of CLTs for the 4th and M parcels, and with prodding from the moderator, Bowser said she needs to engage with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development on what to do about the 4th and M parcels, and that the community should reach out to her office.
Crime is a big topic in DC these days, and the federal government, including the White House, recently overruled DC home rule on a proposed revision of the criminal code. Despite the national attention, with many conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives bemoaning crime in the city and falsely equating it to early 1990s levels, it wasn’t the most pressing issue on the minds of Southwesters, though some neighbors were concerned with the increased crime and lack of safety.
Here, the Mayor turned the microphone over to MPD First District Commander Tasha Bryant, who said that they are continuing to make significant arrests, increasing their patrol footprint, removing illegal firearms, and trying to be transparent.
Bike lanes, bike lanes everywhere – especially in Southwest! Specifically, the new semi-protected bike lane in front of Amidon-Bowen Elementary School that has been a cause of concern and contention for parents, cyclists, and ostensibly the car lobby.
The current construction is a stop gap – not quite what cyclists wanted nor the dangerous fully protected lane that parents feared their kids would have to navigate during drop off. From either perspective, during rush hour it has been chaotic and hasn’t prevented speeders from speeding.
Here the Mayor was very candid, and spoke truthfully, saying “There are no easy bike lanes left to be built in the city.” She reminded everyone that bike lane projects are a result of years of planning from the Mayor’s office down to the local ANC. Bowser seemed to admonish the crowd, saying that when the DC Department of Transportation is out there fixing something, it is not the time to confront them about a bad street construction idea.
She did concede that, yet again, better engagement is something she needs to strive for. “What you’re saying is we need to do a better job putting down the bike lanes,” she said.
There was one question on tenant’s rights sent in by the liveaboard community of houseboat dwellers at The Wharf, the biggest such community on the Eastern seaboard, but there was no answer from the Mayor. She admitted to never being asked such a question and said she would seek advice on that community.
With regard to affordable housing and how land is developed in the community, there will be a new Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development. Some members in the community, especially those who advocate for more affordable housing, say there might be a pathway to turn advocacy into action with the incoming deputy mayor. During the evening, the mayor made multiple “promises” to engage with the community on their concerns, especially over housing and transit (okay, bike lanes). Already, members of the activist groups mentioned in this story have capitalized on this former promise and are scheduled to meet with the mayor in early May to talk about affordable housing.
Closing out the night, Goodman asked Bowser what she looks forward to in the future of Southwest. “It’s been anchoring. It’s been a community that stuck together. There’s been less job loss. Less economic hardships,” she said. But she reiterated that, in her opinion, affordable housing for all incomes, traffic safety, and crime are issues she needs to continue to engage and work on.