Housing Complex

Towards a New Alignment of D.C. Politics?

Say it out loud!

A few months ago, a paper by George Mason University professor David Schleicher generated a good bit of chatter in the land use blogosphere. The argument: Housing in cities has become too expensive because, without strong local political parties, land use decisions tend to be driven by those next to proposed developments rather than the overall interests of the city. You may think it's silly that a legislator would seek to limit the number of new residents in their jurisdiction, but their loyalties are to those who already live there, so that tends to be how it works.

In true-blue Washington D.C., the Democrat vs. Republican party system is especially absurd—mostly, it allows those who wouldn't have a chance in the Democratic primary to challenge the winner a few months later in a less crowded field. Sure, councilmembers have different opinions on how generous our social services ought to be and how high taxes should go. But fundamentally, the Wilson Building just isn't divided in the same way as the Capitol complex.

What, then, is D.C.'s primary ideological fault line? From where I'm standing, in the world of development and planning, it's over how many people ought to be able to live where and how they ought to get around. In practical terms, it shows up in debates around bike lanes vs. space for cars, upzoning vs. downzoning, where commercial uses should be mixed in with residential. A lot of the stuff that's being decided right now, in fact, as we finalize the overhaul of the city's zoning code.

Which is why Greater Greater Washington and the Coalition for Smarter Growth's new advocacy group, Pro-DC, is so interesting. Founded in part to counter the influence of Neighbors for Neighborhoods, a new organization apparently forming over concerns with the densifying, car-discouraging measures in the proposed new zoning code, it's a citywide effort to push for the type of development that will lead to a more diverse, sustainable, and economically robust urban environment. And of course, its name sets it up in diametric opposition to the "Antis," GGW editor David Alpert's catch-all term for people who oppose the urbanist agenda.

Could we call it the YIMBY Party?

Maybe. Alpert tells me he does plan for it to continue after the zoning debate dies down. For example, the District Department of Transportation is working on a long-term transportation plan for the city, during which some similar debates will come up. Greater Greater Washington is already making endorsements—one could imagine it recruiting candidates.

Alpert has lots of reasons why a new party system isn't actually that desirable. On the one hand, not all issues break down along urbanist vs. suburbanist lines. He writes:

The Council often splits on taxes, for instance, and then the coalitions are different. Last year's tax vote, for instance, had Graham, Wells, Alexander, Barry, Mendelson and Michael Brown versus Evans, Cheh, Bowser, Catania and Kwame Brown, and was it Biddle who was in there too on that side? Then when they were talking about raising RPP fees, Cheh, Bowser, Thomas and Mendelson were all against having a higher fee for those who park 3 or more cars on the street.

So Bowser is pro-transit and pro-CaBi but anti car fees, and Mendelson is pro transit a lot of the time but always nervous about development. My point is that in order to get to a party system you'd have to have a scenario where members are willing to vote with the group more often than they do, and with a 13-member legislature for an electorate that cares about a lot of things besides just urbanism issues, that seems unlikely.

Furthermore, party systems create their own problems.

We're seeing in Congress a strong tribalism where members take positions because the other side has the opposite position. Many Republicans have become anti-urbanism in large measure because Democrats are for urban places...And, more importantly, take a voter who is on the opposite side on taxes from the urbanist party. Say he or she cares more about that than about restaurants and street trees. He or she would probably join the other party, and then come to take anti-urbanist stances even if he or she agrees with us on these issues.

So Alpert would rather have Pro-DC function more like the Board of Trade or a labor union, which takes stances on issues as they come up, and has relationships with politicians rather than candidates that it backs all the time. That makes sense, from an advocacy perspective.

I'm glad, though, that we now have a more direct way of having this discussion on a city-wide basis, rather than in disparate locations around every disputed development, where residents in favor of Pro-DC's priorities often don't even enter the conversation.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Jes sayin’

    GGW already does recruit candidates. They recruited a photogenic young lady to run against Jack Evans, but she got tripped up by some guy named Homosexual McKinsey.

    It was all highly unfortunate.

  • dud

    it's all vs. vs. vs.

    this offers no alternative or anything patently different aside from branding a group of people who already exist and dumbing down their viewpoints to fit an identity that has been 'created' by one person (Alpert). also let's be clear. Democrat urbanists don't care about poverty and social services - education has also certainly fallen off the agenda as if it were yesterday's news. I also say keep the argument dispersed -- then City Paper can't write lazy dialectically-positioned summaries of conflicts, pitting people against one another on the level of 11 year olds. Also, Comic Sans again? please end it!

  • dud

    oh okay, must be my computer

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/ David Alpert

    I just want to also make clear that as a joint project between Greater Greater Washington and the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Pro-DC cannot and will not endorse candidates or participate in direct political activity or any other activity that's prohibited to 501(c)(3) organizations.

    I encourage everyone interested to sign up for the Pro-DC list here: http://bit.ly/KRxHhv

    To quickly respond to some of the other comments here: "GGW" is not one monolithic entity and did not recruit Fiona Grieg; she decided to run on her own, and at least one regular GGW contributor volunteered on her campaign, though I personally did not. She did ask to meet with me early on and we had a few conversations.

    dud: I would encourage you to read Greater Greater Washington regularly. We have quite a few discussions about poverty and social services and are trying to include more about education. As a volunteer site, we can only write about what people are interested in contributing, and since most people who know a lot about education also have children, they tend to be fairly busy.

    But as far as not being interested in poverty and social services, I think you will find if you subscribe regularly that I am extremely interested in the intersection of these issues and urban affairs, though often many commenters are not; it would be great to have you participate to bring that point of view to the conversation to a greater degree.

  • Tyro

    Housing in cities has become too expensive because, without strong local political parties, land use decisions tend to be driven by those next to proposed developments rather than the overall interests of the city.

    Actually, in DC, the problem is less the political parties than the fact that power is devolved to such a small-grain local level that all decisions are being driven by local residents rather than by anyone concerned about the overall interest of the city.

  • Remote


  • The Java Master

    More "liberals" who care more about their bike-sharing plans for the afternoon ( ah, the new "entitlement"- the right to live in a so-called sustainable community--what a bunch of horsepuckey) than how to fix the potholes and the schools...
    I amnot intersted in metrosexual urban planning fads, I want the park on my street to be fixed up so the neighborhood kids can use the damn thing! Piur ci9vic association shouldn't have to do it ourselves, that's what we pay freakin' taxes for!

  • The Java Master

    Is Mendelson still lying down in front of bulldozers because some builder wants to close an alley? Next time, run over him!

  • Remote

    I agree Java Master. But I'll go you one further: where are YOU? My problem with the so-called urbanists (ugh) is that there is no sense of civic duty. No commitment to neighborhood or city. You have to put in the time and energy to a place to make a difference. Neither Lydia nor GGW ever understand this. Instead they call such people NIMBY or antis or .... whatever.

  • Bill S

    I wonder if Alpert's new political group is being funded by Whayne Quin, Phil "Payola" and other developer shills?

  • shining the light

    The group doesn't need to endorse candidates, that is what GGW is for. Come on don't treat us like we are stupid. The first time I see the group work with and get behind a candidate who isn't a GGW candidate I will believe that this isn't the political arm of GGW.

  • Perp

    It was only a matter of time....shining the light. Surprised Alpert took this long.