Q&A: Michael Brown Defends His Record on Housing and Development
Last week, I sat down with David Grosso, who's challenging Michael Brown for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council, to talk about housing and development. This week, I spoke with Brown, who chairs the Committee on Economic Development and Housing, to get his thoughts on the issues, the race, and, yes, weed. Here's what he had to say.
You've been chairman of the newly formed Committee on Economic Development and Housing for about four and a half months now. What do you see as your most important accomplishments in that role?
Well, I think first is getting on the same page with [Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development] Victor Hoskins. We don’t have to agree on everything, but at least have good communication, because over the last several years the chair of Economic Development and the deputy mayor for economic development and planning haven’t really been on the same page.
I wanted to start moving east, because the core of the city is obviously developing; in some parts of the city, it’s already, some would say, overdeveloped. But parts of the eastern parts of the city have not really gotten any of those benefits yet. So I am very proud that we have all helped to draw the map that moved some of that development on the eastern side of the city.
And I think in one of your articles or one of your postings that I saw, the person who really started the conversations of waiving the height requirement: That was me. When I start talking to some of the Republican members and some Democratic members on the Hill—about not the core part of the city because I don't think that flies at all, but on the east side of the river, the Anacostia River, I think we could find some traction where that may be doable. Because I think then it enables that part of the city not just to have diverse, great, affordable housing but also possibly to attract law firms and companies, just like they did in Brooklyn Heights.
That vision is way down the line, but the first part of the vision was to get on the same page with Victor Hoskins.
Do you think you could preserve the neighborhood feel of places like Anacostia if you allow tall new buildings to go up?
Absolutely! I mean, it happens in Brooklyn every day, it happens in east Manhattan, it happens uptown. I mean, absolutely, you can do it.
[Brown's aide interjects that this wouldn't take place directly in Historic Anacostia.]
No, but the river runs pretty long, and I do think there would be some attraction to having buildings right on the water that look directly into the city. Absolutely. I’ve talked to some ANC commissioners about it and I want to talk to developers about it. But it’s more important to get residents, to get their input rather than developers'.
But again, that vision is way down the line. The first thing we need to do is make sure that development is going east of the river—that it’s being done responsibly with community input and to make sure folks don’t get displaced. Because that is our No. 1 goal in this committee, that as economic development starts to go east that it doesn’t displace people.
And how do you make sure of that?
You've got to have real affordable housing initiatives in place, I mean you have to have percentages really set aside for real affordable housing units. So Barry Farm is a prime example. Barry Farm, obviously getting redone, those folks need to be able to get back into that community. They can’t be priced out of it. And that’s where the challenge is with the [area median income], that obviously those surrounding counties kind of skew our whole calculation which makes it very difficult, but we have to be very disciplined.
And that’s one of the things that I’m a little disappointed about: Every time I hear my opponent talking about the great work he and [former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, for whom Grosso worked] did—we’re fixing all their messes! I mean, they didn’t do anything! The fact that my opponent has already talked about how First Source is not a good law is unbelievable. The fact that you would take public dollars and not then say you have to have to hire D.C. residents to build those projects is incredible to me. The fact that subcontractors didn’t get great opportunities when they were there is unbelievable. I mean, they basically moved the city backward, and we’re now we’re trying to bring it and catch it up to make it responsible. The list you are looking at are the list of the bills that when they were running the committee were never even given a hearing. And these are bills literally related to affordable housing initiatives and responsible economic development. They didn’t do any of it. We’re fixing all of that.
And let me point out: It’s not all of business, because most of business is fine with First Source. They want to be good corporate citizens. There are two companies, Clark and Miller & Long, that are the ones that are behind the lawsuit and they fought us every inch of the way. We must have had 50 meetings on the First Source law when we were trying to get input, at least 50 meetings right here with business leaders, organized labor, citizens, you name it. Took a year. And we wanted to be thorough, so it was OK that it took a year. But they fought us every step of the way.
And they told us sitting at this table that they were going to sue the city. They hadn’t even seen the final version of the bill but they were going to sue it. So they were basically fighting against D.C. residents getting hired. And the fact that First Source was in law when my opponent and his boss were head of Economic Development and they did no proper oversight to make sure that law was enforced. There were no compliance letters that went out under their tenure. Just completely irresponsible!
When I spoke with your opponent, he said that while you have a decent relationship with neighborhood leaders, you don't have a strong relationship with the business community.
I don’t agree with that. I think I’m on great terms with business. I named two companies that I had a problem with, and they’re fairly strong with the Chamber [of Commerce] and they were really opposed to First Source, so I'd disagree with that. I actually have business support now: the Latino Contractors Association, Hotel Association. Business leaders from across the city have contributed to me, so I don’t know if that’s true. Small and local business are extremely supportive of me, so I don’t know what he’s referring to.
When [Grosso and Ambrose] were in Economic Development, they just let companies bring in their crews from outside the city, not even use CBEs, they didn't have to hire D.C. residents. They didn't do any proper oversight. It's outrageous.
Do you think that there’s a need for council members to be more critical of business interests?
I’m not sure. A lot of times, I’ve sure you’ve heard me say, government sometimes needs to get out of the way. I like the entrepreneurial spirit. That’s why we’re talking about regulation reform here in the city, too, to make it easier for businesses to do business here. However, when you’re using public dollars, there is a threshold of a standard that has to be met and that’s our job. We have to oversee and be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar, and that’s what we’re doing with these monthly meetings. And hopefully that’s what you’ll see in this committee is not to be a hindrance to do business, just making sure you’re doing what you said you would do when you got these city resources to build your project. And to me, this makes practical sense.
Your opponent has also questioned your commitment to the Council: He says you pay more attention to your outside job and you don't have a good attendance record at hearings.
I don’t even know what he’s talking about. Absolutely not true. Did he just say that, or did he give you some evidence of that?
He didn't give me any specific evidence...
I’ve never missed a legislative meeting in four years. I don’t know what he’s talking about. I don’t even know how to respond to that.
And how about juggling the two jobs?
I treat this as a full-time job, so to me, I’ve had no issues. I treat this as a full-time job.
If you could play God for a day and put whatever you wanted on McMillan or Walter Reed or St. Elizabeths, what would be your top priority?
The structure. Not necessarily what restaurant or what retail. You can’t play God when you’re an elected official. You have to bring in community to get their input about what they want in their own neighborhoods. But for me, it’s the structure.
I would like to see kind of the same setup that we do have at McMillan, which is kind of these mini master developer structure where then local developers will have a chance to do their own development. They’d have their own financing; they don’t have to kowtow to the kind of big [general contractor], so to speak, or to the big developer. So what I’d like to see is for Walter Reed and St. Elizabeths to have several mini, or smaller, or whatever the term is, developers on each of these. That way, you’re guaranteed to get D.C. folks involved in the process. And ownership on the equity side, in particular.
Earlier, you mentioned Certified Business Enterprises. As you probably saw, my colleague Alan Suderman had a cover story a few weeks ago exposing the flaws in the CBE program. What do you think needs to be done to ensure that D.C. companies are really working these jobs?
Well, first of all, the whole CBE program has to be reformed. And not with Band-Aids. That needs a major revamp because clearly it does not seem to be working with the original intent. On the jobs side, that’s what so frustrating about when my opponent attacks me about different things and brags about their work on economic development. They just never enforced laws that were on the books. If they were doing proper oversight, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now related to the unemployment rate because a lot of these folks—there are two types of jobs: There are temporary jobs, which are construction jobs, a very small percentage of all the jobs in the city by the way; and then there are permanent jobs, which folks that are working in the retail, working in the apartments, working in the restaurants, that we really also have to focus on. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to connect economic development with jobs. And that’s one of the things we’ve worked very hard on over the last several years. And we think we’re starting to make some ground.
If you have a second term to head up this committee—
You mean when I have a second term?
OK, sure. In your second term, what would be your No. 1 priority?
Responsible economic development. I think a lot of communities get very scared when they see certain coffee shops coming to their neighborhoods—I don’t want to say a particular name—and they think, "Uh-oh, I’m going to get moved out of my neighborhood." So when I define responsible economic development, that means bringing services and retail and the like to communities that need it and at the same time not displacing people on the housing side. So that, to me, is our mission.
And part of that isn’t just feeling welcome, it’s also making sure you have real affordable housing in these particular places, which means we have to redefine what affordable means. That’s a whole other part of the discussion related to the AMI, but if you break it down to really simple terms, if you’re a DCPS teacher, if you’re making $40,000, you should be able to live in this city.
Moving away from housing and development, this campaign has gotten pretty nasty. You've accused your opponent of some low blows, and likewise he's accused you of low blows for bringing up his old marijuana arrest. Do you think that's fair game?
No. Well, first of all, I don’t really care about his conviction. I didn’t even bring up. The Washington Post did the first blog on it. I responded to it because one of the things I’ve always asked—again, his conviction to me doesn’t really matter, but if you’re running on a particular transparent, ethical, good-government model, and you conceal that fact from the public, to me, your ethics are in question.
All my stuff is all out in the street, everybody knows all my stuff, it’s written about all the time. Mine is not hidden behind some tree in the shadow.
Well then let me ask you in the interest of transparency: Have you ever smoked pot?
Yes. I went to college. I certainly did.