Affordable housing and police reform define D.C.’s at-large city council race
Many issues divide the candidates, but affordable housing and police violence matter most to community activists. | AP photos

WASHINGTON—The race for two D.C. City Council at-large seats continues to heat up ahead of Election Day as aspirants vie to make an impression in a crowded seven-candidate race.

The local Democratic Party already nominated incumbent Anita Bonds, propelling her towards a likely win of one seat. An entrenched figure in D.C.’s political establishment, Bonds’ decades-long career began with Marion Barry’s 1971 school board run. Her claim to power rests heavily on the experience factor, and her connections to both the national Democratic Party and business interests ensure her campaign doesn’t lack for cash.

Bonds has attempted to portray herself as an advocate of progressive causes, but the money she has received from moneyed interests such as housing industry giants gives her away. (Bonds’ 2018 re-election campaign caused a small stir when several prominent construction industry players flooded it with several maxed out donations of $1,000 apiece.)

In 2020, Bonds told local NPR affiliate WAMU that she would “wholeheartedly support” a bill that would have siphoned money from D.C.’s useless and tourist-pandering trolley service to public housing before she suddenly flipped to join other moderates in voting it down. When the Sunrise Movement arrived at her house to protest her neglect of housing legislation that October, she accused them of embracing “tactics the KKK used.”

Her trolley flip-flop was similar to a vote she took against a 2013 bill that would have raised the minimum wage of employees of large retail companies to $12.50; Bonds initially indicated she would support it before abruptly changing her vote to a veto, calling it a “flawed vehicle.”

Voting with Bonds to oppose both bills was Kenyan McDuffie, a well-advertised candidate for the independent at-large seat. McDuffie, another entrenched Democratic establishment figure, switched his political affiliation to independent in order to qualify for the race after his initial bid for attorney general was disqualified in the spring.

While McDuffie won’t get to keep the $845,000 in public funds he raised for his last campaign, it appears many of his top donors will follow him to the new race. Like his longtime mentor and current Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez, he has attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars from lobbying groups, some elements of organized labor, and the real estate industry in particular. (City Paper reported in July that he was receiving extra fundraising help from lobbyist and prominent GOP donor David Carmen.)

For veteran city councilmember Elissa Silverman, the at-large seat may be hers to lose. Silverman switched her party affiliation to independent in 2014 after losing to Bonds the year before. Her campaigns have garnered significant endorsements from both progressive and moderate liberal organizations prominent in the area, including the AFL-CIO, D.C. Working Families, Jews United for Justice, the Sierra Club, and the city’s police union.

The election is playing out against the backdrop of an affordable housing system descending into crisis. Mayor Muriel Bowser centered the expansion of affordable units in her 2014 re-election campaign, promising to build 36,000 new units, a third of which would be priced affordably. Since then, a staggeringly low percentage of housing-dedicated resources have gone towards homes for the poorest residents in the greatest need, even as rents have skyrocketed 30% since Bowser came to office.

Last year, an audit by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General found almost $82 million that was slated towards housing for extremely low-income households went towards higher income brackets instead.

Candidates addressed the issue at a forum earlier this month organized by local progressive organization D.C. for Democracy. Asked about their approach to housing by moderator Kim Perry, some candidates pointed toward already-existing programs they would reform to increase resources.

Silverman referenced the Inspector General’s audit, saying: “We need to make sure the [housing] trust fund meets the statutory requirements. 50% of the money should go to deeply affordable units.” She also expressed support for the District Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives the city the authority to purchase buildings in order to maintain its existing affordable units.

“It’s a tool that levels the playing field because right now the developers build the housing they want, not the housing that we need as a city. That’s got to change,” she added.

David Schwartzman, a D.C. Statehood Green Party candidate for council, said the audit’s findings support the proposed Green New Deal for Housing Bill to bolster social housing and community land trusts. “We need to de-commodify the supply of housing. Housing is a human right,” he said.

The Green New Deal for Housing Act, co-introduced by six Councilmembers in April, would establish a social housing model that combines sustainable designs and mandated affordability standards for mixed-income housing. The program would require new developments to be in compliance with net zero emissions standards. It would also price rents in two-thirds of each building for extremely low or very low income residents.

A Green New Deal in D.C. is at the center of Schwartzman’s proposed agenda. An environmental science professor and climate activist, Schwartzman chairs the D.C. Statehood Green Party, the local affiliate of the national Green Party, with an added emphasis on achieving statehood for the District.

Fred Hill agreed with part of Schwartzman’s answer, adding, that many developers eventually find loopholes to bring the prospective rent of planned developments back up to the market rate. “The developers that are allowed to keep plucking away at the city’s budget are the same group of people every single year. And when they come in, they come in with an idea of what they’re gonna allow us to do.”

McDuffie, meanwhile, pointed towards a bill he introduced in 2014 that would direct a quarter of any unused surplus funds from the city budget towards the Housing Production Trust Fund, adding the need to “make sure that the Housing Investment Trust Fund is being spent to preserve existing housing [as] affordable housing and to produce new units of affordable housing.”

Graham McLaughlin brought up zoning changes, “whether that’s allowing more two and four units, whether that’s partnering with houses of worship to be able to change their zoning to create affordable housing on their land, and as Kenyan just talked about ensuring that our public and quasi-public land is able to be used for affordable housing.”

Karim Marshall, asked about housing and proposed activating vacant units currently in the affordable housing system as a first step. “There are an additional, at least that we know of, at least 10,000 vacant houses in the District of Columbia that could be converted into homes that were available for purchase or sale or rent,” he said.

Marshall has frequently touted his insider knowledge of affordable housing law and environmental regulation as a major selling point to voters. Marshall rapidly ascended City Council committee ranks to serve in several directorial roles for the Department of Energy and Environment, working on affordable housing and environmental justice.

In the wake of the city’s explosive uprising against racial injustice in 2020, questions of police funding dramatically rose in urgency. The election also follows several recent fatal police shootings of Black residents, which local activists link to decades-long patterns of police harassment of poor and majority-minority neighborhoods.

As in elections around the country, Democratic Party messaging often attempts to walk an impossible line of supporting calls for police accountability while shying away from any actual cutting of the police budget. Conservatives gleefully realized liberal Democratic candidates would sputter and walk back their proposals when pressed on the “public safety” issue.

In D.C., this took the form of an outcry that the Democratic City Council had done the unthinkable and defunded the police. Hill voiced the position during the forum, decrying “a council that unanimously decided to defund our police department, which destroyed the morale of the force.”

Republican candidate Giuseppe Niosi similarly said that through door-knocking and ride-alongs with police, “I’ve learned firsthand what they see on the front line, and I can tell you it’s very much an understaffing issue, very much a funding issue, and very much an antiquated technology issue with some of their computer systems.”

Niosi, a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and currently a systems engineer, quickly staked out his claim as the “public safety” candidate. His campaign runs consistently along the GOP party line, stressing “pro-business” positions and “less government red tape.”

The candidates vying for D.C.’s at-large city council seats.

In truth, the Council did cut the MPD’s funding by around $14 million, or about 2%, compared to the previous year, but the department overshot its 2021 budget by $41 million, according to a factcheck by local CBS affiliate WUSA, and is fully capable of doing so again. D.C. remains third in the nation when it comes to how much residents spend on police, and first in its officer-to-resident ratio.

The only candidate to directly call for defunding the police was Schwartzman. “First of all, I support the agenda of defund MPD and refund our communities. We should, of course, fully implement the NEAR Act, including the recommendations the D.C. auditor recommended, which was, to have an Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity within D.C. helps.”

Some candidates skirted the issue of the police budget by addressing other factors, like child poverty and education. McLaughlin name-dropped his work as the co-founder of a non-profit that supports people returning from prison. He added, “I do think we need to prosecute and incarcerate, but I think we need to rethink jail to be a therapeutic experience and more effective for re-entry.”

Silverman suggested a renewed push to implement the recommendations of the Police Reform Commission, created to increase accountability and oversight of D.C. police in the wake of the racial justice protests of 2020. “I think one of the recommendations is something that I believe was unfunded from the NEAR Act, which is pairing behavioral health specialists taking the public health approach. That’s the right approach,” she said, referencing the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act (NEAR), introduced by McDuffie and Bowser in 2016.

The NEAR Act, as it was originally written, contained several violence intervention measures that were either defunded in the city’s 2018 budget or that Bowser had failed to comply with. Although a government website shows a large green checkmark reading “Implemented” next to all measures of NEAR, an audit by the D.C. Justice Lab released last July found that the local government had quietly failed to implement or fund multiple programs.

One such initiative, the Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity, would have involved public health institutions in citywide violence prevention efforts, like sending social workers into emergency rooms to work directly with trauma victims. According to ODCA, the local government simply did not create the program.

Another initiative involved the creation of a Community Crime Prevention Team that would have paired police officers with behavioral health professionals in teams to respond to calls embedded in PAD (pre-arrest diversion). “PAD did not establish teams of police officers and behavioral health clinicians who would respond together; rather, police officers identified eligible participants and brought them to intake centers to be assessed and assisted by clinicians and social workers,” the audit found.

In the forum, candidates were asked directly about the D.C. Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which requires employers to provide long-overdue contracts for domestic workers. The bill was co-introduced by Silverman, McDuffie, and Bonds, alongside a number of other Council members. McDuffie emphasized his continued support of the bill, citing it as an important measure to push back against domestic worker exploitation with roots in “the history of racism, slavery, and de facto segregation.” Marshall, McLaughlin, and Schwartzman, who testified in favor of the bill, also expressed their support.

Candidates were also quizzed in a “lightning round” on their support for the Local Resident Voting Rights Act, which would allow permanent residents who are not yet citizens to vote in local elections. Only Niosi indicated he does not support the bill.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that candidate Fred Hill—president of a consulting firm and owner of the portable toilet rental company Gotta Go LLC and several other construction- and real estate-related enterprises—is also a member of the Board of Zoning Adjustments, a regulatory body with the power to potentially affect the operations of his businesses. A different individual named Fred Hill sits on the BZA, not the Fred Hill running for council. We have corrected this inaccuracy and apologize to our readers.


Harriet Jones
Harriet Jones

Harriet Jones writes from Washington D.C.