My name is ____________
I am writing to request action to ensure transparency and accountability over the policy, decisions and actions of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED).
While it has been much noted that Washington D.C. has seen an “economic boom” over the past 10 years this has been remarkably one-sided, favoring developers and corporate interests more so than the average District resident. In fact, the so-called “boom” has been downright harmful to the District’s poorest residents.
Our income disparity is growing. A 2012 study estimated that the top fifth of D.C. income earners had average earnings that were 29 times higher than the bottom fifth, making the District the third most unequal city in the country.
This growing gap highlights the fact that economic development and planning must be inclusive from the start, or such policies are almost guaranteed to harm poor, working and middle class residents, as they have done so far. We live in a market—or capitalist—society that prioritizes profits instead of beneficial outcomes for people. If we want better outcomes we must be more aggressive in crafting policies to address people’s needs, and raise the standard of living for all District residents.
Currently, DMPED relies on a strategy that favors a small group of developers who are deeply connected via donations to current political office holders. Further, DMPED often promotes projects that require unnecessary tax-breaks, and cuts sweetheart deals, with that same small group of developers.
For example, in its recent “Deals for Developers” series of investigative reports, WAMU noted that of the top 20 land deals that they examined, the five largest subsidies went to the five development groups who had given the largest amount of political donations over a 10-year period. In perhaps the most egregious case, the District gave $95 million of land away for $1 to heavily politically-connected developers.
This nexus between political donations from a small group of developers and District officials, particularly DMPED, results in deals that are harmful to the public fiscally. They are an improper use of taxpayer dollars. In addition, many of these same deals are cornerstones of the process of gentrification that has generally been responsible for the inequality in access to housing, and a slew of benefits and services that coincide with “desirable” neighborhoods, which exists in the District today.
Further DMPED’s molding of policy – and investment – to a type of development that favors the politically well-connected and big business has neglected the District’s workers’ cooperative sector, which could play a valuable role in creating truly sustainable development alternatives.
In short, our development process is currently entirely inadequate. We hear a lot about big plans and see fancy PowerPoint presentations, but our District agencies do not act in a way to meet the needs, let alone optimize results, for residents who are not rich and powerful. This has resulted in clear harm, some of it irreparable to long-time and low-income District residents.
The D.C. Council could do a range of things to work toward alleviating these problems. To start:
- End corporate donations to political campaigns, enact public financing.
- Ensure fair dealing by enacting a law requiring public auctions for all public land.
- Ensure transparency by requiring that all communications between development teams and DMPED be released to the public within a set timeframe.
- Quell inside dealing by placing a 10-year ban on lobbying of any sort by former District employees.
- Make worker cooperatives a preferred contractor for city agencies
- Fund a feasibility study to explore the creation of a worker cooperative in a traditionally low-wage industry that has the potential to scale to 50-100 workers
- Provide city-owned land and buildings to worker cooperatives