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Opinion | D.C.’s affordable housing rules should include downtown

The Dec. 16 Metro article “Officials offer tax relief to turn vacant offices into apartments,” which covered D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) celebration of the future of housing in downtown D.C., reported that there is nearly 22 million square feet of empty office space in the District. The pandemic has accelerated the shift to remote work, leaving many downtown offices empty, especially those in older buildings. Some of that space is already being converted to residential use, such as the former Peace Corps headquarters at 1111 20th St. NW, the site of the mayor’s announcement.

Offices are no longer the sole best use of downtown space. The Committee of 100 on the Federal City has long advocated for expanding the city’s Inclusionary Zoning Program to the currently exempt downtown area. Under that program, developers are required to set aside a share of new residential projects for affordable units; no subsidies are provided. We support a livable and diverse downtown and are encouraged that there is movement in that direction. However, we question the wisdom of providing tax abatements to developers for new residential projects in the central business district that set aside 15 percent of units as affordable. Though the tax incentives the mayor is proposing would appear modest in the aggregate, we are concerned that this will become a slippery slope with increasing fiscal demands on the city.

The values of many downtown office buildings are sinking. As landowners see this trend, many are exploring converting the spaces to residential. The affordable housing rules applicable to all other parts of the city should apply downtown as well.

The writer is chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

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