Since Anthony Williams was elected D.C. mayor in 1998 the city has been growing. I remember Williams making a bold prediction in 2003 that within 10 years the city’s population would grow by 100,000. People laughed and didn’t take him seriously. When he made the prediction in 2003, the city’s population was at a low point of 566,000. By 2013 the population had grown by nearly 84,000, today we are at 672,000 people.
We are a vibrant and exciting city. In recent years, D.C. was considered the No. 1 place for college graduates to move. It is a great place for families and empty nesters. We have wonderful restaurants, theaters, museums, generally good transportation, good recreational opportunities, and an improving school system. We are a city for cyclists and you don’t need a car to get around.
With all this has come a building boom. New apartments, office buildings and hotels. Gentrification with all its good and bad points is occurring in all eight wards. Everyone wants to be here and build here.
So you must question why the District is still giving huge tax breaks to developers. Why should taxpayer money be given to developers when investing and building in the District is a winner for them? Some developers are doing great things and should be applauded. In return for concessions in their High Line project, Level 2 Development is donating approximately $1.4 million and in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, D.C. will build 13 new off-site homes in the area.
There are still reasons to award tax abatements to developers. One is to guarantee they hire city residents to build their projects and for permanent jobs when they are built. This is good economic development policy particularly in a city that despite the boom still has large pockets of unemployed residents. Another reason would be to spur development in areas that still lag behind.
To understand why D.C. government would give a builder incentives to employ District residents one has to recognize while the national unemployment rate is down to 5 percent, in the poorest Wards of the District it is still nearly 14 percent.
This issue had come to the forefront for many residents in the city because of the audit report released by City Auditor Kathy Patterson. It was reported in the Washington Post she said, “The District government is failing to ensure that developers fulfill pledges they make in exchange for tax benefits and loans and hasn’t collected potential monetary penalties since the mid-1980s as a result.”
It would seem when a project gets final approval and the District has either loaned the developer money or given a tax break of some kind in return for concessions by the developer the government would monitor the developer closely from the time the project gets underway to ensure they are keeping their end of the bargain.
One developer’s apparent lack of keeping its commitment is coming to light in an Adams Morgan project, the Line Hotel, now under construction. It was reported that “District officials learned that the developer was not meeting hiring requirements only after a community leader, Bryan Weaver, complained to D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), whose district includes the neighborhood. Legislation required the hotel’s developer, the Sydell Group, to hire 342 D.C. residents for construction jobs on the project to receive the tax abatement.” Further it was reported, “Deborah Carroll, director of the Department of Employment Services said she was unaware of the tax abatement and the accompanying hiring requirement until Nadeau brought it to her attention this past spring.”
Now we know this problem goes back for many administrations well before Muriel Bowser became mayor. But it is Mayor Bowser who needs to address and correct this problem for now and for the future.
There must be a list developed of every project that has been given approval to move forward in the District; though I can’t believe there isn’t already one. Then next to each project must be the details of any loans or tax incentives or abatements given and what concessions were either given to or gotten from the developer.
Then it must be someone in government’s job to check on the progress of each development every three months until the project is completed to see if commitments were met. If they weren’t, then penalties must be assessed. After all, this is taxpayer money we are talking about.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.