AG Racine Announces New Focus on Advocating for the Public Interest in Zoning and Development Cases

This Public Interest Focus Will Prioritize the Protection of Affordable Housing for the District’s Most Vulnerable Residents

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today announced that the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is taking on a new role of advocating for affordable housing, racial equity, and environmental justice in the zoning, land use, and related development processes. Previously, OAG was solely required to provide confidential legal counsel to the Zoning Commission or Board of Zoning Adjustment around land use and development in the District—responsibilities that have been transferred to the Office of Zoning.  

In this new role, AG Racine is already calling on the Zoning Commission to take several actions to enable more long-term residents to access affordable housing in the District by making inclusionary housing units more affordable, expanding the zones in which developers must provide inclusionary housing units, and incentivizing the creation of affordable housing. These new actions further build on OAG’s work to support vulnerable tenants in cases challenging housing conditions, which are often used to push out long-term District residents. 

“The District has grown dramatically over the last several years with significant benefits, but too often, this growth has hurt and pushed out long-term and low-income residents,” said AG Racine. “As the first elected attorney general I’ve leaned into our public interest mission, and have worked to stand up for those who have been left behind by this growth—workers in the construction industry whose wages have been stolen or tenants who have been pushed out by squalid conditions and deliberate neglect to make way for newer, richer residents. My office has always had tremendous expertise in complex issues of zoning and land use, and I’m proud that we are now using this knowledge to level the playing field between wealthy developers and long-term residents. We will use this authority to advance racial equity, environmental justice, and most importantly, as reflected by today’s actions, housing affordability for long-term District residents.”  

Until earlier this year, OAG’s Land Use Section served as the legal counsel to the Zoning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which restricted the Land Use Section’s role to providing confidential legal advice without the ability to advocate for OAG’s public policy goals. Those responsibilities were transferred to the Office of Zoning in October 2021. 

With the transfer of those responsibilities, the Land Use Section will now advocate for the public interest before the Commission and the Board. OAG will do so by ensuring that the interests of all District residents are represented in zoning proceedings and by advocating for OAG’s policy goals, including affordable housing, environmental justice, and racial equity.  

To do so, AG Racine also sent letters to all Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners explaining the new mission of OAG’s Land Use Section and seeking to collaborate with ANCs to level the playing field between developers and District residents in these critical decisions. The letter is available here. The Land Use Section also welcomes the input of community organizations and advocacy groups on how it can best protect vulnerable District residents.  

As part of this new mission, OAG today called on the Zoning Commission to make regulatory changes that would support more affordable housing in the District and better hold developers accountable, largely by making changes to the District’s inclusionary zoning program—which requires affordable units in most new developments. The proposed rule changes, known as text amendments, would:

  • Lower the income thresholds for inclusionary zoning so that the lowest-income residents can access housing: Many long-term residents are being priced out of their communities because the income levels to qualify for affordable units has risen over the last 15 years. These critical thresholds have steadily risen over that period as wealthier residents have moved into the District, which in turn has meant that the neediest District residents have found it more difficult to secure affordable housing. OAG’s proposed text amendment would deepen the affordability levels in the inclusionary zoning program for both home ownership and rental units. A copy of OAG’s Text Amendment Petition to the Zoning Commission is available here.
  • Require additional housing benefits when developers move affordable units off site: OAG’s proposed text amendment would strengthen the inclusionary zoning program by requiring that projects proposing to provide required affordable units off-site—that is, somewhere other than the building where the remainder of the new units are built—provide a greater affordable housing benefit in the off-site development. The inclusionary zoning program was designed to create inclusive, mixed-income developments. However, developers are allowed, under the rules, to place some units in a different location. When they do so, they face no penalties or trade-offs under existing rules. Under OAG’s proposal, developers who wanted to move affordable units off-site would have to provide more affordable units, units at deeper levels of affordability, or larger affordable units that are critical to ensuring that lower-income families can stay in the District. A copy of OAG’s Text Amendment Petition to the Zoning Commission is available here.
  • Remove the outdated exemption from the requirements of the inclusionary zoning program for the downtown area: Much of the District’s downtown areas are exempt from the affordable housing requirements of the inclusionary zoning program, allowing major projects to be constructed without providing any affordable units. OAG’s proposed text amendment would remove this outdated exemption, thereby requiring projects in these transit-accessible and amenity-rich downtown areas to provide affordable units, resulting in more inclusive and diverse development in the District’s central core. OAG requests the Commission to take emergency action to close this loophole before developers build out these areas without providing affordable housing, including a proposed 520-unit, all market-rate building under consideration by the Commission next week, which OAG’s petition would require to provide approximately 50 affordable units. A copy of OAG’s Text Amendment Petition to the Zoning Commission is available here.
  • Incentivize additional affordable housing by exempting affordable units from minimum parking requirements: OAG’s proposed text amendment would exempt affordable units from minimum parking requirements, which significantly increase the cost of residential construction and often limit developments from using all available height and density. This would incentivize developers to add affordable units by eliminating one barrier to such development and would shift the costs of providing parking to subsidize affordable housing. A copy of OAG’s Text Amendment Petition to the Zoning Commission is available here.

The Land Use Section anticipates filing additional petitions to improve zoning regulations and advocating for the public interest in individual zoning cases.