Revisiting a Green New Deal for DC in 2022
In 2022 we have a big opportunity to start implementing a comprehensive Green New Deal for DC. In revisiting this exciting prospect, we should take note of efforts elsewhere.
The global vision expressed by C40, an international network of 100 mayors, seeks “to protect our communities and our ecosystems from climate change, secure a just transition away from fossil fuels, and build equitable, sustainable economies.”
The DC Line
By David Schwartzman
January 31, 2022
In the U.S., there is growing support for Green New Deal (GND) programs. Michelle Wu won election as mayor of Boston based at least in part on her invocation of a Green New Deal for her city.
DC is already a recognized leader for climate and clean energy programs such as Solar for All. But big challenges remain in reducing our substantial wealth and income inequality and the associated negative impacts on health, particularly for low-income residents. Trickle-down austerity budgets for the last 20 years have resulted in shockingly high racial and economic disparities, including income and wealth inequality, life expectancy, poverty (especially child poverty), and homelessness.
In 2016 DC had a bigger life expectancy gap between white and Black residents than any state in the nation: Black males in DC had a life expectancy 17 years shorter than white males; for Black females, it was 12 years less than for white females. These are increases from 2000, when the gap was 15 years for men and 10 years for women — a particularly telling change. Given the disproportionate death rate from COVID-19 of Black residents, this racial gap in life expectancy is almost certainly even greater today. This fact alone demonstrates the utter failure of the DC government’s trickle-down economic policies to address persistent racial and economic disparities. Robust evidence demonstrates that income inequality drives bad health.
Thankfully, last summer the DC Council — despite the initial opposition of Mayor Muriel Bowser and Chairman Phil Mendelson — took a historically important step in creating the capacity to address these disparities by hiking DC’s income tax rates for wealthy residents. This was a long-overdue overhaul of our tax structure that moves it toward more progressivity. Owing to broad community support, this legislation was passed unanimously without a mayoral veto. Make no mistake, this tax hike was a clear rejection of the long-standing agenda of the Federal City Council, the powerful lobby of the big corporate, banking and development sector; it may well be the first significant defeat of that agenda in many years, if ever. As such, it opened up a potential path to a just recovery that would make DC into a global leader among cities in environmental, economic and social justice.
While DC statehood remains elusive for now given the current political context, implementing a GND for DC in the meantime would reduce longtime disparities, empower the struggle for statehood, and create a more just foundation for the new state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.
In order to build a stronger and more assertive local movement, we need to center the ongoing struggle for economic, social and environmental human rights in DC. By doing so, we may be able to make the denial of our fundamental political rights even more of an embarrassment nationally and internationally — much as segregation and lynching were during the Cold War, leading to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. We should take note of the truly visionary constitution of 1982, drafted by a convention of elected delegates and approved by DC voters. We must make sure that the same rights are included in any new constitution to be created by elected delegates at a convention no more than two years after achieving statehood (for more on this, see my video “Forward to a Just Recovery and DC Statehood!“).
What follows are potential initiatives that could be components of a GND for DC. It is important to recognize the interconnections between these projects and proposals, as well as the imperative of a broad, bottom-up process of review and participation in their implementation.
- The passage of a rank-the-vote system in our elections would undercut the heavy weight of campaign financing from big-money interests, complementing the present opportunity for public financing of DC’s elections. It would also provide more political diversity in our local elected government. At-large DC Council member Christina Henderson has introduced a bill on the subject.
- DC should finally implement a vote for non-citizens for local elections, starting with those having green cards for permanent residence, following the example of New York City. Last June, Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau introduced a bill to make this possible.
- The DC Council’s repeal of voter-approved Initiative 77, which would have raised pay for tipped workers, is now being challenged with the collection of registered voters’ signatures for a new ballot measure — Initiative 82. This initiative seeks to eliminate the sub-minimum tipped wage of $5.05 per hour, and ensure all tipped workers receive DC’s full minimum wage of at least $15.20 plus tips on top.
- Initiatives for public banks have been gaining momentum around the nation, with efforts in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New Jersey among the most notable. The DC Public Banking Center succeeded in getting the DC Council to commission a feasibility study. The results were released in May 2020 and, among other findings, indicated potential benefits to using a public bank to leverage DC tax revenue in partnership with local banks and credit unions to promote green affordable housing and jobs. This opportunity should be followed up ASAP. Let’s bank our tax revenue locally instead of keeping it in Wall Street banks with little benefit for our local community.
- Now that DC has launched a pilot project for guaranteed income, boosting the income support for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) would be an important step in achieving a basic income. Inadequate income support for TANF is a policy failure that allows the persistence of child poverty in DC — a serious problem, especially in wards 7 and 8, with a lasting negative impact on children and their families, as well as the whole DC community. Child poverty and homelessness are major factors in undermining school performance. The 2021 TANF income benefit in DC was 36.0% of the federal poverty level. Corrected for inflation, the DC TANF income benefit has declined 6% since 1996. Coupled with the already scheduled increase in the DC Earned Income Tax Credit, a long-overdue boost in TANF income support would be an important step toward an unconditional guaranteed basic income, funded by both local and federal sources.
Affordable housing and homelessness:
- Social housing offers a great opportunity to provide desperately needed affordable housing to all income groups, particularly those in the low- to middle-income bracket. The concept combines government financing with affordable rents going to maintenance rather than developer profits. Attorney Will Merrifield, an independent at-large DC Council candidate in 2020, provided a valuable introduction to this critical initiative. If combined with community land trusts such as the one already at work in Ward 8 and elsewhere in the city, social housing could provide a way to break with the failure of trickle-down solutions to solve the affordable housing crisis in DC.
- Merrifield’s campaign also proposed solutions to the crisis of homelessness in DC. Key among them are ending developer giveaways, clawing back their subsidies, and repairing public housing to green standards with local dollars supplemented by federal funding — a proposal inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a “Green New Deal for Public Housing.”
- Implementing the District Opportunity to Purchase (DOPA) program focusing on the 3,000 vacant or blighted properties in DC could provide a sizable amount of affordable housing for the homeless. The District already has the tax base to end chronic homelessness, as emphasized by Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing DC.
- The type of luxury development favored by the new DC Comprehensive Plan only perpetuates the process of gentrification and displacement, harming longtime District residents while benefiting out-of-town developers, politically connected insiders and a fortunate few. To move toward truly equitable and green development, we should take some lessons from the failures that led to the current McMillan redevelopment project. In doing so, we should revisit the flawed development approval process; require competitive bidding that emphasizes acknowledgment of and respect for the history and culture of the site and surrounding area; mandate that development plans at McMillan (and elsewhere) consider environmental impact; and include low-income housing and community-focused features like libraries and recreational spaces.
- After an unsuccessful attempt to block Exelon’s takeover of Pepco in 2016, activists have shown growing interest in municipalizing DC’s utilities to serve the public’s interest rather than shareholders’ profits. We Power DC — “a coalition of community members and organizations fighting for public power in the District” — seeks to provide public power to ensure that a clean, affordable and equitable energy system is available for every DC resident.
- Beyond Gas, another ongoing effort, seeks to replace DC’s dependence on natural gas — the fossil fuel with the highest greenhouse gas footprint — by shifting to electric heating and cooking systems. A recent study shows that DC’s gas leaks to the atmosphere are worsening compared to seven years ago.
- Recent research documented that residents in DC’s predominantly Black wards — the site of commuter routes such as New York Avenue NE and DC 295 — bear the heaviest burden from air pollution, most of which is generated from driving. The transportation sector’s air pollution and carbon emissions could be sharply reduced by shifting ridership from cars to public transit, especially if service is powered by electricity derived from wind or solar sources. Providing free and accessible public transit would be a strong incentive for this shift in ridership. Ward 6 DC Council member Charles Allen proposed legislation in 2020 to give DC residents $100 monthly to use for public transportation. Though the pandemic intervened, he reintroduced the bill this past fall with broad support from his colleagues, as shown by co-sponsorship by 10 of the council’s 13 members.
- While federal funding is now available to speed up the removal of lead-based paint as well as lead pipes in DC’s water supply, the DC government has lagged woefully behind in addressing this challenge. The city must speed up its implementation of lead removal efforts, at the very least supplying public housing residents with lead-free bottled water while mitigation is ongoing.
- Evidence has emerged that fish and shellfish from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River contain high levels of PFAS — widely used perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoralkyl “forever” chemicals, which don’t break down in the environment and are linked to cancer. Unlike most states, the DC government has not established regulations for PFAS in food, water and household products. It should do so.
- The New Deal of the 1930s brought any number of cultural innovations. Drawing inspiration from this history, the DC Statehood Green Party’s perennial candidate for mayor — the late Faith — promoted a New Deal concept for arts and culture in DC, focusing on programs in DC’s public schools. Strengthening the existing programs in DCPS, in partnership with the Kennedy Center and the DC Collaborative, would be a strong step to realizing this vision.
This is an ambitious array of proposals for a Green New Deal for DC, requiring considerable discussion and fine-tuning for implementation. However, initiatives addressing the health of DC residents — particularly children — and those already with pending legislation and existing support both deserve and need priority attention. There is a tremendous amount of untapped energy within our population that could be channeled toward creating a more just DC. I look forward to an ongoing dialogue that moves us toward that goal.
David Schwartzman chairs the DC Statehood Green Party’s Political Policy & Action Committee.