Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) meetings are a place for making important decisions in Washington, DC, and the people who actually fill the seats can have a big impact on their neighborhood. Commissioners also have a real opportunity to consider who's not there, and what their needs and interests are.
A couple months ago, I went to the ANC 3E meeting in Tenleytown, mostly to learn more about the status of this project that lost three floors and over 50 units of housing because of neighborhood pressure. There were more than 40 people in the room... and more than 50 seats left empty.
Whose seats are those? Of course there are many more in the neighborhood that could engage and that aren't, and we can and should do a better job of getting those people out. But what about the residents who aren't in the seats because they aren't here yet? Last year, a net of 1,000+ new residents arrived to town every month (the actual number moving here is much higher, but the amount of people leaving is high too). Who is speaking for them at these meetings that determine whether their potential housing is built or not?
In DC, ANC meetings can shape housing policy
If there is a war around expanding our housing stock at multiple affordability levels, then the battlefields of that war are ANC meetings. This is where buildings gain or lose floors, and where zoning changes knock down potential development.
Though ANCs have little official political power, District officials do have to give their opinions "great weight," meaning they have a lot of influence with agencies like the Zoning Commission. Commissioners who testify for or against certain developments often have significant impacts on rulings. Moreover, a single commissioner can use his or her position to control the topics of public meetings, to delay or investigate development processes, or to negotiate on behalf of the community. Commissioners' influence is far reaching.
When ANC commissioners take the oath of office, they not only pledge to serve in the interest of their neighborhood constituents. They also pledge that they "will exercise [their] best judgment and will consider each matter before [them] from the viewpoint of the best interest of the District of Columbia as a whole."
Commissioners who don't consider the needs of next month's, next year's, and next decade's residents are not fulfilling their oath.
The status quo won't look out for everyone
Of course, even the commissioners who do want to consider future residents are in store for some challenges.
One thing commissioners have to be cautious of is not letting the loudest people in the room shape a neighborhood's direction. ANC meetings can be terrible; they can drag on for hours, and are sometimes full of bitter exchanges between neighbors or boring minutiae. That can often mean that only those with free time and familiarity with the system show up, and decision-makers wind up in an echo chamber, even if they're actually just hearing from a vocal minority.
People who work night jobs or two jobs, people who have kids to take care of, or people who simply can't spend four hours listening to debate about liquor licenses so they can speak for five minutes about the building down the block—these people still have opinions that should inform what ANCs do.
We have to look out for tomorrow's neighbors
We need more ways to make sure that next month's 1,000 and the other empty chairs have a voice in our local decisions and politics. I wrote in my introduction to this community that blogging wasn't always enough. I'm an organizer, so I believe strongly that sometimes you have to show up and speak up to get what you want.
But how do you organize people who aren't here yet? I'm normally against speaking for people; I'd rather share the mic and let them use their own voice to say what they want to say. But in this case, we need more people who are here today to step up to the mic for those who are coming tomorrow.
As mentioned in the Washington Post not long ago, cities just don't fill up. The idea that there is no room for more housing is fantasy; the idea that there is no political room to build more housing is reality. Growth is coming to our city and region; we must focus on how to shape our cities to accommodate this growth in equitable, beautiful, and smart ways.
Groups around the country are starting to form to fight for the needs of the newcomers and the often-excluded. In other words: more housing at diverse affordability levels. These YIMBY groups are gathering for an inaugural national conference to share strategy, learn from and engage with each other. Greater Greater Washington is excited to be there. We know what we need; how to get there is our next question.
In the meantime, neighborhood leaders, next time you sit in a meeting with empty seats, keep the next 1,000 in mind.