Washington DC's lessons for Cape Town on spatial planning

Toni Griffin from Urban Planning for the American Cities. (Photo: TED Talks)
Toni Griffin from Urban Planning for the American Cities. (Photo: TED Talks)

When Anthony Williams became the mayor of Washington DC in 1999 it was during a time when the city started seeing positive economic growth and people started moving back from the suburbs to the inner city.

But Washington DC was a divided city, split down the middle along Rock Creek Park and the Potomac river. On the west side lived wealthier, white people and on the eastern sides were black people of many classes.

As the economy and the city continued to grow Williams could see investment was pushing east and the potential realities of gentrification were right within his sights. He knew that if he wanted to make Washington DC an inclusive city he would have to act proactively.

Last week, his deputy planning director at the time, Toni Griffin, visited Cape Town on invitation of the US Consulate General to share the interventions they made in Washington DC.

"We did a number of things related to our public housing supply which attempted to extend that portfolio of houses and tenure," explains Griffin, who now runs her own consultancy called Urban Planning for the American City.

"We facilitated what we call section 8 vouchers which allow people to find very low rents in buildings through a voucher where they can take it to a landlord who would accept it to allow them to pay a lower rent. We had had those programmes for a while, but they usually have expiration dates, so we had to get people to extend those rents to allow tenants to keep access to affordable housing."

The city also created housing trust funds which served as a funding pool that property developers could use if they agreed to put 20% of their units up as affordable to incomes of certain levels.

"When we were disposing of public land for private development we put requirements on the developer that they had to build in affordable housing. They also had to identify and include minority owned and women owned businesses as part of their teams – not only on the contracting side but also on the equity side," says Griffin.

Inclusionary zoning was also implemented. Because the city was effectively divided by race and class a lot of affordable and public housing was only available on the east side of the city, not on the west side of the city. Questions around why chronically distressed neighbourhoods should bear the burden of affordable housing brought city managers to the conclusion that if they really wanted Washington DC to be an inclusive city they needed to start distributing housing choice more evenly across the city.

"The first iteration of inclusionary zoning was a voluntary programme," says Griffin. "As a developer you could volunteer to do it and then by volunteering would get access to certain funding sources to help you with your development.

"We tested it, it worked really well, the market was getting stronger and so then we were in a position to make it mandatory."

There is now in certain neighbourhoods in Washington DC a provision that new construction in the private market has to participate in helping the city create more affordable housing and it's been working well.

While Griffin is hesitant to make specific recommendations to Cape Town, where spatial planning and inclusionary zoning is a major headache, she says there are many things a city can do to promote healthy, inclusionary development.

By way of example, she says some cities take payments from developers in lieu of taxes. Instead of paying taxes over a certain number of years, they pay an upfront amount and the city then uses that to put into a housing fund. The developers themselves can then use that fund for building affordable housing in other places.

Zoning concessions can also be made in return for assurances that whatever buildings are developed include affordable housing.

"There's no blanket solution that every city should pick up and drive. Every city has unique nuances that should drive the approaches that they take," says Griffin.

"The mayor put together a task force that was inclusive of us as policy makers but also developers and business sectors. Because as we were writing the policy, we needed to do it with them, so we could test where the temperament would be, as well as the financial challenges. We really worked that out together. It can't be just the government's plan to make a city more inclusive. It's done by government, the business sector, the non-profit sector and philanthropy. All four of those groups are the owner of the plan so it's better able to withstand political change because there's broader ownership in the work."

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