Congress Heights
March 04, 2024

Partnering with Residents on Racial Equity: Congress Heights Metro Apartments


Applying a Racial Equity Lens to Affordable Housing Development

In early 2024, NHT was presented with an opportunity to expressly apply a racial equity lens to our planned redevelopment of Congress Heights Metro Apartments (Congress Heights) - a soon-to-be affordable housing new construction property located in Southeast Washington, D.C. The required racial equity evaluation (per D.C. policy) prompted NHT to examine how project components – such as increased affordability on-site, higher energy efficiency standards and solar panels, and other design considerations – would result in racially equitable outcomes. The process of applying a racial equity lens to an affordable housing development effort highlights how organizations committed to advancing racial equity can bring a more intentional focus through the development process to deliver better outcomes for residents.

Demonstrating Racially Equitable Outcomes

In February 2024, the D.C. Zoning Commission approved NHT’s design plans, which included the insights gained from our racial equity analysis, for the development of Congress Heights. Since 2022, the D.C. Zoning Commission has required developers to demonstrate how their project design and process would result in racially equitable outcomes. As an organization committed to working with our residents and community members to ensure equitable long-term development of affordable housing, NHT was pleased to share how the project design would not only result in new affordable homes for residents, but would simultaneously advance racial equity.

Zoning and land-use policies have played a central role in exacerbating racial, economic, and housing disparities across the US. Although explicit race-based zoning was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1917, racist land-use and zoning policies continued across the country through redlining, racial covenants, apartment bans and large-lot minimums, and exclusionary single-family zoning. In recent years, cities like Washington, D.C., New York City, Boston, Seattle, Louisville, KY as well as Montgomery County, MD have implemented a racial equity lens or fair housing requirement to all zoning changes in an attempt to address the impacts of zoning and land use reform on historically marginalized communities. 

Our Development Approach

Congress Heights will deliver 179 units of transit-accessible, affordable, sustainable housing. In our request to the D.C. Zoning Commission for approval of the design plans, NHT brought attention to the following aspects of our development approach to Congress Heights, which advance racial equity through both process and outcome:

  1. The Congress Heights Resident Association actively participated in designing the building and identifying community organizations to receive financial support.

    Racial equity can be most powerful when the process of achieving it is led by those most impacted by structural racism. That is certainly the case in this effort where NHT has been in discussions with the Resident Association at Congress Heights -- all of whom are Black / African American households -- about the potential for redevelopment of the property since 2015. After NHT acquired ownership of the property in 2021, we have continued our partnership with the Resident Association to ensure that they are integrally involved in the final design of their homes. Given the condition of the original property, NHT and the Resident Association together acknowledged the need to demolish and redevelop the Congress Heights property. Including residents in the design process simultaneously empowers residents and ensures that the final development meets their needs. 

    NHT also expanded the architectural planning process to include more charrettes and design meetings to ensure that residents’ needs and interests were included. In addition to resident participation, neighborhood organizations such as the Advisory Neighborhood Committee (ANC) and the Congress Heights Community Association also had an opportunity to provide input in the design. NHT committed funding to allow for more community meetings and presentations during the design stage of this redevelopment to make the process more inclusive, resulting in a more equitable development approach that better served neighborhood needs. The Resident Association also identified two local organizations doing critical work to support the community and its needs. NHT will provide $300,000 over 15 years to the two organizations identified by residents as critical neighborhood partners, to support their ongoing work in and commitment to the community.
  2. NHT not only ensured a no net loss of existing affordable units at Congress Heights, but increased the supply of affordable housing by 170 percent, totaling 179 units. 

    Racial equity can be achieved through targeted actions and investments that materially enhance the lives of residents in ways that begin to offset the effects of prior disinvestment and exclusion. With the nearby redevelopment of the St. Elizabeth’s East campus, there is increasing redevelopment pressure on Congress Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods that have historically been naturally affordable. Once completed, Congress Heights will be an important mixed-income anchor for the rapidly-changing area around the Congress Heights Metro station, bringing new economic access and opportunity to residents. A new development of this scale, however, also risks displacing long-time residents as a result of rising rents and home sale prices for properties within ½ mile of the Congress Heights Metro station. (NHT’s Congress Heights property is located directly at the southern entrance of the Metro station.) 

    To combat this, NHT’s development plan envisions a mixed-income property where the vast majority of the units will be priced to be affordable for households earning less than 50 percent area median income (AMI), near the current neighborhood median income. The final development will also deliver units for households earning 80 percent of AMI, providing more options for neighborhood residents with higher incomes, as well as a small number of units for people earning 30 percent AMI and ten units reserved for permanent supportive housing for families experiencing homelessness. With this mix of affordability, NHT is able to better serve the full spectrum of housing needs of existing and future neighborhood residents.  Finally, and most importantly, the redevelopment provides a guaranteed right of return for the existing Resident Association households, meaning that the redevelopment and new construction will result in no permanent displacement.
  3. Congress Heights will be Enterprise Green Communities-certified with on-site solar panels, creating healthier homes and lower utility bills for residents. 

    The impacts of climate change disproportionately burden communities of color and low-income households. Across our portfolio, NHT works to ensure that lower-income communities benefit from healthier and more energy-efficient homes with on-site renewable energy production to mitigate the cost and volatility of utility service. 

    At Congress Heights, our redevelopment plan charts a course to achieve higher energy efficiency standards than what was previously proposed to the Zoning Commission, due to both higher D.C. standards and NHT's own sustainability practices and goals. The building was originally approved to be developed to meet LEED Silver certification but NHT's latest request includes a plan to instead achieve Enterprise Green Communities (EGC) Plus Certification, a higher energy efficiency standard designed specifically for affordable housing. NHT also intends to add solar panels to the rooftop, providing an opportunity for on-site renewable energy production which reduces utility costs for residents and  operating costs for NHT, freeing up valuable resources to reinvest in the property and provide services for residents. Furthermore, the use of renewable energy systems and sources in affordable housing will help to deliver healthier indoor air quality and more reliable and resilient power.

NHT is pleased that the Zoning Commission approved our development plan for Congress Heights, enabling us to deliver on our promise to support current residents and the larger community. After demolishing the four uninhabitable buildings in 2023, we're excited to start construction on the 179 new apartment homes and ground-floor retail this spring. As illustrated above, NHT is committed to advancing racial equity through our development approach by taking active steps to ensure that people of color can call quality and safe affordable housing home and by engaging in thoughtful and consistent partnership with residents and the Congress Heights community. As a result, NHT continues to provide a model for equitable redevelopment to support thriving tenancy for our residents and communities in Washington, D.C.

Moha Thakur
Moha Thakur

Public Policy & Mid-Atlantic Initiatives Manager