Gray: Economic Development Plan Bearing Fruit

Barrington M. Salmon | 12/23/2013, 3 p.m.
The District of Columbia is riding the wave of an economic boon that going into its second year has produced ...
During a recent press conference, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said about 1,100 people a month are moving into the District. He touted the city's education reform and talked about his mandate to provide affordable housing.

Lang acknowledged that the District still faces a number of challenges, including unemployment, primarily in Wards 5, 7 and 8, a skills-to-jobs mismatch, high rents and expensive real estate.

Last month, Gray announced that the city had expanded an original $100 million investment in affordable housing to a total of $187 million allocated to finance 47 projects over the next two years. The projects are designed to preserve or create 3,200 units of affordable housing across the District in neighborhoods as varied as Columbia Heights in Northwest and Congress Heights in Southeast, and East Capitol Street and Benning Road in Northeast.

Gray has promised to build or maintain 10,000 affordable housing units by 2020 which is estimated to cost upwards of $500 million.

“We’ve put some serious skin in the game,” Gray said during the press conference. “There’s too much at stake not to be committed to what was proposed.”

The District has for the most part, become a city of renters because of a housing shortage. In addition, many people lost or walked away from their homes during the housing meltdown due to unemployment and foreclosure, and would-be buyers faced stiffer bank requirements and larger down payments needed to secure mortgage loans.

What’s at stake is the need to balance the needs of those able to afford apartments that go for anywhere from $2,500-$3,500 a pop, and houses that fetch $900,000 to more than a million dollars each and the rest of working Washington.

“I don’t just want this to be one city, I want it to be an affordable city,” Gray said.

The mayor maintains that providing a quality education and developing a reliable and skilled workforce remains tied to any hopes city officials have for the District’s continued growth and development.

“Our test scores are improving and we have the most robust early childhood education in the country,” he said. “It will make a huge difference in the development of children. It improves the chances of positive outcomes … we’re building new schools and renovating others.”

Gray, 71, cited examples of the push to think out of the box in terms of job skills and training. There’s the D.C. Culinary Incubator which is training candidates in food service and hospitality; 1776, which houses 175 start-ups, including 64 international companies; and Union Kitchen, which provides jobs, financing and training, has created more than 300 positions and whose members operate 19 brick-and-mortar culinary businesses in the District.

The mayor said the city has just invested an additional $3.5 million in school funds for projects that provide tech, medical and hospital training for young people.

“On many occasions, this city has been beaten down but we’re good, we’re good, we’re good, we’ve been doing well as a city,” said Gray. “We are a talented city and need to use that horsepower to keep our city moving.”

Gray said that his administration’s goals include reducing what he called “retail leakage” – keeping money in D.C.; making the District the most business-friendly city in the country; creating the largest technology center on the East Coast; attracting foreign investment here; and establishing a best-in-class medical center in the city.

From a business and tax and revenue perspective, however, there are any number of holes the District of Columbia needs to fill, Gray explained. District residents spend about a billion dollars in retail purchases in surrounding jurisdictions; Congress prohibits the District taxing income on non-residents who work in the city and use its services; nor can the District impose a commuter tax on non-residents who work in the city; only 30 percent of the workers in the District are local residents; and Congress continues to limit the city’s autonomy and self-sufficiency.

All these issues leave Washington, D.C. at a competitive disadvantage, but with the coalition of university, private-sector, civil and social entities advising him and a concentrated focus on accountability, public safety, education and developing a “green” city, Gray said the District’s future remains bright.

“We have tried to deliver on the promises we’ve made. We have a coordinated economic development strategy to move the city forward … this city is growing and I know that this administration is a huge part of [bringing] us here. But the work is unfinished – we still have a lot of work to do.”