By Hamzat Sani, Special to the AFRO

In order to address the fears of underserved D.C. communities facing gentrification and displacement the government must embrace a new “operating system” emphasizing openness, collaboration and coordination across its agencies and external institutions.

This was the premise put forward by the panelists at the “A Better City for Who?: How Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance Can Benefit All D.C. Residents” a discussion put together by the Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute May 7. Panelists centered their discussion around the recently published, A New City O/S: The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance, by New York University professor Neil Kleiman and Harvard professor and former mayor of Indianapolis Stephen Goldsmith.

The cover to A New City O/S: The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance, by New York University professor Neil Kleiman and Harvard professor and former mayor of Indianapolis Stephen Goldsmith. Goldsmith was on the panel to speak about the book and the topic of distributed governance at the Aspen Institute May 7. (Courtesy Photo)

Goldsmith was on hand for the panel joined by D.C. Deputy Mayor for planning and Economic Development, Brian T. Kenner; 11th Street Bridge Park Director, Scott Kratz and Founding Director of the Aspen institute Center for Urban Innovation, Jennifer Bradley serving as moderator for the panel.

While Goldsmith’s book served as primary discussion material, Snowden provided context for the core of the discussion outlining the various programs in the D.C. government focused on underserved and low-income communities. In remarks made prior to the panel, she noted the struggle of keeping vulnerable communities from being alienated or displaced out of the enhanced vibrancy of the changing city. Touting projects like Aspire, the Uber Hub on Minnesota Avenue and decreased unemployment rates in wards 7 and 8.

“All of this only happened because there a was senior level person figuring out how we grow and build overlooked and underserved communities or do what I call, ‘help people gentrify in place.’ And ensure economic development happens with us and not to us.”

Goldsmith laid out the current hindrances to cultivating efficiency. “We’ve set up this system of government where in order to protect us against corruption we’ve limited the discretion of public employees. The way we’ve made it so they can’t abuse their discretion is that we’ve eliminated their discretion,” she said.

Noting that there now exists better tools to communicate, solve problems and collaborate with the public from the perspective of a government official, Goldsmith went on to explain, “Instead of acting in a routine fashion, government can identify outliers, it can predict gentrification, it can predict abandoned homes.”  This data can then inform the decision making process for communities looking to ensure that generational residents have the resources they need to age in place.

In his remarks Deputy Kenner highlighted the incremental changes in several D.C. neighborhoods since his arrival in the city in 1996 relaying the story of his car being broken to in Penn Quarter. Many of the traditional issues facing residents like public safety and education are getting better, however livability and affordable housing challenges remain resilient.

“The rent is too damn high no matter how much money you make in the District of Columbia. If you make six figures…you may not be able to live in the neighborhood you want to live in.”

The deputy mayor highlighted some of what D.C. has done so far to counter the affordability issue citing a rigorous set of restrictions on developers that forces them to build out almost 30% of every residential development as affordable housing units. He also countered the notion that residents in neighborhoods like Historic Anacostia or Congress Heights are requesting more affordable housing units arguing instead for market rate housing so that property values can increase and help anchor a strapped neighborhood economy.

Kratz discussed his work with the Bridge Park project to promote transparency and community buy-in towards creating an impact that is inclusive with viable equitable outcomes. A tangible outcome of the collaborative process with long-time residents is an Equitable Development Plan that builds in anti-displacement features so that all can partake in the build out and eventual prosperity of the state of the art park.

While a good number of weighty questions were tossed around by the panel, panelists made it clear that no one had an oracular look into what the future of cities would like or could make any guarantees that displacement would not continue as urban center become increasingly desirable. What did prevail however was the need for government to become smarter, more open and collaborative in the way they do business and engage with residents.