Is Washington, D.C. finally about to become a state?

Washington, D.C., yesterday. Image: public domain.

While Americans go to the polls on 8 November to elect a new president, the residents of Washington, DC will also vote on a slightly lesser known issue - whether their district should become a state.

The District of Columbia is unique in this denial of its civil rights. DC does neither have full control of its local affairs, nor voting representation in the House of Representatives. As the nation’s capital, it falls under the direct jurisdiction of the US Congress.

Over the years, a political movement has formed calling for statehood. There have been many fruitless attempts towards statehood,  the most recent in 1982, when citizens were last consulted on the issue. The effort went largely ignored by Congress…

Will this referendum be different? DC Mayor Muriel Bowser hopes so. Her idea for an advisory referendum plan and a state constitution was unveiled back in April. A draft document was debated, and in October the city council approved the proposed constitution should the district became a state.

The initial name ‘New Columbia’ has been dropped for the simpler ‘State of Washington D.C.’ - D.C. standing for Douglass Commonwealth, in honour of the abolitionist reformer Frederick Douglass.

So how would DC become a state?

DC can do so by either amending the US constitution, or by having Congress pass a bill that would grant the district state rights. Many believe constitutional amendment is necessary, however, Alan B. Morrison, the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service at George Washington University, asserts that technically “no amendment to the US constitution is required for DC statehood.”

Hence, Mayor Bowser is pursuing option two. The plan would follow the steps of the process used in 1796 to admit Tennessee as the 16th US State, that included establishing and ratifying a constitution and establishing necessary governance means such as selection of delegates and representatives.

Were a possible future state to be formed, a constitutional convention to allow residents to fine-tune the document would be held – a last-minute DC Council requirement that vindicated Bowser’s critics for drafting a state constitution with limited citizen input.

Who wants statehood?

Statehood approvals within the District of Columbia are at record high, with recent polls pegging them at 70 per cent. However nationwide, the approval only amounts to around 27 per cent.

President Obama expressed his support for statehood in 2014, though more recently he has been accused of remaining silent on the issue. The Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has promised to be a vocal champion for D.C. statehood if elected president. Naturally, DC Republicans have been supportive too. Yet, at the national level, the GOP oppose the plan aggressively, while Donald Trump also appears to be reluctantly against

Muriel Bowser has been mounting the pressure. In April For the first time in 200 years, the DC Council has challenged Congress over its power to approve the local city budget. The Mayor and Council planned to implement a $13 billion spending plan without congressional approval. Yet, soon afterwards the Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee advanced a bill to block the city from enacting the measure. Subsequently Mayor Bowser maintained that such difficulties with Congress helped demonstrate the need to make the city the 51st state.

What happens after the election?

The morale boost of a decisive statehood backing would be immense. DC voters have not expressed themselves about statehood for 34 years. The referendum is both a means to gauge public opinion and a tool to put pressure on Congress by acknowledging that the three pre-conditions for statehood are met: a state constitution, boundaries, and acceptance of a representative form of government by a majority of the city's residents.

Still, it will take determination to get Congress to go along with DC statehood.  The biggest obvious barrier to achieving statehood is Republicans in Congress. “As long as they have a majority—or strong minority—in either chamber, they're not going to let it go forward,” says Washingtonian staff writer Ben Freed, who covers local politics. “For states that lean Republican, the likelihood of two more democratic senators will be a problem,” agrees Alan B. Morrison.

Mayor Bowser is hoping for a more favourable political environment – especially if the Democrats gain control of both the House of Representatives and Senate. However, even that wouldn’t be a silver bullet to statehood, as also Democrats have proven fickle with regards to this issue.

Alan B. Morrison believes that the biggest challenge in achieving statehood is “getting the word out and getting others interested in our plight.” It is important that people understand “how unfair the current regime is,” he says and stresses the unfortunate situation in which DC residents pay federal taxes and serve in the army but have no say in their government (hence the famous slogan Taxation without representation).

But there are other barriers, too. Quite simply, DC is not ready to be a state because it is not equipped to carry out many of the functions that states are expected to. “The elements of statehood fall into two categories. One can be called the ‘levers of democracy,’ like budget autonomy and changing the attorney-general position from an appointed one to an elected one,” explains Ben Freed, adding that there is also “the public services residents of states expect from their governments.”

DC does not fund its own judicial system. Criminal prosecutions are handled by the US attorney's office, courts are paid for with federal funds, and convicted criminals are housed in jails all over the country. Nor does it have a reputable public research university that can attract top-tier academic talent. “Quite simply, even if we're emotionally ready for statehood, we're not structurally prepared,” he says.

Even if statehood attempts do not succeed, there are steps that could improve today’s deadlock. Allowing the district’s representative in Congress to vote would be a brilliant first step that would allow for direct representation. An overwhelming win in next week’s referendum would certainly help. As Washingtonian’s Freed puts it: “the moral case for statehood is unimpeachable.” 

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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