Yesterday I spent part of the day driving around Wards 7 and 8, seeking to better understand the landscape of basic goods and services in the area. While I reside in Ward 8 and like to think that I know east-of-the-river well, I complete most of my errands after work in Tenleytown, Capitol Hill, or in Arlington. Although the debate over the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA) is sold to us by pro-LRAA advocates as a battle to define what constitutes “security” in a city with an ever increasing cost of living, to me, it appears that the debate is a reflection of broader changes occurring in the city. Many new residents of Petworth, Columbia Heights, and Trinidad (and where most of my closest friends reside) support LRAA, yet seemed disinterested in similar living wage and community benefits agreement conversations prior to the opening of the Target in Columbia Heights or the Rhode Island Avenue metro development. How do we make sense of this dynamic? Are pro-LRAA advocates in favor of major anti-poverty efforts or is it a part of a modified, quality of life-oriented campaign?
While a living wage is important, there are numerous factors that contribute to security for the poorest residents in the District of Columbia (those said to be the intended beneficiaries of the LRAA), and on these issues, many council members and District residents receive failing grades, whether it is addressing violence, HIV prevention, affordable housing development, or transportation equity. For example, when WMATA ended the transit subsidy for parts of Ward 8 in 2011, increased bus fares, and continues to reduce non-peak and late night service—all of which disproportionately impacts minority and low-income residents--there was little push back. So now as some council members and residents of the city urge Mayor Gray to sign LRAA, their purported motivation rings a bit hollow to me.
Is LRAA merely a gift to the unions representing some grocery store employees, as has been suggested? Perhaps. Both the Washington City Paper and the Washington Post have run fine pieces on the topic. I generally support unions; however, I do not think they are always the best representatives of worker's voices and interests. In addition, the nature of LRAA's shell game—coming after CBAs were agreed upon and the Wal-Mart deals were finalized--is reminiscent of the bad old days of inconsistent DC government business development.
Ultimately, I believe that all neighborhoods have the right to development. It is unfair to rest one's ideology on places most in need of access to basic provisions. A Wal-Mart in Skyland is not going to be a panacea for addressing food deserts (some readers know I cringe at that term) or decreasing unemployment significantly, but it will reduce blight and provide another retail option for nearby residents. Personally, I try to avoid shopping at any Wal-Mart store, but I do not think I am a morally superior being because of it. (Let's not forget Target's political contributions to anti-gay rights advocates or Whole Foods' reported anti-union agenda and its nutty CEO as we distribute self-righteousness.)
I don't want to turn this into a black/white, old resident/new resident, rich/poor debate. I respect the work of many of the advocacy organizations involved in the LRAA effort, but I think it is important to recognize that in this city not all residents share the same economic and neighborhood interests. I also have the feeling that with more lobbying transparency we would have a different picture of LRAA's legislative path.
Under served neighborhoods are often presented with a Sophie's Choice in terms of economic development. But residents of under served neighborhoods have the right to participate in the market in the same manner as those with numerous existing retail options and should not be left to carry the weight of others' political ideology. I look forward to a robust living wage campaign in which all employers in the District of Columbia are subject to the same fair labor and wage standards.