As D.C.’s New Attorney General, Brian Shwalb, Should Make Safe and Affordable Housing a Priority

April 12, 2023 by Ruby L. Grace

In early January of 2023, D.C. swore in Brian Schwalb as its new Attorney General. Schwalb is replacing Karl Racine, who served for eight years and made a name for himself prosecuting shady landlords and property developers, creating a stronger consumer protection division, and generally being a zealous advocate for the public.[1] One of Racine’s priorities during his tenure was housing, namely fighting back against the rapid gentrification that is pushing long-time and primarily Black and brown residents out of the District.[2] Schwalb should follow in Racine’s footsteps, and make affordable housing a priority during his leadership, as D.C. has one of the highest gentrification rates of any U.S. city and housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Zoning laws can serve as a powerful tool for Schwalb to push back against the displacement that comes with these changes.

During Racine’s leadership, the Office of the Attorney General’s (OAG) fight for safe and affordable housing included lawsuits against property management companies that were illegally discriminating against prospective tenants with Section 8 housing vouchers,[3] suits against landlords that allowed their units to become unlivable with the intent of forcing long-time residents out[4], and suits that resulted in developers being forced to sell property to non-profits that would implement affordable units.[5] In his most recent initiative, Racine drastically changed the relationship between the OAG and the Zoning Commission, the board that adopts and amends zoning regulations in the city.[6] Prior to Racine’s changes, the OAG’s Land Use Section acted as legal counsel for the Zoning Commission, meaning it was not able to advocate for specific policies, and instead was defending the Commission’s decisions.[7] In 2021, Racine’s office stopped acting as legal counsel, and instead began advocating directly to the Commission for zoning policies that would be in the best interest of the public, specifically in the areas of racial equity, environmental justice, and general housing affordability.[8]

Schwalb has mentioned that he is not sure whether he will continue Racine’s policy of independence from the Zoning Commission.[9] Although the policy has been met with some skepticism, [10] AG Schwalb should continue in Racine’s footsteps, acting independently from the Zoning Commission and advocating for policies that will best serve the public interest. Lack of affordable housing is only a worsening crisis in D.C., and the OAG is well-positioned to argue for zoning policies to fight back against market forces that will only drive prices up.

The ways in which D.C. is changing makes it especially important that affordable housing is a priority for AG Schwalb. D.C.’s population has exploded in the past decade, nearly tripling, at a rate that is the seventh highest in the nation.[11] Along with this influx of people has come an influx of investment and with that, rapid gentrification. According to a study tracking gentrification in major U.S. cities from 2000 to 2013, D.C. has one of the highest rates of gentrification of any city in the nation.[12] While more money can nourish a city, it can also lead to displacement. In D.C., from 2000 to 2013, this looked like the displacement of 20,000 Black residents.[13] This trend is and will continue to occur, especially as D.C. is not a particularly densely built city[14], leaving ample room for new development. This development will likely include more luxury high-rises, leaving a large number of D.C.’s low and lowest-income residents to struggle to find homes within their budget.[15]

During his tenure as AG, Racine sought to offset this issue by advocating for the Zoning Commission to expand its use of “inclusionary” zoning[16], or the policy of requiring developers to include a set percentage of affordable units whenever breaking ground on a new project.[17] Inclusionary zoning has shown to be a very effective tool in adding affordable units to the market.[18] This is just one example of the important advocacy work the OAG can do when it acts independently from the Zoning Commission. With its team of expert housing lawyers, the OAG can come up with creative and effective solutions to ensure that the Zoning Commission is prioritizing affordability.

While D.C.’s previous AG, Karl Racine, viewed the lack of safe and affordable housing as “one of the most significant issues facing the District,” Schwalb should also give the issue the same level of primacy. In testimony before the D.C. Council, Schwalb listed his top priorities as newly appointed AG to be: public safety, a more equitable allocation of city resources, protecting democratic values, and building institutional excellence within the OAG.[19] While all important areas of focus, in a city gentrifying as rapidly as D.C., the protection of long-time and low-income residents’ ability to afford housing is of paramount importance, and deserves a heightened focus.


[1] See Martin Austermuhle, Exit Interview: Karl Racine Reflects on His Eight Years as D.C. Attorney General, Dcist (Dec. 29, 2022),

[2] Off. of the Att’y Gen., AG Racine Testimony on the Office of the Attorney General’s Work to Stand Up for District Residents (Feb. 10, 2022),

[3] Off. of the Att’y Gen., AG Racine Announces Largest Civil Penalty in a Housing Discrimination Case in U.S. History (Oct. 20, 2022)

[4] Off. of the Att’y Gen., supra note 2.

[5] Id.

[6] Off. of the Att’y Gen., AG Racine Announces New Focus on Advocating for the Public Interest in Zoning and Development Cases (Dec. 2, 2021),

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] DC’s New Attorney General Talks Juvenile Crime, Zoning Decisions and Washington Commanders Investigations, Fox 5 (Jan. 5, 2023),

[10] Ally Schweitzer, D.C. Attorney General Announces New Role as Affordable Housing Advocate, Dcist (Dec. 3, 2021),

[11] 2020 Census Data Shows DC Population Growth Nearly Tripled Compared to Previous Decade, DC Gov’t (Apr. 26, 2021),

[12] Jason Richardson et al., Shifting Neighborhoods: Gentrification and Cultural Displacement in American Cities 4 (Nat’l Cmy. Reinvestment Coal., 2019), (when looking at percentage of eligible neighborhoods).

[13] Id.

[14] See Leah Brooks et al., The Washington, DC Region Needs More Housing, and Satellite Data Can Tell Us Where to Build, Brookings (June 4, 2020),

[15] See Nat’l Low Income Hous. Coal., Housing Needs by State: District of Columbia (2020),

[16] Off. of the Att’y Gen., supra note 6.

[17] Brian R. Lerman, Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning-The Answer to the Affordable Housing Problem, 33 B. C. Envtl. Aff. L. Rev. 383, 385 (2006).

[18] Nicholas J. Bruncik, Inclusionary Housing: Proven Success in Large Cities, 10 Am. Plan. Ass’n 1,1 (2004).

[19] Off. of the Att’y Gen., AG Schwalb Testimony Before DC Council on Future of the Office of the Attorney General & Its Work to Protect Residents (Feb. 22, 2023),