Why do some DC residents get free garbage collection, but not others? – Great Great Washington
Imagine if DC provided free electricity to all residents of single-family homes, but not to those living in apartments. That would seem unfair, but it’s DC’s policy on garbage and recycling service.
If you live in a single-family home or a building with three or fewer units in DC, the DC Department of Public Works collects your trash for free (you pay that in property taxes, of course). If you live in a larger building, a private carrier must be paid to provide this service. And landlords can choose to pass those costs on to tenants. So why does DC exclude some residents from a city service while others get it for free?
If a public service is not universally free, it is often based on financial need, such as free and reduced-price school lunches. However, households benefiting from the municipal garbage service have higher incomes on average: $187,000 for detached single-family households versus $77,000 (a weighted average from the attached census data) for those in apartment buildings. 5 units or more. So DC is providing Jeff Bezos with free trash pickup at his $23 million Kalorama mansion, but those in larger accommodations might have to pay landlords a fee for private pickup.
If the service is not based on need, is it because apartment care is too expensive? That doesn’t seem to be the case either. Charlotte, North Carolina has a similar population to DC and serves larger apartment buildings that have dumpsters instead of deployment carts. The city’s analysis found that the annual cost of operating the service was $55 per household in these multi-family buildings, but $186 per single-family home.
So how did DC come to this exclusionary practice? The policy dates back to when DC transitioned from contracting out garbage collection to providing direct municipal services in the 1920s. Coal ash was a major source of trash, and Congress didn’t want to pay more for it. provide service to apartments, so the DC Board of Commissioners excluded them from the new service. The DC Council codified the policy in the 1970s and today it remains largely unchanged from 100 years ago.
The policy was expanded in the 1990s when recycling collection was added as another free service for residents already benefiting from the city’s garbage service. Apartments were again excluded and faced even higher costs as a private transporter now also had to be paid to collect the recycling.
DC Offers Some Relief – But For Whom?
In 1990, the DC Council offset garbage collection costs for certain residents: condo owners. Instead of a free service, condo homeowners now receive a $117 garbage collection tax credit. It’s not as attractive as a fully subsidized service, but $117 a year is better than $0, which apartment renters who pay trash fees receive.
For decades, condo owners in our area have campaigned, separately from renters, to receive the city’s garbage collection provided to owners of single-family homes. A 1984 Washington Post article quotes a condo president in New Carrollton demanding a municipal garbage service saying, “We’re not transients. We are owners, we are here to stay and we want the services we pay for. Baltimore extended garbage collection to condos in the 1980s because a council member pushed for change arguing it was a matter of fairness, although that fairness did not extend to tenants of apartments whose owners pass on the costs of garbage.
The national trend
Most cities exclude multi-family buildings from municipal waste collection. The few cities that serve all residents are often tempted, during budget cuts, to cut service to large buildings. In Charlotte, for example, where the city’s own study showed apartments cost significantly less per household to maintain, lawmakers tried to cut their service until a public outcry quashed the proposal. City leaders in Green Bay, Wis., have proposed eliminating garbage service from mobile homes and apartments to save money. Mobile home residents were able to retain their service, but apartment dwellers were unsuccessful and lost their subsidized municipal service.
Why cities don’t like apartments?
Compared to single-family homes, multi-family households use significantly less energy and water, enjoy lower housing costs, are more racially diverse, and bring cities more tax revenue per acre. Dense housing makes possible the dynamism and energy that make cities special. You would think that DC and other cities would eagerly embrace multifamily housing.
Instead, most cities declare the majority of prohibited land for all multi-family buildings. In DC, 59% of land zoned for housing is reserved exclusively for single-family homes. Selective municipal garbage disposal is a more subtle way cities favor single-family homes over apartments.
One rationale for the unfavorable treatment of multi-family rentals is that most are operated by for-profit businesses and therefore should not receive the same municipal services as landlords. The problem is that the increase in the operating costs of apartments has an impact on tenants. Landlords can pass on the cost of garbage collection through higher rent or a garbage tax that can cost around $10 or $25 per month. That’s why DC offers a property tax credit to low-income renters who don’t pay property taxes directly, but have that cost passed on to them by landlords.
What does the DC Council say about this?
For nearly 90 years, Congress stipulated in appropriations bills that the city would not use its federal funds to “collect ashes or other waste” from apartments. This language quietly disappeared in the DC Appropriations Bill of 2008 and has not been seen since. Congress no longer wishes to interfere with how DC collects “ashes” or other waste and the DC Council has the power to serve all residents.
I reached out to ask Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh, who chairs the committee overseeing litter issues, why DC has this policy in the modern age. A spokesperson for his office informed me that Councilman Cheh is open to rethinking existing policy and has assigned staff to study DC’s current practice and what other cities have done differently in this area.
What are the alternatives ?
Personally, I believe that garbage and recycling collection is squarely within the realm of what local governments can and should provide to residents. And I think making it universally free for residents like our K-12 schools is a practical and progressive solution.
A short-term improvement would be to extend service to buildings with up to six units, which is Philadelphia’s policy. While dumpsters present a new challenge, these 4-6 unit buildings use carts like their single-family neighbors. The city’s garbage trucks already pass these households every week. Increased investment in trucks and staff by the DC Council could bring more residents into the fold.
Charlotte and Green Bay apartment tenants protested loudly when politicians proposed cutting their municipal service. Right now in DC there is no public outcry or debate about the lack of service. It is accepted as the century-old status quo. But as the district reconsiders things like the names of honorees on city buildings and the racial equity of single-family zoning, we may examine who is excluded from the city’s garbage collection and why.