D.C.: A city divided and increasingly unaffordable

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 3

This week’s mayoral primary put in stark contrast how divided our city is.

But whether you’re a third-generation Washingtonian who hand dances on the weekends or a Bikesharing hipster who moved here from somewhere else, everyone can agree on one big issue: The rent is too darn high.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“Affordable housing, income inequality, the sense that people are being forced out of their neighborhoods” — this is what’s on voters’ minds, said Mike Panetta, who made an unsuccessful bid to represent the city on the Democratic National Committee in this week’s primary election as a member of “The Rent Is Too Darn High” slate.

We need no more evidence of the growing gap between the haves and have-nots than the deplorable situation at the city’s shelter for homeless families at the old D.C. General Hospital, where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared weeks ago and is presumed dead. Her hauntingly short life and the lives of nearly 600 other children crowded into D.C. General make it the crown jewel of the city’s housing crisis.

Affordable housing will be Job One for the next mayor of the District, and I wish we’d heard more about it from the candidates. I heard about it all over the city: Everywhere I went, people — rich and poor, white and black, old and young — wanted to talk about the Manhattanization of D.C.

The city has lost half of its affordable housing units in the past decade. Meanwhile, all those fancy high-rises we see going up are increasingly unaffordable for the new folks moving in and making decent salaries.

Millennials, saddled with a record $1 trillion in student debt, are doubling and tripling up in these apartments, where studios are hardly ever less than $1,500 a month. Check out Urban Igloo, where the apartment finder doesn’t even give you the option to search for anything below $1,400.

Those 20- and 30-somethings who are supposed to be America’s first-time homeowners are perpetually living a “Three’s Company” life of rents and roomies. (And no Regal Beagle to offer cheap drinks.)

Oh, wait. There are the plans for Patterson House, a Dupont Circle historic mansion that can’t possibly allow for roommates. The builder plans to divide the imposing brick building into 92 micro-units that are just 300 square feet each. That’s about 17 feet long and wide, if it’s a square.

How much do you think these will go for? I’m sure it’ll be Too Darn High.

Even the folks comfortably ensconced in their before-the-bubble homes are worried. “We’re forcing out the middle class,” Panetta declared.

The Rent Is Too Darn High slate is a D.C. version of the one founded by New Yorker Jimmy McMillan, who created the Rent Is Too Damn High party during a mayoral run. Of course, that’s New York. In D.C., part of the genteel South, the party name went from “damn” to “darn.” (Actually, the D.C. Board of Elections demanded the change.)

So we’ve gone from a city where crime and economic stagnation were the hot topics to whether we’re on the path to becoming the next San Francisco, where more than 40 percent of the homes listed for sale are priced at more than $1 million.

In D.C., the average price for a single-family home in January was $470,000, according to figures released this year by RealEstate Business Intelligence, a subsidiary of the Rockville-based multiple listing service MRIS. That’s the second-highest figure in the Washington region, exceeded only by Arlington County.

“We never could’ve imagined, 20 years ago, that this would be an issue, that the city would be too expensive to live in,” said Sekou Biddle, a former D.C. Council member who ran on the Rent slate and won a seat as the at-large member of the Democratic State Committee.

The District has been marveling at the city’s recent wave of prosperity. Some people are high on the boards, surfing that wave. Some are a little lower in the water, boogieboarding, and some are getting a little cut up bodysurfing it, Biddle said.

“And then there are folks in the water, with ankle weights on, who are struggling to breath,” he said. “Are we going to pretend that they are not there?”

Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who defeated Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) in Tuesday’s primary, has said all the things she won’t do. She won’t, thank God, ask homeless families to bunk in recreation centers. Now it’s time to hear what she will do.

During her campaign, Bowser promised to budget at least $100 million annually to build affordable housing. She said she would increase the number and percentage of such units in new developments and increase funds for homeownership programs for new developments.

We need to look at the city’s vast portfolio of properties and determine which can be turned into affordable housing. We need to be ruthless in demanding that developers acknowledge the housing crisis and dedicate more of their units to lower-income residents.

We need to decide what kind of city we want to live in. Because the diversity, variety and vibrancy of the city that has drawn or kept us all here won’t remain when the rent’s too friggin’ high.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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