Gentrification threatens to displace residents in inner suburbs as well as District

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 3, 2013

Everybody knows gentrification threatens to displace poor and working-class families in the District. Less publicized, but equally severe, is the same danger in parts of the suburbs, especially in older neighborhoods inside the Beltway.

One potential refugee is Alex Santiago, 36, of Alexandria, a burly father of three who works as a personal bodyguard and nightclub bouncer. His is one of 2,500 households in the Beauregard neighborhood, just off Interstate 395, where moderate-priced apartments are going to be razed in coming years.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

In place of the brick, three-story garden apartments such as Santiago’s, the developer, JBG, is going to erect more than 5,000 units of much more expensive properties.

JBG has agreed to preserve or build 800 lower-cost units as well. But that still eliminates affordable apartments for 1,700 families.

Santiago, whose building could be demolished in early 2015, has scoped out rents in the immediate area. He can’t afford to stay.

“We’re in phase one of the demolition. Something has to happen soon, or we’re going to have to leave,” Santiago said.

His situation highlights the downside to an otherwise positive trend that is increasingly worrying local leaders.

On the upside, most people are happy that the housing market is reviving (finally). For many, however, the rising prices push home purchases or rents out of reach.

Unless our region finds ways to preserve low- and moderate-cost housing in its center, we’re going to see an accelerating exodus of lower- and middle-class people to the outer suburbs. That risks damaging our economy, by making it harder to fill service jobs, and worsening traffic.

Little relief is in sight for Santiago. In a meeting Tuesday evening, the Alexandria Planning Commission approved zoning changes for the Beauregard redevelopment plan.

Santiago and his wife, Veronica, pay $1,700 a month for their three-bedroom apartment. Anything else nearby costs $200 to $400 a month more, he said. Some have waiting lists extending into next year.

The family budget, about $45,000 a year, is already stretched. Last year, Veronica took a part-time job at Home Depot, in addition to her full-time one as a secretary, to cover increases in rent and utilities.

“The pay, the wage stays the same, and everything else keeps going up,” Santiago said.

He thinks he might have to relocate to Prince William County, at least 14 miles to the south. But he hates to force the move on his children, ages 11 to 16.

“That’s the main thing for me. My kids are rooted out here. They have friendships,” Santiago said.

The developer is entirely within its rights on this. JBG is just responding to the marketplace. In fact, some anti-sprawl advocates have praised the Beauregard project because it increases density near the region’s center and mixes residential and commercial construction.

That’s the essence of the dilemma. The free market is picking winners and losers, as it should. But it risks pricing much of our workforce out of the area. That would harm the region overall.

That’s true partly because companies are reluctant to invest in places where it’s too costly or inconvenient for many of its employees to get to work. In addition, longer commutes add to road congestion.

The tendency is arousing enough concern that 150 area nonprofit, private and faith-based organizations are about to launch a media campaign and Web site designed to press the case to create or preserve more low- and moderate-priced housing.

The regionwide initiative, called the Communications Action Network, is the brainchild of M. Craig Pascal, a senior vice president for community development banking at BB&T Bank.

He and others were heartened when D.C. Mayor Vince Gray recently urged new spending of $100 million to subsidize affordable housing. But they say more is required, especially in the suburbs.

“We need to do more to get the message out to the region, including in the business and political arenas,” Pascal said. “The challenges have never been greater for creating and preserving housing for people at all income levels.”

Nobody pretends the solutions are obvious or easy. Anyone wishing to hold down housing costs enters a labyrinth of federal and local subsidies and tax credits.

Still, it’s a plus to see the push to put the issue higher on the region’s agenda. A diverse mix of housing throughout the area is in everyone’s best interest.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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