By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Remember "The Plan," that nefarious 1970s urban legend about whites scheming to take over the District? Of course, such a plan has long been discredited as little more than a figment of paranoid black imaginings.
Nevertheless, during the past 30 years, some pretty unsavory tactics have been used to displace scores of low-income residents, many of them black, and make way for the arrival of more affluent residents, a lot of whites among them.
And, as The Washington Post reported in a three-part series this week, the latest schemes are particularly appalling. Landlords are emptying their apartment buildings by allowing them to deteriorate to the point of being unlivable; city officials are turning blind eyes to tenant suffering as they are being evicted en masse and the buildings converted to expensive condominiums.
In predominantly black sections of the city, Columbia Heights and Southeast among them, landlords have used decrepit conditions as an excuse to empty more than 200 apartment buildings within the past four years, The Post found.
Which brings us to another plan: the District's 2006 comprehensive housing strategy, which calls for providing thousands of new affordable homes and protecting low-income households.
District officials have earmarked millions to implement this plan, including $11.8 million for a new rent supplement program; $7.5 million for emergency assistance to prevent evictions; $6 million for low-income energy assistance; and $10 million to support the purchase of housing by tenants.
Yet, if you are one of the many renters who have been kicked out by slumlords or if you're an elderly resident about to lose your home because of rising property taxes, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Strategy is as much a figment of the imagination as The Plan.
"In the work that we've been doing on the changes in D.C. during the last decade, it has been disturbing to me that the city has not done a better job preserving and expanding affordable housing options for low-income residents," says Margery A. Turner, a housing expert with the Urban Institute in Washington. "The resurgence of the city and the vitality of the housing market has the potential to benefit everybody. But it needs to be managed so that low-income families who have endured the hard times can afford to stay and share in the good times."
Although the city's housing strategy is relatively new, the problem is as old as the notion of The Plan itself.
During the 1980s, for instance, real estate scams destabilized some of the city's most stable black neighborhoods. Speculators purchased an estimated 2,000 rent-controlled apartment buildings using illegally obtained federal mortgage insurance. They made quick profits reselling the buildings at inflated prices to friends and associates, who could then evade the rent-control law.
Rents were raised; tenants were displaced. In many cases, deterioration and foreclosure followed. Hundreds of those buildings were abandoned and became havens for criminal activity. In Trinidad, a struggling but proud black neighborhood in Northeast, the District's most notorious cocaine kingpin, Rayful Edmonds, had an entire block of abandoned buildings from which to ply his trade.
The problem with The Plan, as it turned out, was not that it was figment. There is, in fact, a real master plan for a new District that bears little resemblance to the Chocolate City of yesteryear. But money, more so than race, will determine who stays and who goes.
Ideally, the District's new housing strategy is supposed to protect the most vulnerable residents and ensure that the gentrified city retains its mixed-income neighborhoods. The reality is markedly different. According to The Post series, tenants are being intimidated into leaving their homes by threatening letters from property managers and strangers who bang on their apartment doors yelling, "You have to move out! You have 48 hours."
Meanwhile, the frenzy of capitalism underpinning the city's renaissance appears to have steamrolled government regulatory agencies. In many instances, the city has failed to act on even the most life-threatening housing code violations.
Making matters worse, the District's housing chief resigned last week, saying her position had been "marginalized." Her job had been to coordinate the production of nearly 55,000 affordable housing units for low- and moderate-income residents.
So much for that kooky scheme.
As Robert H. Pohlman, executive director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, put it recently, "I don't know of any plan per se to achieve that."