The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawsuit: D.C. policies to attract affluent millennials discriminated against blacks

Civil rights attorney Aristotle Theresa, 38, who is suing the D.C. government over gentrification, poses for a portrait in his neighborhood in Anacostia. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

For more than a decade, D.C. officials have celebrated the city’s economic renaissance, touting reinvigorated neighborhoods and glittering new attractions as evidence of Washington’s emergence as a world-class metropolis.

But a new federal lawsuit alleges that the policies that officials initiated to attract younger, more affluent professionals discriminated against poor and working-class African Americans who have lived here for generations.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by lawyer Aristotle Theresa on behalf of several African American residents, claims that the residential buildings springing up throughout the city — many of them with studio and one-bedroom apartments — catered to what urban theorist Richard Florida famously identified as the “creative class” and ignored the needs of poor and working-class families.

The lawsuit says the “New Communities” program initiated by the District to turn aging public housing complexes into mixed-income developments was meant to “lighten” African American neighborhoods and break up long-established communities.

D.C. policies that were intended to “economically integrate” neighborhoods, Theresa argues in the lawsuit, “are classist, racist and ageist” and “lead to widespread gentrification and displacement.”

“Every city planning agency . . . conspired to make D.C. very welcoming for preferred residents and sought to displace residents inimical to the creative economy,” Theresa wrote in the 82-page complaint.

The plaintiffs — Paulette Matthews and Greta Fuller of Southeast Washington and Shanifinne Ball of Northeast — are seeking in excess of $1 billion in damages.

Robert Marus, a spokesman for the District’s Office of the Attorney General, said the city would not comment on the lawsuit until it files its response, which is due June 25. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who is approaching the end of her first term, has focused on growing the city’s stock of affordable housing while celebrating the opening of new attractions such as the Wharf, a $2.5 billion mix of luxury housing, hotels and fine dining along the Southwest Waterfront.

As the District gentrified over the past two decades, income and wealth disparities between whites and blacks deepened. But Derek Hyra, an American University professor who has written about gentrification in Washington, said Theresa would have to produce evidence that D.C. officials were targeting a certain race to prove discrimination.

“Developers are looking at areas in the city where they can buy low and sell high,” Hyra said, pointing to traditionally working-class black neighborhoods such as Shaw and Petworth, which have drawn more affluent residents in recent years. “Developers want to maximize their return. This is not a conspiracy. This is capitalism.”

At the same time, he said, the D.C. government encouraged development, sometimes providing subsidies, “to maximize value and bring in greater revenue.” Even if the District hasn’t explicitly favored anyone, the development has “had a different impact” on whites and blacks, he said.

Theresa, an Anacostia-based civil rights attorney, has in recent years represented a number of community groups opposing massive redevelopment projects in neighborhoods such as Union Market in Northeast and the McMillan reservoir in Northwest, as well as at the Barry Farm public housing complex in Southeast.

In 14 cases, he has asked the D.C. Court of Appeals to overturn city approvals of projects, twice successfully. The rulings forced D.C. officials to review the projects, causing costly delays and widespread consternation among developers who worry that their projects will be slowed by legal challenges.

As a result of appeals filed by Theresa and others, the Bowser administration has proposed changes to the city’s land-use policies to block avenues for what it considers nuisance lawsuits.

Theresa, in an interview, said the federal lawsuit was an outgrowth of the work he has done representing communities fighting development projects. To accommodate more affluent newcomers, Theresa said, D.C. officials and developers over the past decade identified working-class black “communities that aren’t that sophisticated about the zoning process or politics. They slapped it on these communities and took advantage of people.”

He traces the District’s initiatives to the early 2000s, when, as the Internet proliferated and the technology sector flourished nationwide, Florida popularized the idea that cities could become newly prosperous by appealing to a “creative class,” an amalgam of entrepreneurs, tech specialists, artists and other purveyors of creativity.

In the District, according to Theresa’s complaint, which was filed April 13, it was the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) that embraced Florida’s view as it set out to broaden the city’s identity from government town to a magnet for technology entrepreneurs and others who were part of the “creative economy.”

From Shaw to Bloomingdale to the H Street corridor, developers and business owners descended on neighborhoods, constructing apartment towers, renovating rowhouses and opening restaurants, coffeehouses and bars that catered to new Washingtonians, younger and more affluent than previous generations.

To Theresa, the Fenty administration’s promotion of a “Creative Action Agenda” in 2007 represented a “paradigm shift” for D.C. government. Instead of prioritizing what was best for the land, it was focusing “on the predilections of a certain class of individual,” he says.

Fenty’s successor, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), also championed the creative economy by changing zoning regulations to “increase affordable space for creative businesses,” Theresa says. By targeting businesses that “produce innovative goods” or “use innovative processes,” the District offered tax breaks and other incentives that favored a “discrete class” and discriminated against more traditional modes of business, according to the lawsuit.

“District government has a clear preference for millennial creatives, making it somewhat harder for those residents that aren’t notable assets,” Theresa says in the lawsuit.

That focus on millennials had a greater impact on African Americans, he adds, because “they were disproportionately missing from the identified class D.C. was seeking to grow.”

As evidence, Theresa cites census statistics for several gentrifying neighborhoods, including Bloomingdale, which adjoins North Capitol Street, where the overall population grew by 1,000 from 2009 to 2016 but the number of African Americans fell. The population along the U Street corridor grew from 6,700 to 9,400 over a decade, as the number of whites increased by 1,300 and the African American population declined by nearly 400, the lawsuit claims.

Theresa also cites the neighborhood around the Navy Yard, which has exploded with growth over the past decade. As its population soared from 625 to 4,664, the percentage of whites — once 22 percent — rose to 66 percent. At the same time, the percentage of African Americans fell from 73 percent to 22 percent.

For projects larger than what the District’s zoning code allows, developers must seek approval from the Zoning Commission, which Theresa says has sought to “head off any dissent” by refusing to grant party status to neighbors opposing the projects at hearings. He also argues that D.C. officials have routinely failed to produce required reports that analyze whether proposed projects would drive gentrification.

“Such disregard for current residents’ concerns was calculated to re-segregate black communities into white upper class and creative class communities,” he writes in the complaint.

Theresa concludes his complaint by focusing on Anacostia, which he describes as “the newest close-knit black community slated for destruction.”

A number of residential and commercial developments are planned for the area, including the opening of a Busboys and Poets restaurant and a Starbucks franchise. Theresa characterizes the projects as delivering “housing that is for singles in an area that has a great need for family housing not kept in slum conditions.”

“Such development,” Theresa predicts, “will also bring retail out of step with the vast majority of local residents, displacing local, non-creative businesses.”