A surprising constituency agrees with critics of Washington’s gentrification that wealthy newcomers are driving housing prices through the roof: wealthy newcomers.
A new Washington Post poll finds 78 percent of people who moved to Washington in the past 15 years with incomes of at least $150,000 per year say that new high-income residents are a major reason for the shortage of affordable housing in the city.
Concern is widespread across racial and income groups, as well as those who have both lost and benefited amid the city’s rapid development in the past few decades.
Nearly 1 in 5 D.C. residents named housing as the biggest problem facing the District, outpacing crime, education and even the oft-lamented Metrorail system.
While Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) earns a 67 percent overall approval rating, 55 percent of respondents say she has done a “not so good” or “poor” job creating and maintaining affordable housing.
Beyond wealthy newcomers, majorities of District residents blame the city government for not spending enough to create and maintain affordable housing, failing to ensure benefits go to residents who need it most and catering too much to the needs of developers.
“The city has done a decent job of developing areas that needed it, but that’s pushed a lot of lower-income families out,” said Daniel Nilsen, a 35-year-old government worker who moved to the District in 2005. Nilsen rents an apartment near Logan Circle, but when he lived in Bloomingdale, he watched as gentrification and the increased rents that came with it forced out long-term residents. “The city needs to figure out a way to balance being good for the economy and preserving these areas.”
Daniel Pedraza, a 35-year-old diplomat from Colombia, said development is good for the city but comes at the cost of the “displacement of communities that don’t have good-paying jobs or don’t have jobs at all.”
“In terms of policies that create more affordable housing, the city should do more,” said Pedraza, who added that he supports Bowser. In Bogota, the Colombian capital, which has a population of 8 million that dwarfs the District, the government subsidizes housing for low-income residents, Pedraza said.
The rise in D.C. housing costs has been stark, with the median home value tripling from $136,200 in 2000 to $484,000 last year, and rents rising in parallel. Bowser added $100 million annually toward affordable housing programs, an ambitious approach compared to other major cities. Yet a recent city audit claimed a major program was beset by mismanagement, and a Washington Post investigation found the city forfeited millions in federal housing aid because it missed key deadlines.
While three-quarters of residents polled say wealthy newcomers are a major factor behind the dearth of affordable housing, 64 percent fault the District government for not spending enough to create and maintain that housing. The same percentage say the city government caters too much to the needs of developers. And 54 percent blame the city for not ensuring help for those who need housing assistance the most, while 30 percent say a major cause is people seeking housing aid they don’t need.
Jacque Perry, 62, said she doesn’t think the city is doing enough to make sure redevelopment benefits all residents.
“As an African American, it’s been painful to watch the exit of other African Americans,” said Perry, who has seen redevelopment fundamentally alter the racial and economic makeup of the Capitol Hill neighborhood where she grew up.
She’s watched as friends and neighbors have left the District, many for less-expensive Prince George’s County. “It’s quickly becoming Ward 9, to be flip,” she added.
While not being priced out of the city, rising housing costs have driven some residents with above-average incomes to live elsewhere. Sandy Abdallah, 32, said she is moving to San Diego this week after three years in Washington because of the cost of living.
“It wasn’t so much about the rent — it was more that we could get twice as much in San Diego as we can in D.C.,” where she and her husband have paid $2,300 monthly for a 650-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment between Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan with her husband.
“Gentrification is one of those words that can be good, or it can mean losing diversity and culture,” said Abdallah, who is white and makes more than $100,000 annually as a consultant. As higher-income residents move in, they should “get to know the communities, and dig into what is here rather than build over it,” she said.
The Post poll finds 67 percent of city residents saying District redevelopment efforts to attract new businesses and residents have been “mainly good” for people like them, higher than 61 percent who said so in 2015.
Just over half of African American residents surveyed say redevelopment has benefited people like them, compared with nearly 9 in 10 whites. Positive ratings of redevelopment dip to 47 percent among those who say they are “falling behind” financially, rising to 62 percent among those who are making just enough to maintain their standard of living and 86 percent of those who say they are getting ahead.
Other residents are sharper in their criticism.
“I feel bad about it,” said David Sanchez, 35, who lives near the rapidly changing Southwest waterfront area. “The city is bringing in a lot of housing that is outside of the amount of money that most people can . . . afford.”
Sanchez, who grew up outside Dallas, earns $75,000 a year at a nonprofit but says he finds it “virtually impossible” to afford to buy a house in the District. Instead, he rents an apartment where water pressure is poor and the lights sometimes break, but at least the rent is low — $900 a month — by D.C. standards.
Newcomers to the District — like himself — have a responsibility to understand the impact of their arrival on long-term residents, he said.
Homelessness is a visible problem, and the city should be sure it is supporting mental health programs as it fights homelessness, he said.
“You would expect the nation’s capital to be on top of homelessness,” Sanchez said.
The number of homeless people in the District dropped 11 percent since last year, according to a report released in May. But there are still 7,473 people in the city who are homeless, which is higher than the total in 2015, when Bowser took office.
The poll finds residents sense little improvement when it comes to homelessness, with almost 4 in 10 Washingtonians saying the problem is getting worse, while just under 1 in 10 think it’s getting better. Half say it’s staying the same — a judgment that’s not necessarily good or bad — though over 6 in 10 rate Mayor Bowser negatively for her management of the issue.
Concerns about homelessness peak among those who are more financially stressed. Nearly 6 in 10 of those who say they’re falling behind financially think homelessness is getting worse, compared with just under 3 in 10 who say they’re getting ahead financially.
There are also stark differences along racial lines, with almost half of African American Washingtonians, 47 percent, saying homelessness is getting worse in the District, compared with 27 percent of white Washingtonians.
The Washington Post poll was conducted June 15-18 among a random sample of 901 adults living in the District, reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus four percentage points.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.