“The change in our city has been very fast,” Bowser said at a housing event in Shaw’s Howard Theatre on Saturday. “It was a wake-up call to me of how really physically different things had been in my lifetime.”
Bowser’s story underscored the rapid changes in a city she said has displaced longtime, black residents. It was a nod to the tensions that exist in a city where most of the recently built housing has consisted of small, high-priced rental units that attract young professionals.
The event was the third in a series of “fireside conversations” aimed at discussing the District’s housing crunch and city efforts to build more affordable options.
Before Bowser’s conversation, attendees listened to a presentation about redlining — a practice, banned 50 years ago, in which the government-sponsored Homeowners Loan Corporation drew red lines around black communities it said were too risky for federal dollars. Don Edwards, chief executive of Justice and Sustainability Associates, a management consulting firm, led the friendly chat with the mayor.
The dozens of attendees also explored a pop-up exhibit on redlining, which drew connections between the banned practice and the current displacement of black and low-income residents from neighborhoods. The exhibit, Undesign the Redline, was developed by the New York firm designing the WE.
“There has been displacement of black people out of this city,” Bowser said. “We have to confront the decisions that the government made to encourage that and deal with this head on. Some of them the local government made. And many more the federal government made — and for much longer.”
In October, Bowser announced an ambitious plan to build 12,000 affordable housing units by 2025, with specific neighborhood targets to spread subsidized housing more evenly across the city. For example, a wealthy swath of the city west of Rock Creek Park — now home to fewer than 500 units — would get the largest number of new units, about 2,000.
The event was consistent with her administration’s political messaging that affordable housing is a social justice effort and residents from all backgrounds need to be supportive.
Her administration has blamed the uneven distribution of affordable housing across the city on decades of housing policies that she said would take a generation of “focused and sustained effort” to address.
Stanley Williams, a longtime D.C. resident who fought to keep black residents in Adams Morgan in the 1970s, said residents need to put pressure on developers making big profits in the District to build more affordable units that can accommodate families.
“The community has to stand behind these efforts,” Williams said. “Politicians can only do so much.”
Other attendees said they wish the city had more programs to ensure that longtime homeowners are not displaced because of rising property taxes. Some felt the government gives too many incentives to developers.
Members of the D.C. Tenants Union were collecting petition signatures calling on the D.C. Council to expand and strengthen the city’s rent-control laws. They said residents need to advocate for these policies to generate council and mayoral support.
John Falcicchio, acting deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said Saturday’s event marked a necessary conversation to move forward with the District’s housing goals.
“That takes a lot of tough conversations,” Falcicchio said. “It’s not about just that one particular project in your neighborhood, it’s about where we as a city want to go.”