A stark racial divide exists among District residents in their attitudes toward the city’s economic renaissance, with a majority of blacks viewing the evolution negatively, while a preponderance of whites embrace the changes, according to a Washington Post poll.
Overall, the poll found that a majority of Washingtonians, including 86 percent of white residents, largely see benefits in redevelopment that helped the city emerge as a gilded hub renowned for new luxury high-rise buildings and refurbished neighborhoods.
But with the city’s declining pool of moderately priced housing, the percentage of residents expressing reservations about the changes has grown from a quarter to more than a third of the population.
For the first time in Post polling, a majority of African Americans polled — 55 percent — say the redevelopment is bad for people like them, as opposed to 39 percent who expressed that opinion last year. In 2000, 3 in 4 black residents applauded redevelopment.
[Read the full Washington Post poll]
The growth in resistance among African Americans may reflect that redevelopment is no longer a novelty and that the improved services and amenities it attracts to neighborhoods at some point become a problem for poor and working-class residents forced to pay higher property taxes. The District’s transformation began slowly downtown in the 1980s and 1990s and, in more recent years, has accelerated, spreading to neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, Brookland and Petworth, raising property values and rents and imposing added economic pressure on working- and middle-class households.
“When redevelopment comes, police follow, and there’s more safety in the neighborhoods and people think that’s great,” said John Bentancur, an urban studies professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “But they do not enjoy that very long. Soon those services make those neighborhoods candidates for gentrification, and the people celebrating the benefits are displaced.”
Alice Chandler, a retired African American public school teacher, said she has long wanted the development that redefined areas such as Shaw and Bloomingdale to come to Deanwood, the Northeast neighborhood in which she has lived her entire life.
But now she said she is concerned that the rising prices that accompany new housing would make it more difficult for many of her neighbors to remain. “I’m worried about everyone getting pushed out,” she said. “It’s not that I mind the new people. But it’s the pushing out because of finances that I don’t like.”
Micah Salb, 46, a white lawyer who lives in Shepherd Park, said the city’s renaissance has “increased the housing stock and the quality of the housing stock and made it available for people who would otherwise be marginalized.”
“On 14th Street, there’s some great stuff — interesting furniture and houseware shops, a good bike store,” he said, referring to the corridor between Logan and Dupont circles, which has been overrun with new housing, shops and restaurants that “cater to people with enormous incomes.”
But Salb also expressed ambivalence about the changes, saying new development has drained the city of some of its “homegrown feel and made it into an anonymous suburb.”
“I can afford to live in the city and shop, and I’m not at risk,” he said. “But it isn’t good for people generally.”
The Post poll suggests that a mix of race and class influences views of redevelopment. Among blacks and whites alike, people with higher incomes have more positive views of redevelopment than those with lower incomes. But among those earning $50,000 to $100,000, nearly half of all blacks see redevelopment as a negative, a view shared by only 17 percent of whites.
As the city becomes more of a magnet for affluent professionals, the poll found a pervasive sense of economic anxiety among African Americans and those with annual incomes below $50,000.
At the same time, robust majorities of all respondents say the D.C. government is performing badly at creating affordable housing and caring for the homeless. Nearly 20 percent in the survey cite housing costs as the city’s top challenge, more than quadrupling the level of concern four years ago.
Overall, the poll found that 56 percent of District residents polled say housing costs would force them to the suburbs if they had to move, an increase from 48 percent in a 2011 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Doubts about being able to afford an acceptable place to live rose among renters and residents in both lower- and higher-income brackets.
“I tell people all the time, ‘Don’t leave the city. You’ll never be able to move back if you leave,’ ” said Mary Wallace, 38, an African American legal assistant and mother of three children who lives in the Riggs Park home that she inherited from her grandmother.
“If I didn’t live here, I don’t know where I would be living,” Wallace said. “Even Arlington, Bethesda — none of those areas are in my range.”
In particular, rising property values appear to cause the most problems for renters, 59 percent of whom say they could not afford a new apartment that they would want to live in, compared with 47 percent who said the same in 2011.
Jeremy Wolff, 33, a clinical data manager who lives in Cleveland Park, said that his rent for a one-bedroom space is “just under the line of affordability” and that he’s increasingly anxious about rising housing prices.
“I’m dipping into my savings,” Wolff said. “It shouldn’t be a situation where the only way someone like me can live in the District is if it were subsidized.”
As for the creation and maintenance of affordable housing, fully 7 in 10 respondents say they are dissatisfied with the D.C. government’s performance, a perception that cuts across racial and geographic lines but is far more pronounced in the poorest neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s decision to allocate $100 million this year for the creation of more affordable housing is extraordinarily popular, with 87 percent supporting annual spending at this level, according to the poll.
The effectiveness of such efforts is uncertain, but two-thirds of respondents say the District government has the power to overcome economic forces to make housing more affordable for low-income individuals. But some residents who rank housing as a top concern are skeptical that Bowser’s initiative will yield noticeable results.
“The only way I can believe her is if she does it,” said a 57-year-old Petworth man who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name, Austin. “If she doesn’t get it right, she’s not gonna get that vote next time.”
A spokesman for Bowser’s office said that nearly a thousand new affordable units — or apartments rented out at below-market rates — have been completed since the start of 2015, with an additional 1,440 units expected to open by October.
But most are still too expensive for Austin, who receives a monthly disability check, and for others who depend on government subsidies to get by.
Less than 20 percent of the new units are available through government funding to people making less than $33,000 a year.
Two-thirds of those polled also say the D.C. government is doing a “not-so-good” or “poor” job assisting the homeless, a perception that cut evenly across racial and geographic lines.
Bowser (D) has set aside $23 million in this year’s budget to assist the homeless. She also has pledged to end chronic homelessness by 2017. An estimated 7,000 people are homeless in the District.
Despite giving the city negative marks for helping the homeless, nearly 6 in 10 respondents say the city provides the “right amount” of assistance in giving homeless families shelter for several months and rental assistance for roughly a year. Roughly 3 in 10 say this program is not generous enough, while about 1 in 10 say it is too generous.
Nearly 8 in 10 respondents say they would be at least somewhat comfortable if the city built a facility to house 50 homeless families in their neighborhood, while 2 in 10 said they would be less comfortable with this. Fewer than 40 percent, however, say they would be “very comfortable” with a homeless facility in their neighborhood.
Timothy Robinson, 50, who drifted in and out of homelessness and jail for more than two decades, said the city needs to create more affordable housing units to end homelessness. At one time, he said he could afford an apartment in Dupont Circle, where he paid $300 rent during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Now he lives in a subsidized apartment in Fort Totten.
“They’re pricing people out,” he said. “You’re putting 90 percent of your earnings into just having a roof over your head.”
The Washington Post poll was conducted Nov. 12-15 among a random sample of 1,005 adult District residents reached on conventional and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus four percentage points; for results in individual wards, error margins range from plus or minus nine to 13 points.