The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new bridge in the District wants to keep local communities parked

A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park provided by Building Bridges Across the River. Planners say they have lined up about 80 percent of the public and private funding necessary to build the park using a defunct bridge over the Anacostia River. (Building Bridges Across the River)

Tim Robustelli is a program associate with the Future of Property Rights Program at New America.

Take a stroll through Shaw or Navy Yard, and you’re likely to end up walking past a juice bar, a workout studio or a glitzy new high-rise. The surge of such amenities into previously low-income neighborhoods attests to the fact that the District is among the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the United States. And unlike in some other cities, gentrification in the District is having tangible consequences: Research conducted by the University of Minnesota found that in parts of the Kingman Park and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, for example, almost 75 percent of the low-income population moved away between 2000 and 2016.

In the past decade, neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River have served as ground zero for gentrification concerns. Tony Pickett, chief executive of the Grounded Solutions Network, a national housing nonprofit, said that high housing costs and the impact of gentrification in other parts of the city, such as the U Street Corridor, have made residents in this area increasingly weary of new development. Indeed, the displacement that often accompanies neighborhood redevelopment can splinter communities and limit people’s access to jobs, education, transportation and child care.

At first glance, the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park project over the Anacostia River appears to be yet another harbinger of soaring rents, changing demographics and trendy, overpriced grocery stores. It’s been dubbed D.C.’s High Line, and mock-ups show joggers, young families and dog walkers all enjoying an attractive new green space above the river. No one would be surprised to see nearby property values increase, which would leave current residents — especially low-income families, renters, the elderly, the disabled and minorities — vulnerable to the effects of the market.

But in this case, redevelopment doesn’t have to lead to displacement. The minds behind the bridge park have made a conscious effort to keep lifelong residents of Southeast Washington in place through a little-known housing model called a community land trust, in which a nonprofit owns the land and residents own or lease the home on top of it.

As recommended by the project, Ward 8 community members and housing specialists formed the Douglass Community Land Trust (DCLT) as a tool to maintain affordable homes in areas surrounding the proposed park. Prices and rents can be kept low because the most expensive part of a D.C. home — the land underneath it — will be owned by a trust that sells or leases just the house to an individual or family.

Housing can also remain relatively cheap over time because the land is essentially removed from the speculative market. That may prove crucial in the D.C. metro area, where a recent study found that the average land value per acre was $1.2 million back in 2010. (By comparison, the same study found that the average land value per acre was $663,000 in Chicago and $272,000 in Houston.)

Residents of the 65-unit Savannah Heights apartment complex in Congress Heights partnered with the DCLT to purchase the rental property this year. According to a blog post by Scott Kratz, vice president of Building Bridges Across The River, the nonprofit spearheading the bridge park, the building will provide affordable rental units well into the future for those earning 30 percent to 50 percent of the area’s median income.

Within the context of the back-to-the-city movement, the nationwide affordable housing crisis, contentious local debate surrounding gentrification and skyrocketing urban land value, perhaps it’s not so surprising that a CLT has emerged in the District. Fear and anxiety surrounding burdensome rental and housing costs, displacement and the subsequent loss of community ties are well-placed, after all.

The community land trust model emerged in the 1960s as a tool to fight inequality. The first trust was founded in southwest Georgia in 1969 by black farmers to combat systemic racism, and the model has seen recent revival in other cities. New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, Reno, Nev., and Asheville, N.C., have embraced the CLT.

So why is the Douglass Community Land Trust worth highlighting?

The DCLT feel distinct because it is a preventive measure included as part of a high-profile development plan instead of a reaction to it. The bridge park organizers spent time with community members at the outset of the project to draft the Equitable Development Plan, focusing on workforce development, small business, culture and the arts and affordable housing. The project is designed so that the community can actively keep control of neighborhood development.

In a city where many minority residents have already experienced some sort of displacement — physical, but also political and cultural — it’s refreshing to find a development project that emphasizes community-driven equity strategies. As Sasha Forbes wrote for the Natural Resources Defense Council, “one lesson that the 11th Street Bridge Park has for others is to start the work of equitable development early, countering the practice to build the infrastructure and then deal with the consequences.”

That’s something worth emulating in the District and beyond. “The Douglass Community Land Trust is poised to be a model for other cities by investing in historically underserved communities of color in ways that respond directly to community desires,” notes Pickett.

When D.C. residents can stick around and enjoy the benefits of neighborhood development in their communities, it strengthens the health, economic prospects and resiliency of the city. While still in its early stages, the DCLT may be a fitting solution to the anticipated rise of housing and rental costs around the 11th Street Bridge Park. In that way, it can help local residents stay parked for good.