Sarah Jane Shoenfeld is a public historian.
The D.C. Council is considering updates to the city’s Comprehensive Plan , guidelines that set parameters for development. It is being amended to address the city’s current growth trajectory. The D.C. Office of Planning projects 1 million residents by 2045.
Housing advocates are pushing back at Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s attempt to use the plan as a vehicle for accelerating development. The plan blames displacement of longtime residents on “rising demand that has not been met with a proportional increase in supply,” but this would be true only if all the new condominiums being planned were meant for low-income people. A more fundamental problem is the plan’s explanation for why the city’s black population has declined drastically in recent years: “Many blacks left the city for the suburbs, or migrated to other parts of the country because of family ties, increased opportunities and lower cost of living.”
I am a public historian of race and housing in the District, one of several D.C.-focused scholars alarmed at the Office of Planning’s claim that African Americans are leaving the city by choice. Some of us are native Washingtonians or have lived here for decades, and we care deeply about the city and its future. The District’s black population declined by more than 200,000 between 1970 and 2010. While it is true that many middle-class people have voluntarily moved out of the city, this is not what explains our city’s profound racial transformation. In fact, as the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute has reported, we lost 28,000 black residents primarily from low-income neighborhoods in the 1990s alone.
The city’s planning goals of attracting real estate investment and higher-income residents to the District have not accounted for who would be forced to leave. As recently reported by a Georgetown University study overseen by the first chair of D.C.’s Commission on African American Affairs, gentrification — which is barely mentioned in the amended Comprehensive Plan — “leads to displacement.” The theory that poor residents benefit from the same economic investments that have brought more than 150,000 new residents since 2006, says the report, “stems from a lack of knowledge” about where people are moving and why. Ironically, Bowser established the commission in response to the alarming decline of black residents, but her administration doesn’t seem to care anymore about what happened to them.
These issues are not new. In the 1950s, thousands of buildings were razed in Southwest for urban renewal with the promise that displaced residents would be rehoused in the same area. But only a tiny number of affordable units were developed, and at least 12,000 black residents were required to move permanently. Large black communities were also displaced by revitalization in Georgetown, development in Foggy Bottom and, later, by condominium conversions across the city, especially around Adams Morgan. By 1962, 5,000 families were already wait-listed for public housing, 94 percent of them black. In 2013, the waiting list closed after reaching more than 70,000 names , yet public housing continues to be razed in favor of mixed-income developments with far less capacity for housing low-income people or families.
Here is what else we know, based on research by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and others:
The income of the typical black D.C. household has not grown since 2007, and the gulf between black and white residents is growing. The poverty rate for black residents rose between 2007 and 2016 to 28 percent . Income inequality is higher in the District than in any of the 50 states .
The virtual disappearance of low-cost housing in the District means that most extremely low-income residents are forced to spend the majority of their income on rent. As of December 2016, some 26,000 households were both extremely low income and spending more than half their income on rent; 91 percent of these residents were black.
The displacement and destabilization inherent in the District’s economic renaissance have also eroded black family and social networks, which are especially important to people who are economically vulnerable. Black-owned retail and food outlets have been replaced by high-end development and businesses where many longtime black residents don’t feel welcome.
It is essential that our city’s plan for the future recognize the true impact of development on our city. Ignoring this allows the mayor to pretend that accelerating new development will address our housing crisis. As history shows, this will only make things worse for those already struggling to remain here.
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