Is there a Homer Adolph Plessy among us? Activists who care about affordable housing, including how housing policy is implemented in the District, may want to line up at the courthouse to challenge what appears to be the embrace of the “separate-but-equal” doctrine by Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) administration.affo
Following a disturbing trend playing out in other cities, the D.C. government apparently is content to allow developers to create what amounts to a back door for low-income residents. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the situation at the Portner Place apartments near 14th and U streets. The Post’s Emily Badger reported last week that Portner Place, currently a mostly low-income property, is slated to be redeveloped as a “mixed-income” complex.
“Mixed” may be a mischaracterization, however. The new development would include two wings: one for affluent professionals and another for the less affluent. Poor or working-class residents — defined as households earning less than 60 percent of the area’s median income — would access the property not from the main U Street but rather from the back V Street entrance.
This is a blast from an unpleasant past. In the late 19th century, Plessy, a Creole from my home town of New Orleans, challenged a state law determining who could ride in which rail cars. He and other colored folk wanted to sit right next to whites; he was, after all, an “octoroon,” or someone of only one-eighth African descent. Nevertheless, Plessy lost his case. Consequently, growing up I experienced separate water fountains, separate bathrooms and separate entrances to restaurants and hotels, among other things. That was a signature of racial discrimination.
Now, the back door has returned. This time it is the imprimatur of economic segregation — or put more politely, income inequality.
“It might be two separate wings, but it’s right on the same property,” Ellen McCarthy, director of planning for the District, told me last week. She further argued that Portner Place’s low-income residents would have access to a neighborhood with better schools and parks than they would otherwise. “It’s an easy walk to Metro, Trader Joe’s, Harris Teeter and Marie Reed [Elementary School].”
McCarthy said the two-building plan “has to do with the sources of funding for the affordable housing,” but it also would facilitate the unequal quality of the build-out in these mixed-income, affordable housing projects, which the government permits. In some instances, according to McCarthy, the “finishes” vary. No granite countertops for those paying below market rate, for example.
The bad situation at Portner Place is exacerbated by the fact that residents of the complex have endorsed their own segregation. Wanda Simms, vice president of the tenant association, told The Post that they were presented with several ideas. “One idea would have scattered us among market-rate professionals with different needs and wants than our majority family and elderly community.”
The tenants bought into the notion that they would be inundated by a foreign element that means them no good. The selling of such subtle prejudice happens every day in the United States. It keeps us from exploring the common ground between us and expanding our shared humanity.
Fortunately, the deal remains unsealed. The District’s zoning commission has scheduled a public hearing for October. According to McCarthy, the panel has made clear that it wishes to “see an explicit discussion of the rationale [for the separation], including hearing directly from the tenants.”
D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the Democratic nominee for mayor, has oversight of housing issues. She told me the city invested $2 million to retain the affordable housing units at Portner Place. “Putting up the money was the right thing to do. Otherwise, you would be asking me why am I letting those poor people get put out.”
She cautioned that the “process was just getting started” and that without zoning approval it would not go forward. But “we want to encourage the production of as many affordable housing units as possible.” Bowser said later this year the council is scheduled to consider legislation that would require 20 percent to 30 percent of all government-funded projects to be composed of affordable units.
When pressed about the apparent segregation at Portner Place of low-income residents, she said, “I haven’t seen the design. I haven’t read the Office of Planning report, and I haven’t talked to the people who live there.”
Does she need to do any of that to know something is inherently wrong and that permitting the project to move forward could establish a precedent that could further exacerbate class divisions in the city?