There is a long, well-documented history of legal housing discrimination in the District. Post-Civil War seizures of black-owned land to create parks and roads, restrictive covenants, mortgage redlining and urban renewal displaced African American communities and maintained racial segregation. We do not need to look to history, however. The current wave of gentrification that is breaking up black communities, increasing inequality and enhancing segregation finds its roots in policies initiated in recent years.
Despite the District’s financial crisis, at the end of the last century, mixed-race and mixed-income neighborhoods were more common. From 1980 to 2000, racial integration of the District was increasing. Now what integration exists is largely temporary in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
In the early 2000s, in an effort to bring more tax income into the city’s coffers, policies were set in motion that led to the crisis we are facing today. In April 2003, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) announced a plan to attract 100,000 new residents.
The plan targeted specific neighborhoods for redevelopment, including Shaw, H Street NE, Near Southeast, Congress Heights, Petworth, Fairlawn, Takoma, Bellevue and Minnesota/Benning. Each of the targeted neighborhoods was overwhelmingly African American and had experienced decades of disinvestment by privat e actors and the government. These neighborhoods were identified as having “untapped potential” and “identifiable opportunity sites.”
The plan called for the District government to “coordinate commercial, housing and capital investments.” The District government has done just that. Economic development and land use policy decisions encourage private investment that causes housing costs to rise dramatically. Keeping with the goal of increasing tax revenue, new amenities were created for wealthier new residents. Little to nothing was targeted to benefit those who had lived in the communities for generations. They were simply expected to get out of the way.
Families have been deeply hit by the resulting crisis. In rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, family-size rental housing has been replaced with smaller units. Housing cost pressures have driven working and poor families out while richer and mostly white singles and young couples have moved in. Families are forced to move to more remote and segregated parts of the District.
Displacement interferes with economic opportunity and sustains income inequality. Workers who are forced out of neighborhoods with access to transportation to a more remote corner of the city find it harder and costlier to get to work. Low-wage work can have unpredictable hours, making reliable and efficient transportation essential. Access to opportunities for employment is among the most effective strategies to lift families out of poverty and
create other opportunities
for social mobility. Had the District taken into account the racial justice impact of its decisions regarding economic development and housing policy, we could have had a very different outcome.
Without question, the neighborhoods the District targeted for investment had been ignored for far too long, and investment was long overdue. But investment could and should have been made for the benefit of the long-term residents who have lived in and built lives and communities in neighborhoods throughout the District.
The District government need not choose between a healthy economy and lifting up existing residents and communities. That is a false choice. The transformation of the District, which has left far too many African American residents asking “Is there a D.C. for me?,” could have been avoided.