The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Housing justice is a basic human right

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Lisa Wise is the chief executive of the real estate company Flock D.C.

The real estate industry, property management included, has a history of toxic and racist practices that make up its origin story of profitability. Try as I might, it’s impossible to divorce our success from this history. While we believe fundamentally that quality, dignified housing is a basic human right, this right is largely reserved — by design and policy — for White people.

I could argue that this is not a past we contributed to, but the reality is that my company continues to reap its benefits. This makes us responsible for working toward an equitable and racially just future in housing. Understanding the past is part and parcel of creating that equitable future.

It seems like an uphill battle when The Post reports median home prices in D.C. are north of $1 million. This is a data point celebrated by many homeowners awash inequity and spirit-crushing for those with dreams of ownership in D.C. What’s left for most is a rental market that too often has earned its bad reputation. The most alarming part? None of this happened by accident.

Property owners and managers have played a starring role in discrimination in housing. Sadly, at times housing policy has, intentionally delivered codified and practiced systemic racism throughout the country. These trends have played out in the real estate sales market, and property management has contributed mightily to this injustice.

Intentionally restricted housing inventory has fed discriminatory practices in D.C. and beyond. Segregation suppressed the supply of decent housing for Black and brown residents. The industry’s economics favored lowering the basic living standards for largely urban homes while increasing prices along the way.

White families were being repositioned in shiny new homes outside urban cores. Their tax dollars created thriving schools and neighborhoods that were more or less homogeneous by design. Segregation in real estate has been thriving along with the intergenerational advantage White landowners have enjoyed from the very beginning. Along with it, inequity, discrimination and oppression also surge — but under the framework of policies that were, at least on paper, intended to achieve the opposite.

Think public housing, public-private housing partnerships and, under the Federal Housing Administration, the emergence of predatory inclusion, which paired qualified Black mortgage applicants with substantially substandard housing or unfair loans. This rinse-and-repeat cycle generated a new and profitable foreclosure industry, and those homes were either resold or placed back into the rental market, where inventory was as low as the housing quality.

Today, the story is similar. One-third of D.C.-owned public housing is nearly uninhabitable You have to wonder what details separate barely livable from uninhabitable. It’s likely a matter of degree. And history isn’t just repeating itself with public housing stock but in the private rental market as well.

Let’s look at the affordable housing and voucher programs in D.C. Residents with subsidies (housing vouchers) face explicit (and implicit) bias from an industry with active workarounds for property owners who don’t want to comply with fair housing laws. These cheats include raising prices for listings over the market rate to avoid voucher applicants and using unrealistic credit scores or rental history as screening criteria. Some openly turn away voucher applicants or use technology workarounds on their listings to “kick out” inquiring applicants with subsidized income, most of whom, in this region, are people of color. One new trend is to include a “subscription fee” for folks interested in merely seeing active rental listings from that company. Individuals with subsidies aren’t typically positioned (or dumb enough) to pay a fee just to see possible listings. These practices are blatantly and dangerously discriminatory.

Simply banning property owners from discriminating against applicants with subsidies is not enough. Unfortunately, there are significant barriers and disincentives for those industry professionals interested in creating pathways for applicants with subsidies provided by governmental programs. Inspection hurdles, bureaucratic hoops and extended timelines mean some owners with applicants waiting urgently for housing have units sit vacant for months and months while program compliance is being sought. This substantially slows the pace of the market for those in urgent need of essential, dignified housing. Even a missing street number can push availability timelines by months.

We’re ready to break those patterns and envision a future where housing justice is a basic human right.

Read more:

Kirby Vining: Are the proposed changes to D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan already out of date?

Yuliya Panfil: Gentrification in the D.C. area pushes people from homes and away from transit

Brianne K. Nadeau: Get serious about affordable housing

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