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date: 30 July 2021

Washington, DC, Gentrification and Housing Policies infree

Washington, DC, Gentrification and Housing Policies infree

  • Katie J. Wells

Housing Crises

Gentrification, as a term, was born in the 1960s by an urban sociologist studying some of the changes afoot in inner London. The sociologist Ruth Glass used the term to ironically describe the arrival of a “gentry” or middle-class population in working-class neighborhoods. She noticed a redevelopment of historic homes, an influx of wealthier and whiter residents, and a replacement of tenant populations with owner-occupants. For her, and many subsequent urban researchers, these processes encompass shifts in everyday ways of living as well as structural shifts in institutional and economic practices. Today, gentrification, “the production of space for—and consumption by—a more affluent and very different incoming population,” is one of the most prominent characteristics of urban space. It is also a mainstream public policy strategy for cities across the world.

The kind of urban change that the term “gentrification” signals, however, is not new. The desire to make urban development profitable has shaped housing production and distribution in places like Washington, D.C. for more than two centuries. From its colonial inception on the land of the Nacotchtank American Indians, racialized housing policies have shaped the lives of African American residents in Washington, D.C. Gentrification represents a new variation on old struggles in the city about racial equality, rights to self-governance, and who benefits when residential space is treated as a commodity.

Speculative Beginnings

When the first federal government employees arrived in Washington, DC in 1800, real-estate speculation already dominated the ten-year-old capital. The possibility of cheap land had motivated the new US Congress to choose the undeveloped ten-square-mile plot as its new capital. But many of the first politicians, including George Washington, speculated heavily with the new government lands, trying to attract foreign investors and hold profitable auctions rather than prioritizing infrastructure development. In the early nineteenth century half-built houses, unfinished public infrastructures, and unpaved and unlit streets dotted the city.

Though Washington was designed to be outside of state jurisdictions so as to protect the national government from local pressures, the city was not protected from the whims of the federal government. When the Congress granted Washington a city charter, it stripped residents of the right to vote for the president, to have congressional representation, and to collect a number of taxes. The earliest members of Congress were also largely anti-urban, uninterested in taking up a permanent residency in Washington, and so supportive only of the urban development projects on the streets and buildings nearest to its operations, not in the city at large. From the beginning, the city was underfunded, its power limited, and its housing stock deeply inadequate.

Political Progress and Expansive Planning

Congressional distrust in local residents was tied to the city's growing population of African Americans and their struggles for racial equality. In the early 1800s, though it held one of the most active slave depots, Washington was one of the most common destinations for freed slaves. By the 1850s it was the US city with the largest percentage of free African American residents. In the 1860s the number of African American residents reached forty thousand. Freed African Americans made the city a hub for the national abolitionist movement, developed an expansive network of communal resources, and opened a number of local private schools. Residents put African American leaders into political offices and made aggressive planning improvements like paving streets in front of wealthy and poor residents alike and employing thousands of African American laborers in the process. In the first four years of the 1870s, laborers built 150 miles of road, 120 miles of sewers, 30 miles of water mains, 39 miles of gas lines, and 208 miles of sidewalks.

In the wake of these changes in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a new city began to take shape. Real-estate agents, speculators, and property investors—who often included Congress members—became the city's most important businesses. Alongside this speculation wave, integrated neighborhoods began to disappear. Places like the northwest quadrant, which had housed large numbers of African American residents and major African American institutions, transformed into predominantly white areas. Other places like alley dwellings, which had been the go-to places for white and African American migrants, transformed into almost exclusively African American areas. White owners built, subdivided, and traded alley dwellings with profits double those from traditional street-front lots. The majority of African Americans were renters and subject to displacement pressures. But African American residents who owned their homes responded to the speculation frenzy differently than their white counterparts and, as a result, they became sources of resentment. Many African American real-estate owners refused to sell their land despite efforts by white realtors to buy them out.

To facilitate the expansive public works, local officials levied bonds, raised property tax assessments, and ran huge deficits. Although the Congressional committee that oversaw the city welcomed the public service improvements and the rise in property values, it could not come to terms with the debt that had made these changes possible. Local officials defended these practices as the only option, and a reasonable one: If the federal land in the city were taxable, local officials would not have to go to such extremes to fund basic public operations; and, the per-capita debt in the city was less than that of New York, Boston, or Jersey City. Congress, like many white Americans across the country, disagreed and saw the large outlays as evidence of the poor judgments of an inexperienced African American populace. In 1874 Congress revoked Washington, DC residents’ ability to direct urban planning and elect a local governing body.

Federal Interventions

For the next one hundred years the federal government largely turned its back on the question of housing crises and the housing struggles of low-income African American residents in Washington. Unlike its counterparts in South America or Europe, the US federal government did not see itself as responsible for the provision of low- and moderate-income housing or capable of making such provisions. Most government interventions concerning housing policies in Washington, which often served as a model or test case for federal initiatives, were limited to housing regulations on building construction. An almshouse had been built in the city in 1806 and the Freedman's Bureau had created low-income rental housing for former slaves, but few other federal attempts to provide relief for the housing shortage were made. Even though the housing shortage had been created in part by the unmet needs of federal government workers during the wars, the federal government supported the idea that the private market forces would need to remedy the problem.

When the federal government did intervene, it sometimes made the housing crisis worse for African American residents. After a local housing reform movement led by white elites brought attention to the sanitary problems of alley dwellings in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the federal government tore down the crowded structures. They did so without adding to the existing housing stock or addressing the needs of alley dwellers, almost all of whom were African American. The problem, according to the reform movement, was the alley dwellings themselves—the physical spaces, which posed a threat to the new city beautiful idea and its belief that segregation of functions and better landscape designs lead to social improvements.

In 1941 Washington—with its low vacancy rates, unmet demands for housing, and unsafe and unmodern housing stock—was declared the nation's worst housing problem. During World War II four thousand people moved to the city each month. After the population boom, the federal government financed suburban houses for white buyers; prioritized the private housing industry over public housing provisions; provided almost no new public housing to African American residents; and razed entire neighborhoods. The rationale for these projects was different than that of the alley dwelling clearances. Housing, in the previous period, had been tied to questions of public health. Now federal officials approached housing problems in the postwar period as economic development challenges. The solution, according to federal officials, was not a redesign of housing production or distribution; the goal was to support the profitability of the housing industry.

National Test Cases: Urban Renewal and Model Cities

In the 1950s Congress created a master plan to try out in Washington, DC. The federal plan, called urban renewal, positioned an almost entirely African American neighborhood in Washington as a test case for the new national policy. At the time the city still lacked a comprehensive housing policy and strong local housing regulations. The first demonstration project razed 99 percent of the 5,600 housing units in the southwest quadrant of the city. Some of those units destroyed were as sound as upscale houses in the tony Georgetown neighborhood. But the federal agency that oversaw urban renewal projects refused to approve a plan for Southwest neighborhoods of rehabilitation and rental housing rather than bulldozers and homeownership. The Southwest area, which was home to 23,500 people and had some of the city's most substandard housing structures in terms of plumbing, central heating, electricity, and rats, was condemned en masse. The project created mass displacement of African American residents, destroyed their community, and worsened the housing crisis for these low- and moderate-income residents. When the project was completed, white residents filled almost 90 percent of the new units, which were largely market-rate.

The failure of urban renewal to create a meaningful change to the experiences of low- and moderate-income African American residents in Washington had an inadvertent effect. It contributed to mobilizations of residents whose numbers and power were growing. Amid rising rents and inflation, decreasing funds for public housing, and growing demands for economic equality by African American residents, tenant struggles and resident mobilizations escalated. Low- and moderate-income residents demanded to be involved in decisions involving neighborhood planning. Residents took direct actions against landlords for inadequate maintenance, held protests at city council meetings, and conducted the city's first rent strikes. African American middle-class tenants modeled their organizing efforts on tenant councils from public housing communities as tenants across class and racial lines contributed to a growing sense of urgency about questions of decent and fair housing. Land ownership was still largely inaccessible to African American residents and African American developers. Even when African American residents did own property, the white Board of Trade controlled zoning and blocked attempts by African Americans to build low- and moderate-income housing.

In the 1960s the federal Model Cities program, which began with a demonstration neighborhood in Northwest Washington, sought to address some of these concerns. Unlike urban renewal, it required that residents be in involved in planning, prioritized renovation of existing housing stock, and included funding for social welfare initiatives. But like urban renewal, it still turned to the private housing industry as a critical partner. If the government had financed housing production itself, rather than supported the middleman industry of real-estate through these federal programs, it could have saved two billion dollars per year and possibly come closer to solving the ongoing urban housing crisis.

Citywide Tenant Revolts and Home Rule

The uprisings that shook Washington, DC in April 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. can be seen, in part, as a response to centuries of urban planning injustices, strained race relations, and police brutality. More than 1,200 buildings burned, property damage reached $24.7 million, and 2,600 people were arrested. Almost 90 percent of those arrested had jobs and many with the federal government. This was a riot not about unemployment or poverty per se but about the lack of African American capital, the lack of African American power in urban planning, and the lack of decent housing for African American residents.

An influx of affluent white residents and a mass exodus of African American middle class residents to the suburbs in the 1970s added an important layer to these urban development politics. Mass out-migration of white, middle class families in the 1960s had transformed the city into the first majority African American city in the country. But now African American city residents not only had to contend with Congressional oversight and material disinvestment. They also faced the question of what to do about a decreasing tax base and new wealthy and mostly white migrants.

The number of families who lacked adequate housing topped 260,000. Waiting lists for public housing grew, the number of low-income rentals fell, and the public housing supply shrank. There was a rush of condominium conversions and across the city, tenants—the majority of whom were African American—were priced out of their homes. At the moment that African American renters became eligible for federally backed mortgages and won protections against discrimination in leasing, housing starts shrank, credit for the housing industry dried up, funding for public housing was diverted, and affordability in the housing markets disappeared.

In the 1970s a citywide tenant revolt erupted. If the metropolitan region had indeed become the wealthiest in the US, for whom had benefits accrued? The moment for answers arrived in 1974 when the city finally achieved limited self-governance after a hundred years of Congressional control. That year the federal Home Rule Act went into effect. City residents elected their own mayor and a thirteen-member city council, all but two of whom were African American and more than half of whom had some kind of alliance with the radical Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In its first five years the city council passed some of the country's strongest anti-displacement and pro-tenant policies, including rent controls, a condominium conversion moratorium, limited-equity cooperative housing provisions, a speculation tax, and eviction restrictions. Housing policies were finally at the top of the political agenda.

The goal of these policies and others like them was to make the housing market more equitable and ensure that incoming housing developers respected the needs of existing residents. Nonetheless policymakers also decided against strict requirements for commercial development. Real estate was still one of the largest private industries in the city, made significant contributions to the tax base, and offered what some saw as one of the few chances for economic power for African American residents. The robust local economy made these two seemingly inconsistent approaches to urban policy—laissez-faire responses to commercial development and stringent requirements for residential development—appear viable if not reconcilable in the 1980s.

A New Municipal Regime

The 1990s were a different story. The local government's corruption and latent inefficiencies become harder to manage. Then the real estate market crashed. The city's fiscal base, which was already struggling with a drug epidemic, was sent into a tailspin. Policymakers could not balance the budget despite all kinds of creative accounting and approached the federal government for assistance. In response, the Republican Congress declared the city fiscally insolvent and set up a congressionally directed control board to govern all major functions of the heavily Democratic city until the budget could be balanced for four consecutive terms. Although a series of factors unrelated to local policy decisions shaped the city's fiscal crisis, the official solution was a singular and decisive shift in urban policy, especially regarding property development and gentrification.

In 1998 a new municipal regime emerged. City residents elected a city council whose members were majority white, not African American like the population they represented. City residents also elected a mayor who had an Ivy League finance background, not a history of civil rights activism like his predecessors. In keeping with the entrepreneurial ideology popping up in cities across the country, these policymakers levied public monies to build a stadium for Major League baseball, privatized a city hospital, and set a goal to attract 100,000 new young professional and empty-nester residents who would contribute to the city's tax base. Alongside these deals and a number of regionally competitive tax increment financing projects, the city government pursued home ownership opportunities for new migrants rather than improved housing conditions for its longtime renters.

Condo City

Today Washington, DC has the third highest rate of income inequality of all US cities. The top 5 percent of households averaged incomes of $473,000 in 2011, while the bottom fifth sat at $9,100. The city's notably low unemployment rate, which was 5.7 percent in 2012, can hide these dynamics. In 2011 a cluster of neighborhoods in the city's mostly poor and African American southeast quadrant had the highest jobless rate in the country. In the twenty-first century the number of African American residents in the city dropped by forty thousand and now makes up just less than 50 percent of the city's six hundred thousand residents. This decrease, which has helped to create a city in which people are increasingly either white and wealthy or poor and of color, is significant. This is a place that in the 1950s became the country's first African American majority city and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with its newfound self-governance and African American majority government, passed some of the country's strongest anti-displacement legislation. In earlier decades the possibility of an urban future not plagued by inequality was real in Washington.

The current demographic extremes in Washington have been discussed at length and with frequency in national media and local press outlets. But this coverage, which sometimes appears like an obsessive fascination, focuses on the characteristics of urban change—the new contrasting landscapes, the flaring racial tensions among Latinos, African Americans, Ethiopians, and whites, and the preferences and lifestyle choices of young professionals with disposable incomes. What is rarely discussed is that these social, economic, and physical changes did not just happen to Washington. Here, as elsewhere, there has been a concerted effort by policymakers, business leaders, and residents over decades and centuries to build a certain kind of place. The kinds of changes that have helped to make landscapes of luxury condominiums, wine bars, yoga studios, pie shops, and Asian-fusion tapas restaurants on U Street Northwest, the former “Black Broadway,” were not inevitable but the effects of concerted and contested development policies. Between 2008 and 2013, for instance, city officials sold two hundred million dollars’ worth of public property to private developers at deeply discounted rates. Such decisions to pursue these sales support a particular vision of the city in which the development industry is important, its growth desirable, and its profit-making projects laudable.

Place-making changes may be something that's happened since the dawn of time. But how change is pursued and who benefits from such change are questions about power. Gentrification, the market-based strategy for building a certain kind of space and society, was not inevitable. Gentrification of the twenty-first century was also not new. Housing and urban planning in Washington, DC have been shaped by more than two hundred years of struggles over self-governance and racial inequality.


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