Affordable Housing Crisis Plagues D.C. Residents

Columbia Heights residents have been affected by new housing developments in the community. (Jonathan Franklin)
Columbia Heights residents have been affected by new housing developments in the community. (Jonathan Franklin)

Columbia Heights is known for its panoramic view of downtown D.C., racial diversity, numerous businesses — both small and retail — and its bustling restaurant scene.

But despite all of the positives, Columbia Heights struggles with a lack of affordable housing for its residents.

“I have lived in the area for over 12 years now and by the looks of it over time, there has been constant change in housing, mostly negative,” said Sheri Johnson, a longtime resident of the Columbia Heights neighborhood and a recipient of the District’s affordable housing services. “It seems as though there has been a new, expensive living option popping up in the area every year.”

The insufficient amount of affordable housing continues to be a crisis that many communities across the country face. According to The Washington Post, nearly 40 percent of households in the District being recipients of affordable housing, 47,000 families are on the D.C. Housing Authority’s waiting list for public housing, and more than 7,500 people are homeless. The process for obtaining affordable housing in the District comes with many hoops and hurdles — going through an extensive application process, income verification and lottery pool — as affordable housing is a crucial need for many residents across the eight wards.

Within the Columbia Heights-Mount Pleasant jurisdiction, numerous residents live in affordable-housing units. According to a study conducted by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, nearly 26,000 households across the District are both extremely low-income and are spending more than half of their income on rent, taking into account the 77 percent of renters that are in need of affordable housing have lower incomes.

According to the Department of Housing and Community Development’s website, specific income requirements must be met to qualify for affordable housing. For a one-person household, the area median income must not exceed $38,050; for two persons, $43,450; and for three persons, $48,900.

Surveying specifically within the Columbia Heights neighborhood — in conjunction with the nearby neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan — residents of affordable housing make up a majority of the Northwest’s low-income and affordable housing percentage within the District.

Residents who have relied on affordable housing over the years are beginning to be forced out of the now-booming neighborhood due to the continuous revitalization efforts within the thriving community.

The new form of gentrification

In the late 1990s, revitalization efforts in the Columbia Heights neighborhood began to flourish, as the city announced an effort to revitalize the area, which included the opening of the Columbia Heights Metro station in 1999. With the efforts of development taking place in terms of retail stores such as the opening of DC USA — a complex of retail stores including Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Best Buy — and restaurants such as IHOP and Panera Bread, this only proved to the community that change in terms of gentrification was in store for the neighborhood when it came to housing.

“There have been new waves of gentrification in the area for decades, dating back to almost 20-plus years,” said Jim Knight, executive director and CEO of Jubilee Housing. “As gentrification has heightened in the last 10 years particularly, following the redevelopment of the Columbia Heights Metro. It has [had] an effect on the housing market and the way affordable housing plays a role in the given community.”

Jubilee Housing, one of the leading affordable and low-income housing programs in the District, has continuously served the community for over 44 years and is taking on the challenge of preserving and establishing affordable housing. Jubilee’s services span across the neighborhoods of Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, and Adams Morgan in which they serve 800 individuals and families yearly.

Organizations such as Jubilee Housing have taken on the challenge of providing affordable housing for residents across the District, but are heavily relying on outside funds, donations and grants, since most of the organizations are nonprofits.

“One thing that we continue to struggle with — and that I wish could change — is the funding,” Knight said. “If there were more acquisition funding available to help Jubilee and other nonprofits purchase properties to prevent them from converting to market, affordable housing would not be at a loss.”

Are gentrified units serving a purpose?

Acquiring funds to help purchase properties across the three neighborhoods is an endless battle that many affordable-housing organizations in the District are struggling with, as larger corporations and markets sweep through and purchase buildings, older homes and land to convert into pricey condominiums and apartments.

“It’s very common to see a nice, upscale apartment next to or nearby one of our buildings,” said Erica Hollins, volunteer coordinator for Jubilee Housing’s youth and family services department. “While these buildings may attract large amounts of tenants — whether they may be individuals or families — you would think, ‘How could this building or property have served the community for those who need affordable housing?'”

With the gentrification efforts in the neighborhood taking place since the late 1990s, the impact could either have built a sense of community or even a sense of division for residents and those across the District.

“We believe housing is not just housing, but is something that includes many services and other program opportunities, while building that sense of community that may have been excluded or lost in the process,” said Sylvia Stokes, vice president of programs at Jubilee Housing.

While revitalization efforts surrounding Columbia Heights may be long gone, gentrification and the crisis of obtaining and securing affordable housing remains issues of greater concern for neighborhood residents.

“As the market demand will only increase, with more and more properties being converted to market rate condos and rentals, it makes this challenge only a tad bit difficult for us to tackle,” Knight said.

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