Gentrification Brings Massive Change to D.C., U.S. Cities

At gentrification’s height, the phenomenon roared across the District of Columbia with a vengeance, generating the influx of 1,100 new residents a month.

Proud Black residents watched as the complexion of their beloved “Chocolate City” shifted from Black to white and multi-ethnic. Meanwhile, longtime native Washingtonians, primarily middle-class residents, and others with more modest means, were pushed out, unable to pay soaring rents and high-priced houses. The city’s out-of-control cost of living spiraled upwards, making affordable housing, for the most part, elusive.

Politicians, policymakers, urban planners and experts assess the changes in Washington, D.C. and see great progress. Similarly, some residents welcome the new wave of suburbanization that has brought with it wealthier residents, a broader tax base, skyrocketing prices of homes and other dwellings, and new investments.

But the significant differences between Blacks and whites in education, income, wealth accumulation and access to well-paying jobs translates into an inability among many Black residents to afford rent and mortgage payments.

Gentrification has also produced tension and lingering resentment between Blacks and whites, old residents and new, Old-Settlers and newcomers. How best can converging communities live hospitably as One D.C.? According to many The Informer queried: by reexamining the impact of gentrification on longstanding communities.

“Gentrification has gone wild in D.C., San Francisco, Portland, Pittsburgh and Atlanta,” said Derek Hyra, an American University professor and author of three books on gentrification in New York City, Chicago and D.C., including “Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City.” “We also have this back-to-the-city movement of millennials. In D.C., 52 percent of low-income tracts have been gentrified and the city is second in the nation in terms of gentrification. The 2000 wave has been so intense that Columbia Heights, Shaw, LaDroit have been changed and the wave is moving East. So many neighborhoods have been hit. This isn’t an issue for one or two communities, it’s one affected the city.”

Hyra said he’s very concerned about the disparities based on race, ethnicity and wealth that have been exacerbated by the push of gentrification.

“Gentrification should be an integration, not a takeover. D.C. is on one of its best financial footings in a long time. The operating budget this year was $14 billion. The wave is associated with a reduction in crime, parks have been upgraded, libraries have been built, and there’s been an increase in property values. D.C. has grown economically. In the last 15 years, the pie has grown bigger, but income and wealth inequities have also increased.”

“It’s clear the money isn’t being distributed more equitably to low-income workers and other residents. We have to work hard to make a just city.”

Affordable housing advocate David C. Bowers said the H Street (Northeast) and U Street (Northwest) corridors, which have been transformed by gentrification, caused a ripple phenomenon of pricing out long-term residents and those with modest incomes, even as about 20 percent of District residents already spend half of every dollar they bring home on housing.

“About 30 percent of the population in the city and the region are paying 50 percent of their incomes on rent; and the fair market price for rent in this region has increased by 70 percent over the past 10 years,” said Bowers. “It’s a severe problem. We’ve lost affordable housing units in D.C. and Northern Virginia as rents have increased and incomes have not kept pace.”

Gentrification and the massive boon to accommodate the influx of tens of thousands of new residents to the District have fueled a housing shortage for middle and lower-income residents. Those with higher incomes have snapped up houses at such a rate that it has exacerbated the shortage which regional officials and public and private partners are struggling to correct.

Bowers said one in five D.C. households now pay more than half of their income towards rent. For families with low and moderate incomes this means that they have little left over each month for basic necessities like transportation and food. It also makes them more likely to be one job loss or illness away from homelessness.

Experts, including Moody’s Investors Services, Fitch Ratings, and Standard & Poor’s, attribute the crisis in affordable rental properties to the housing collapse and record foreclosures across the country that began in 2006. Additionally, the growth in renters has worsened an already troubling problem – the inadequate supply of affordable housing. The gap between housing costs and typical worker earnings will continue to grow until or unless more affordable housing becomes available.

“Mission has not been accomplished. Millions of people are drowning, struggling to stay afloat,” said Bowers, who likened the affordable housing shortage to a lifeguard saving a few people, while thousands drown. “We need to have to have a greater sense of urgency about those unmet needs and search for creative solutions.”

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