Events touting D.C.’s economic triumphs have become all too common — after all, there is much to celebrate. The city is dotted with cranes and beer gardens with kombucha on tap, bicycle lanes, restaurants, pricey taquerias, high-end condos and frequent sightings of former Mayor Anthony Williams, the nerdy “superhero” who tightened the economic screws and “saved” D.C. from itself. “Thanks to Mayor Williams, the city can run on autopilot” has become a frequent refrain.
This autopilot scenario was based on the prevailing wisdom that if you can spur development and improve services then you can attract more affluent residents and rebuild a dwindling tax base. The plan worked. Developers descended on D.C. with a vengeance followed by a wave of millennials who discovered D.C. as a cool, livable city. The rising tide came with the promise of lifting all boats. However, anyone who has been out on a river when the tide is rising knows the limitations of this analogy. While a high tide can raise large yachts and big boats, it can also cause smaller less equipped vessels to be destroyed and capsize. Even Mr. Williams in a recent article in the Business Journal admitted that had he known what he knows now about the unprecedented displacement, he would have used a less aggressive approach to development.
Despite D.C.’s enviable economic gains, some communities, especially ones east of the river, continue to struggle to stay afloat. They continue to be plagued by gun violence, poverty, a broken school system, an alarming shortage of affordable housing and a health care system that is akin to that of a third-world country. What is perceived as completely unacceptable and intolerable west of the Anacostia River, has become normalized on the east side. These communities, which are predominantly Black, are traumatized daily by the lack of opportunities, the spread of K2 and other mind-altering drugs and the violence that has become all too routine. By almost any measure, Black residents of the District fall far behind their white counterparts. A recent Census Bureau report showed that D.C. has the highest wealth disparity in the nation. White families in D.C., on average, are 81 times richer than Black ones and this chasm continues to widen. Black unemployment is 13% compared to 2% for whites. Median earnings are half. In the past 4 years, D.C. has built 3,000 units of housing affordable to the poorest households, yet 27,000 households that are very low income spend more than half their income on housing. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, at the current rate, it will take 40 years to meet just current needs. There is no shortage of data and statistics to show the enormous need.
Efforts by the city government to mitigate these glaring disparities have come too little too late and are often accompanied by disdain toward and marginalization of the poor. A few “affordable” housing units, one-off school programs, a new school building or community center are welcome initiatives but can barely scratch the surface of what is needed to close these gaps. Rather than repairing the damage created by decade, if not century-old, policies and institutions that gave rise to these despicable conditions, the government has turned its back on the most vulnerable of our residents. It has stood on the sidelines as neighborhood after neighborhood are swallowed by the tide of gentrification. Fragile communities are oftentimes displaced with the promise of better conditions down the road. These disruptions create enormous stress, confusion, and disorientation to already fragile families and individuals.
Discussions around these issues have become commonplace with much hand wringing, head shaking and a general sense of resignation. Yet things continue to deteriorate. Gentrification is perceived as an invisible force, relentless and unstoppable. People are left with little options as to how to fix the problem and blamed for their personal woes when things don’t work out. “If only you can work harder, be smarter, study more, be more resilient, you too can make it in this booming economy.”
After years of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different outcomes, it has become more and more apparent that you can’t fix decades of neglect on the cheap. What is needed is a massive effort on the part of the city government to repair this damage. We need to rethink Mayor Williams’ vision and reimagine a city that doesn’t just serve the rich and highly educated but also those residents who are most impacted by this change. What is needed is real reparations in order to repair decades of neglect. This is not some utopian ideal, but a marshal plan to eradicate poverty and the cycle of dependency that has become an acceptable reality in D.C.. The days of Thanksgiving turkey giveaways and school lotteries should be relics of the past. They are an embarrassment to all of us and unbecoming to a city with so many resources. Rather than just giving handouts, we need to uplift people and restore their sense of pride and dignity that every human being deserves. Our budget says a lot about where our priorities are. Reparations is a priority that we cannot continue to delay. Setting aside 1% of the city budget for this purpose will go a long way in ensuring that we are serious about this work. It is time for D.C. to not just talk the talk but walk the walk and set an example for the rest of the country.
Shallal is a business owner in Ward 8.