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Stories of Gentrification: Homeowners Send Message to Millennials

Amid D.C.’s ever-expanding gentrification, in which numerous blacks are being displaced daily for a variety of reasons, four black female long-term homeowners in the city are imploring younger generations to understand the value of real estate and to stay and fight for it.

Anita Shelton, moved to D.C. from Englewood, New Jersey, as she prepared to attend Howard University. She has owned her house in Ward 1 for 47 years and says her house is a part of her struggle and her story.

“Me coming to the this block was a little bit surprising, because it was always very difficult to come on this side of 16th Street,” she said. “Suburban in the city is what I call it. In the mornings I can hear the lions roaring from the [National Zoo]. Plenty of people have asked to buy my home, but where would I move? No one wants to pay me for what the house is really worth, so where would I be able to afford to go?  I cannot afford to buy a house here in D.C. now.

“This has always pretty much been a white area, but when I first moved here, there were still more black people than what they are now,” Shelton said. “Once this area was declared an historic district, we all knew what was going to happen. Drive the prices up high. High in a high-voting area.

“I don’t know why, but this ideal of gentrification seems to give [white people] a sense of entitlement over me,” she said. “I painted my porch blue and they had a problem with it. I didn’t change my porch back, but it was the audacity. The idea of gentrification disturbs them. They like to attribute these drastic changes to the city just flourishing, but that is not entirely true.

“The next generation has to look in the long range,” Shelton said. “If you inherit a piece of property, God in heavens, don’t sell it! Understand the value of being a landowner in the District of Columbia.”

Two native Washingtonian sisters in their 60s who both owned property in Wards 4 and 5 expound on their perceptions of the sometimes-taboo word gentrification.

“Quite honestly, millennials, some of your loans can be paid off when you have a real estate,” said Vanella Jackson-Crawford, one the siblings. “In order build wealth in families, someone must own land. You don’t get that then you are killing us all. It s a link that has to be made.

“For instance, many officials in D.C. have taken so many resources from the urbans areas in Capitol Hill,” she said. “A group and myself use to go around in the late 1980s and 1990s and knock on doors and beg black people not to sell their house, but many obviously did, because for them they didn’t yet understand the importance of their history and their legacy and $15,000 seemed like a lot. But what is it worth now?”

Though many residents fervently oppose the idea of gentrification, her sister, Zillah F. Jackson-Wesley, said many only have themselves to blame.

“I know many of our people who have sold three or four houses to get to places like Rockville and to that I’m just like, you gave the city away,” Jackson-Wesley said. “I don’t feel bad about gentrification, I’m happy about it. The city you gave away when you sold or homes or did not show up to town meetings is now here for me and my family. A better opportunity for someone else.”

Sylvia Bennett, a 63-year-old Ward 4 resident who migrated from the Bronx in New York City, said though she sees some immediate effects of gentrification, she doesn’t necessarily see it all as divisive, particularly in comparison to the way gentrification was done in New York.

“I am a transplanter in D.C. and I experienced gentrification in a whole different way from when I was growing up in Bronx, New York, and [saw] how the drug abuse changed [that] community,” Bennett said. “I’ve seen effects now just in the last 10 years that I have been here. Now the age of the community has changed. I’m now the oldest resident and I’ve only been here for 20 years, but my experience has been overall neutral. But I still never have any intentions to sell my house. That’s for my daughter, that’s the inheritance that I am leaving her.”

There are many components and contributing factors to gentrification, but another native Washingtonian and historian who grew up on the black side of Ward 1 and now lives in Ward 4 said economics is a main one.

“When you think about gentrification you have to factor in what ward of the city you live in and what ward of the city you grew up in,” said Rita Epps, 71. “That makes the difference in your perception. Most of the time, gentrification happens when there is an economic downturn, and so it’s about race, but it’s also about economics. Millennials, value your history.”

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Lauren M. Poteat

Lauren Poteat is a versatile writer with a strong background in communications and media experience with an additional background in education and development.

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