Category Archives: Housing Issues

Issues which impact affordable housing either locally (Washington DC) or nationally.

southwest_1939

Georgetown and Southwest DC: Two Histories, One Outcome

Image: DC’s Southwest Waterfront, a working class black community, before its destruction

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  -George Santayana

Over more than a century, two separate government initiatives resulted in the forceful displacement of 45,000 black Washingtonian families. In 2017, the replacement of those families with a new whiter, wealthier population draws near completion.

Black Georgetown

At the turn of the 20th century, Georgetown was home to a thriving black community. Excluded from many other neighborhoods close to downtown by racial property covenants, black residents were able to put down roots in Georgetown thanks to the area’s alley dwellings.

The alley dwellings, which were simply in-fill houses that faced towards alleys rather than along a city street, became home to black professionals, business owners, and social groups. At its peak, the community had half a dozen churches throughout Georgetown.

mt zion

Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Georgetown, early 1900s

But by the 1910s, the area was becoming more desirable to white families—and the importance of segregation was increasing at a national level. In large part driven by a desire to remove Georgetown’s black residents, federal officials declared alley dwellings a public health issue and created a plan for their demolition with the Alley Dwelling Act of 1914.

Certainly the alley dwellings, which often lacked indoor plumbing, were less than ideal for their residents. But neither were they all the unsalvageable monstrosities they were made out to be—with modifications, some still exist today, and they’re worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The campaign to displace black Georgetown continued for decades. By 1950, black residents made up only one-tenth of Georgetown’s population, down from 50 percent or more at its peak. As part of a final push for displacement, the Old Georgetown Act of 1950 was passed. This law included a provision requiring that all Georgetown homes be updated to meet new requirements for historic accuracy, with all plans needing to be approved by a federal oversight board.

Georgetown’s remaining black residents, as the bill’s authors likely realized, were largely unable to meet the expensive new standards. The veracity with which these standards were enforced, however, varied greatly. Stories from that time period tell of black families’ homes being seized for non-compliance, given a new coat of paint, and declared fully restored and ready for resale to white families.

The Southwest Waterfront

By the time Senator John F. Kennedy was buying a Georgetown home in 1957, the theft was complete—Georgetown was almost all white and very wealthy. But across town, another half-century of theft was just getting underway.

“Urban renewal” was all the rage in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. This renewal worked, in theory, by allowing local governments to determine areas where slum housing was prevalent. The local housing department was then empowered to seize these areas through eminent domain and redevelop them as a public good.

As problematic as that may sound, it was actually worse. Time and time again, in city after city, labeling an area a “slum” had much less to do with the condition of the area’s housing, and a great deal to do with the race of that housing’s occupants.

In DC, this process was run directly by the federal government. As we’ve written about before, federal officials declared that the working-class black neighborhood along the Southwest waterfront was, in fact, a slum.

sw dcBusinesses, like this one, did not escape Southwest DC’s demolition

The neighborhood was seized, bulldozed, and then somewhat inexplicably left mostly vacant for decades.

Just this year, the intention of that clearance has been brought to fruition. The first phase of the Wharf, DC’s new mega-development, recently opened along the Southwest waterfront. Despite receiving almost $300 million of public subsidy, it will hold just 180-odd units of affordable housing—with micro-units accounting for a third of that total. The rest of the development’s 650 units, plus hundreds more hotel rooms, will almost certainly cater to a wealthier, whiter clientele.

In this way, the twin processes complete themselves. Georgetown’s black population is long-gone, with government intervention having succeeded in moving their homes to white ownership. The Southwest waterfront neighborhood is resigned to the history books, and a mostly white, wealthy set of newcomers is now enjoying that area’s publicly subsidized amenities.

Through alley clearance and urban renewal, the federal government displaced an estimated 45,000 black Washingtonian families. To deal with the crisis they had wrought, they mandated the creation of a huge public housing network, located almost exclusively east of the Anacostia river. DC still deals with the resulting segregation and concentration of poverty to this day.

The District can and must do better. We can require that deals with public money build more affordable housing. We can support and subsidized projects that would create affordable units in high-income areas. We can increase funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund and the Home Purchase Assistance Program.

And most immediately, we can demand that plans for Phase Two at the Wharf be changed to include more and larger affordable homes. In light of our history, it would be only the smallest of first steps towards repentance.

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How to Kill a City? Start with Welfare for the Wealthy

“Our urban system is based on the theory of taking the peasant and turning him into an industrial worker. Now there are no industrial jobs. Why not keep him a peasant?”

That decades-old quote from Roger Starr, New York City’s former head of the Housing and Development Administration, ultimately led to his resignation. But Peter Moskowitz, in his new book How to Kill a City, argues that this is in fact the theory of governance that has dominated cities for the past fifty years.

It is, says Moskowitz, “gentrification as governance.”

Moskowitz takes readers on a brief tour of how gentrification is often covered in the media: bemused newscasters reading stories about hipsters moving into converted warehouses; blue-toned photos of new coffee shops alongside rundown buildings; longtime residents giving startled interviews about how fast things have changed.

coffee gent

Like this

The message in all of this is that gentrification just happens. It’s an almost mystical process. Even if we wanted to stop it, what could be done?

Highlighting the recent history of four cities—New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York City—Moskowitz unveils the systematic structures that support gentrification. By the time he’s done, it’s clear that gentrification doesn’t just happen. In fact, it’s an awful lot of work.

The first thing needed to promote gentrification as governance is the right mindset. As cities across the country grappled with budget shortfalls caused by white flight and federal cuts under President Reagan, local governments were forced to start buying bonds to cover their expenses.

This introduced corporate bond owners and, eventually, emergency managers as new, unelected players in local governance. They brought with them a novel concept, quickly adopted by their elected counterparts: cities should turn a profit.

Applying a business lens to city governance makes for some quick accounting. Poor people are liabilities—they need more assistance in healthcare, housing, and transportation than they pay in taxes. Rich people are assets—they pay more than they need in return.

As Moskowitz notes, this analysis completely ignores the centuries of theft from people of color (and government subsidy to white people) that created a racialized picture of American wealth. But never mind that now—there’s rich people to attract!

Sometimes, like in New Orleans, an external catastrophe provides the opportunity for change. After Hurricane Katrina, powerful locals were pretty explicit in their desire to build a city for a different population than the one that already lived there.

As one real estate developer was quoted saying at the time, “[T]he hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don’t come back. … The party’s finally over for these people and now they’re going to have to find someplace else to live in the U.S.”

City officials agreed. One city councilman at the time summed up the situation thusly. “There’s been a lot of pampering, and at some point you have to say, ‘no, no, no, no, no.’ We don’t need more soap opera watchers right now.”

One of the first steps in this transformation was the demolition of almost all public housing in New Orleans, despite the fact that the vast majority of this housing was not damaged by the storm.

In its place, mixed income developments have sprung up, with plenty of amenities and security for the newcomers. Through this process of demolition and redevelopment, over 12,000 low-income families lost their homes.

New Orleans also moved to make sure that different businesses thrived after the storm. Low-income areas were designated cultural districts, with tax breaks for artists. But these districts also included tax breaks for new businesses—and only new businesses. Newcomers were given credits to rehab old storefronts and to subsidize their operation, while longtime community businesses were cut out of the program.

new orleans

From The New Orleans Advocate.  See especially the change around Mid-City and neighborhoods to the east.

Similar dynamics are playing out all across the country.

In Detroit, the city government divested much of its responsibility to outside groups after it went through bankruptcy. The city’s targeted development areas are now in large part governed by the businesses themselves. Through advisory boards and nonprofits that they fund, developers get to make decisions on public transportation, policing, and even zoning policy. They are literally writing their own rules.

And those rules almost always cater to predominantly white newcomers at the expense of longtime black residents. Detroit’s corporate overlords have even gone so far as to institute a sort of reverse HPAP—a home purchase assistance program that is only available to their own (predominantly white and wealthy) employees.

Then there are the more standard developer giveaways: city land and tax breaks for developers to build market rate housing. Moskowitz doesn’t feature DC in his book, but it’s easy enough to imagine projects like The Wharf and its $300 million in public subsidy filling a chapter.

There are no easy answers in How to Kill a City. Moskowitz is upfront about the fact that moving towards truly equitable development will require a great deal of city planning and significant financial investment. But as the book makes clear, the only thing that takes more planning and more money than stopping gentrification is creating it.

Affordable Housing at The Wharf?

One of the largest developments to ever happen in DC, The Wharf, has finally revealed itself to many “Ooh’s & Ahh’s”. With progressive legislation in place, and a highly-celebrated public-private partnership, let’s see what is there for us in the affordable housing realm.

Manna.wharf

Of the 649 apartments becoming available in Phase 1, DC’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) highlights that 30% of the units will be affordable housing. But over one-third of those “affordable” units are considered workforce housing, pegged at 100% or 120% of AMI- or for those families making between $110,000 and $132,000  per year.

While it is not a problem to have “workforce housing” – it is a problem to have that included in the affordable housing calculations. It makes it confusing for the general public and forces us to scrutinize the numbers to see exactly what they’re talking about.

 The most confusing thing is DMPED spotlighting how half of the affordable housing units are for those households at 30% AMI and 60% AMI- but that is only true if the “workforce” units aren’t included in the calculation.

However, that same statement boasts how a third of the total 639 units are “affordable housing,” which can only be true if the “workforce” units ARE included in the calculation. You cannot have your cake and eat it too, DMPED.

You can't have your cake and eat it too... unless there's another cake we don't know about

You can’t have your cake and eat it too… unless there’s another cake we don’t know about

In any other situation, us housing advocates would be quite pleased to have 20% of a development’s units at less than 60% of AMI- because that’s about double what Inclusionary Zoning rules require- and us housing advocates are conditioned to accept whatever pieces of success we’re given.

manna.oliver

However, let us not forget that much of The Wharf came from the selling of public land by the district. WAMU’s story in 2013 revealed that the publicly-owned land valued at $95 million was sold to Paramount Development Corporation for *drumroll* $1.

manna.shock

Yes, you heard that right. $1. Oh yeah, plus $200 million in public subsidies and tax breaks. That is an incredibly steep price to pay for just 131 affordable units so far, one-third of which are micro-units.

Micro-Units, between 330-360 square feet

Micro-Units, between 330-360 square feet

And so, I think we are completely in the right to develop more transparency in this process and to ask why the numbers that DC’s DMPED highlights are not quite true to reality. Also, what is the point of a high percentage of affordable housing if there isn’t much housing to begin with? For a project this large, 649 units is not very much, plus the fact that there are more hotel rooms than apartment units, and so it seems to be another aspect of this development- and future developments- worthy of scrutiny.

Phase II of The Wharf is still in process, and let us all pay attention to ANY sale of public land that does not include high amounts of truly affordable housing, with opportunities to increase the equity of those DC residents who need it most.

TOPA: he-said, she-said

TOPA… where’s the cream filling?

DATA: THAT's the stuff!!!

DATA: THAT’s the stuff!!!

Something is missing in all of this talk about TOPA… data.

A hearing was held this past Thursday mulling over a change to the District’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which gives tenants a chance to match any offer by a third party looking to buy the tenants’ home. It’s one of DC’s best tenant protections, as well as a crucial way in which renters can become owners of their homes, and any attempt to change or weaken it is understandably met with considerable alarm.

But on Thursday, one of the most alarming things was the lack of cohesive data that either side could agree on. Data leads to facts, and facts should inform laws.

The change to TOPA currently being proposed is, on the surface, relatively minor—tenant advocates and the DC Association of Realtors (DCAR) have agreed on fixes to speed the TOPA process for single family homes, and both sides feel they’re close to reaching an agreement on tenants’ option to assign their TOPA rights to a third party (also just focusing on single family homes). However, the testimony went well beyond that, and the chair of the Council made ominous claims** towards a larger fight over TOPA.

In the hearing, Councilmember Anita Bonds (At-Large), who introduced the bill, and Chairman Phil Mendelson asked the realtors testifying from DCAR about how many successful buyouts  have occurred in their experience with cases involving TOPA.

The anecdotal remarks led to differences in the magnitude of 10x- from .5% to 5%.

Magnitudes of 10

Magnitudes of 10

The same questions posed to the legal counsel for tenants also produced questionable data. One of the tenant advocates testifying retorted that a tenant with good enough credit to execute TOPA rights isn’t seeking those in the legal counsel that were testifying at this hearing, implying that these questions about successful cases were anecdotal at best, and ridiculous to be putting on the record.

It should be noted that the metrics for which we evaluate TOPA depend on whether we define “success” as the tenants succeeding in purchasing their unit, “succeeding” at staying in their unit as a tenant, or “succeeding” by leveraging their TOPA rights so that they can see some small benefit from their displacement.

The fault is perhaps with the city for not tracking data on rental units in general, and those employing TOPA rights being an especially important aspect of that in this case. Due to obscure facts, those lobbying on both sides are putting forth data that supports their case, instead of being able to lay a factual foundation.

"I heard it through the grapevine, and I'm just about to lose my mind"

“I heard it through the grapevine, and I’m just about to lose my mind”

For the most innovative and impactful legislation that DC has to empower tenants, I am stupefied by the lack of data.

Here is an example of the data that I would like to see before changes are made:

The change to TOPA being discussed has the potential to effect _____ property owners and ______ tenants.

 

** Chairman Phil Mendelson went as far as encouraging “a flat-out exemption to single-family homes,” which was well beyond the scope of the legislative hearing

Cement the District’s commitment to affordable housing: Guarantee the HPTF

dc-rowhouses

It is time to cement the legacy of the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF). The housing crisis in DC has been well documented, and the issue is not going away anytime soon. The HPTF is the most powerful tool that the District has to address this crisis. It is time for the District to solidify funding for the HPTF so that we can move forward. Let us all encourage the passing of the Housing Production Trust Fund Guarantee Funding Amendment Act of 2017!

Right now, the HPTF gets most of its money from yearly budget allocations. For the past four years, the Mayor and the Council have gotten together on putting $100 million in the fund.

This investment is historic. However, it’s vulnerable to changing political will–the $100 million needs to be re-debated each and every year. What’s more, it still doesn’t meet the need that exists in DC!

That’s why this bill, introduced by Councilmember Anita Bonds (At-Large), would guarantee the HPTF’s budget at $120 million each year.

Note: People in need of equitable assistance are not to be likened to toddlers

Note: People in need of equitable assistance are not to be likened to toddlers

QUICK FACTS:

Did you know that the HPTF has been in existence since 1988? It didn’t receive significant investment until sixteen years after, in 2004 ($50 million), and didn’t have a fund balance of more than $100 million until 2013/14.

Did you know that $100 million is enough to build or preserve approximately 1,000 units?

Did you know the shortage of affordable units is in the tens of thousands? In December of last year, DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported that “26,000 extremely low-income DC households spend more than half their income on rent,” and that “only 2,100 received new help over the past six years.”

Did you know that in DC, people of color were doing economically worse in 2016 (most recent census data) than the year prior?

DC_neighborhoods_map

While there are criticisms of the HPTF, and whether it addresses those most in need, most critics and advocates agree that the fund is necessary and that it can be strengthened. Stabilizing the revenue source and guaranteeing its future can shift the focus towards managing it more effectively as we diversify our efforts.

There will be a public hearing on two bills related to the HPTF on Thursday, October 19th at 11:00 AM in the Wilson building, room 500. You can testify as an individual or as an organization, and if you cannot be there then you can send in written testimony to the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Suite 112, Washington, D.C. 20004. The record will close at 5:00 p.m. on November 2, 2017

We’ll be at the hearing, and we hope you will too!

#GuaranteeHPTF

florida project

Florida Project a Must-Watch for Policy Makers

Giggling children aren’t normally what you think of when you’re talking about family homelessness, but that’s exactly what Sean Baker’s new movie The Florida Project serves up. Of course, there’s always more to the story.

The tears, the frustration, the agonizing choices that no family should ever be forced to make—those things come, too. But what The Florida Project does best is show all of these things through the magic of childhood. It refuses to accept that deep trauma can’t go hand in hand with love and wonder, because in real life it almost always does. That complexity is part of what makes this film must-watch material for any government officials working on affordable housing.

In the gilded wasteland of tourist trap Florida, six-year-old Moonee and her young mother Halley have made their home in a bright purple discount motel: The Magic Castle. Well, not technically “home”—we’re soon treated to the family’s monthly ritual of marching all of their belongings out of their room and spending one night at the motel next door. It’s a move that’s mandated by The Magic Castle’s management to avoid Moonee and her mother being able to claim residency, in which case the motel would be “totally screwed.”

These slums outside the teeming metropolis of Disney may look almost uninhabitable, but they present a wonderfully lively and colorful canvas for Moonee and her friends to paint their own adventures. The shrieks of excitement and happiness that ring out as these kids go on safari through abandoned grass fields or play in the back of a box store parking lot are so real and genuine (Brooklyn Price as Moonee is indisputably the star of the movie) that in the first 30 minutes, it’s possible to be lulled into thinking that maybe life isn’t so bad for these children and their families.

florida moonee

Moonee and friends explore abandoned houses in typical rambunctious fashion

The community among the adults is equally close-knit, and the shared parenting that happens at The Magic Castle is enough to put any upper-class family neighborhood to shame. Another community fixture is Bobby (William Dafoe), the gruff but deeply loving hotel manager/father figure. Although Dafoe does a great job in the role, it’s still highly improbable. It’s a very rare low-income family that has a property manager who not only keeps sewage out of the bathtub, but takes an active interest in their lives.

Of course, even with that arguably unrealistic advantage, life just doesn’t go that smoothly for long when your family is homeless. Things start to fall apart for Moonee and Halley, and as their downward spiral plays out on screen, the audience is forced to contemplate one question over and over: what should Halley have done differently?

The answer is… nothing. Despite what the hotel owner next door might think, despite what HUD Secretary Ben Carson might say, this homelessness is not Halley’s fault, and no amount of positive thinking or bootstrap-pulling is going to get her family out of it.

Job opportunities never materialize. Halley puts in long hours selling perfume and other trinkets to tourists, occasionally blurring the lines between salesperson and panhandler. Somehow it’s often enough to keep them in The Magic Castle, which costs $38 a night—over $1100 a month.

That figure alone points to a fundamental truth of homelessness: you have to have money to save money. Halley isn’t financially secure enough for a lease, so she’s forced to overpay for a motel. She can’t afford a place with a kitchen, so she and her daughter are forced to bear the financial and physical costs of take-out for every meal.

Halley isn’t doing anything wrong. The system just doesn’t work for her family and thousands upon thousands of others like hers. This point is driven home in a hauntingly sweet and cruelly ironic scene where Moonee and her friends explore row after row of blighted houses in an abandoned development, presumably a leftover from the housing crash.

“This would be my bed,” intones Moonee with a smile. “This would be my bookcase.”

Maybe, if Secretary Carson sees and understands The Florida Project, that can be reality for another little girl just like Moonee.

Then again, a campaign to turn low-income property managers into father figures might just be more realistic.

Ground Breaks, Rents Shake, Fears Await… Purple Line & Langley Park

Hard_Hats

The purple line is here. With it comes opportunity for homeowners – and apprehension for renters. While the jurisdictions involved have heralded the beginning of the Purple Line’s construction, these same jurisdictions and their partnering organizations have been silent about the threats to affordable housing that they previously highlighted.

Langley Park appears to be the canary in the coal mine here, as the Washington Post and GGWash have followed the lead of UMD in focusing on the effects that the Purple Line will have on the affordable housing stock there, although it should be noted that these challenges will be faced at each and every one of the proposed stations.

Langley Park does seem to be especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of rising land costs. Of more than 5,000 housing units in the neighborhood, nearly 75% are rental units. Combine this with the fact that nearly 50% of the residents earn less than the DC Metro’s Area Median Income and it appears that there’s a huge risk posed by becoming more connected to the region. purple-line All of Langley Park’s residents will be within a half-mile of the the two transit stations proposed in the area. A CASA Needs Survey found that one-in-four respondents has had their rent increasing by at least 10% per month over the past two years. A major housing crisis is certainly on the horizon. If Prince George’s County cannot protect its population from being displaced, then a complex chain reaction will be felt across the region as various jurisdictions are threatened by displaced people desperate for secure places to live.

There are plenty of ways that the local jurisdiction can mitigate the impending displacement through measures aimed to preserve and rehabilitate the housing stock by way of grants, loans, and tax credits from federal and state agencies, and with the help of private and nonprofit assistance. In the dozens of potential options that the UMD study looked into, Prince George’s County and Langley Park were under-represented seeking this help, indicating failures among leadership.

While there are many ways forward, it is noteworthy that the majority of apartment units are owned by three companies and their subsidiaries, and that intervention and/or mediation by the public or private sector could lead to a deal that would maintain affordable housing. For example, the Conversion of Rental Housing Act of 2013 would require the owners to give Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development the option to purchase the property before they offered the sale to another party. This legislation is not perfect, as the right is not extended to tenants and there are significant loopholes where the owner is not required to follow this process; however, the program has three priorities for implementation, and Langley Park fits all three criteria.

There are also ways in which Prince George’s County can save the carrot and use the stick in order to help out the tenants. There is a misdemeanor and $500 fine for any property in violation of the County Code, and each day is a separate offense. As noted in the UMD study, there are many complaints about the housing conditions there, and “the county has the right to demolish, repair, or otherwise bring the property up to standard and place a lien in the amount of all funds expended on the owner.” This type of initiative could put pressure on the owner to sell, or if the county bureaucracy wasn’t entirely on board then it could backfire and result in the condemnation of the building and subsequent displacement.

What is clear is that all of the paths forward require a municipality willing to assist this community under threat and allow the people to be a part of the opportunities that are to come with the Purple Line. We certainly will be paying attention.

 

  1. All of the data in this post comes directly from “Preparing for the Purple Line: Affordable Housing Strategies for Langley Park, Maryland,” presented by CASA & the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education Center at the University of Maryland, College Park
DC zoning

How DC’s Comp Plan Promotes Segregation… And What We Can Do About It

“Development [near transit] must not compromise the integrity of stable neighborhoods…”

That’s the kind of bland, boiler plate language that a local coalition of housing-minded groups says helps keep DC segregated. It’s from the District’s Comprehensive Plan, a document that provides guidance to DC’s Zoning Commission.

That document is chock-full of references to “stable” and historic neighborhoods that don’t need anything built there. In effect, that ensures they remain predominantly white, wealthy, and low-density.

The group, which includes everyone from affordable housing advocates to for-profit developers, was brought together by local blog Greater Greater Washington around a common grievance: a city zoning code that keeps people from building what needs to be built.

The group saw an opportunity for impact with the Comprehensive Plan being open to amendments this year, something that only happens about twice a decade.

Overcoming traditional divisions in DC housing, the group of activists, housing nonprofits, and developers came together to set out a list of goals.

Among these were a desire to increase the availability of affordable housing, meet the housing demand, and to equitably distribute that housing. That’s in line with the federal government’s recent rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which requires local governments to take an active hand in desegregation efforts.

And a big way that segregation perpetuates itself is through declaring that “stable neighborhoods” are closed for development. These neighborhoods are almost always whiter and wealthier than the city as a whole, often with considerably less density to boot. The current language helps them slam the door on affordable housing developments that could diversify and in-fill these neighborhoods in a number of ways.

GGwash comp planExample of proposed additions in green and deletions in red to the current Comprehensive Plan, along with an explanation for the changes. (Pg. 5 of link)

At the same time, as the city continues to gentrify, development ramps up in long-time communities of color. While investment in these communities is often needed (and deserved after years of public and private neglect), all too often it heralds the arrival of wealthier, predominantly white newcomers, rising rents, and a subsequent cultural and physical displacement.

After the dust settles that could well be a newly stable neighborhood, in Comprehensive Plan speak—no more development or affordable housing needed.

At the very least, the stability that the current Comprehensive Plan talks about is correlated with whiteness. More likely it’s a subconscious piece of the underlying definition.

That’s why the GGW group has painstakingly gone through, line by line, and offered suggested amendments that reflect DC’s responsibility to affirmatively further fair housing. Affordable housing and new development, the amended document would say, need to be spread more evenly throughout the city.

With the right vision for the future, hopefully one day “stable neighborhoods” can be more than just a euphemism in DC.

soh

DC, NYC now offering low-income tenants free legal representation

Image: Tenant rights activists rally in DC earlier this year

Eviction is just about the scariest thing that a tenant can face. It increases your risk of homelessness, poverty, and job loss. It’s more likely to happen to you if you’re a woman, if you’re black, or if you have kids. And it can set your family back for years. That’s why Washington, DC and New York City just implemented laws offering free legal services to low-income tenants facing eviction.

These laws are part of a growing movement across the country, called “civil Gideon,” to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction. It stems from data showing that while landlords almost always have a lawyer in eviction suits, tenants almost never do. In DC, 94 percent of landlords have legal representation. That’s compared to only 5 percent of tenants.

That gap produces a huge disparity in outcomes, with tenants often being evicted over minimal debts. Sometimes it’s not even a debt tenants are unable to pay–withholding rent is a common last-straw tactic for tenants who can’t get landlords to make necessary fixes. But without a lawyer to guide them, that tactic can end in eviction.

Opponents of New York City’s law, which offers free representation to tenants making up to $50,000, complain about its cost–estimated to be about $200 million each year. But because evictions so often result in homelessness, increased reliance on safety net programs, and other costs to local governments, supporters of the bill decided to run the numbers.

They found that the measure will not only pay for itself, but it will result in over $300 million of additional savings each year. Between saving tenants strife and saving the city money, it’s hard to find a reason to oppose this bill.

The DC Council agrees, and a similar bill put forward earlier this year by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) ended up being included in this year’s budget support act. As a much smaller city, the costs for DC’s program are significantly less than in New York City–the budget included $3.9 million in ongoing funds and an additional $600,000 for this year.

Tenant groups and other advocates will be sure to watch this process closely. But with widespread support, plus clear benefits for tenants and the city coffers, DC’s new effort to get free legal representation for low-income tenants should be a great success.

 

neighborhood cut by interstate

Denver, DC make communities of color “dumping ground”

An interstate slashing through Latino communities in the name of progress. An air-polluting city truck fleet moved from a “commercially viable” gentrifying neighborhood to a lower-income black neighborhood. In the last few weeks, DC and Denver have been busy showcasing the worst of the 20th century’s development ideas—well into the 2010s.

Denver’s new renewal

In the 1950s and ’60s, a philosophy called “urban renewal” was sweeping the nation. Crumbling inner city areas, went the thinking, simply weren’t worth saving. It was better to just knock everything down and start over.

And that’s exactly what urban planners did all across the country. Block by block, city by city, the wrecking balls moved in and cleared old structures out. What determined their path, however, had much more to do with race than it did with a plan for urban growth.

The homes, businesses, churches, and community centers the planners targeted for renewal were almost exclusively owned by people of color. Many communities organized extensively in the face of this theft, and some won decisive victories. But through the use of eminent domain, American cities seized and destroyed whole communities, with the displaced, undercompensated black and Latino families left in their wake shunted along into newly built public housing facilities.

DC has its own history of this practice, with the destruction of functioning black communities along the southwest waterfront something still being felt today.

southwest_1939

Southwest DC in 1939, before the majority black neighborhoods were destroyed

The practice largely petered out in the 1970s and ’80s as community groups honed their resistance tactics, winning more and more victories. But Denver is looking to bring back the bad ol’ days with a new interstate expansion.

In a city that is almost 80 percent white, city planners have targeted several majority Latino neighborhoods on the edge of city limits for destruction. Fifty-six homes and 17 businesses would be razed, and the neighborhoods would be cut down the middle by a full decade of construction.

When community groups filed a complaint alleging disparate impact, the federal government admitted that was the case—but decided it wasn’t enough to force a change in plans. Residents aren’t giving up the fight, however, and you can read more about their efforts here.

DC’s pollution distribution

Unlike Denver’s throwback to another era of racist urban planning, DC’s project is part of a long line of cities putting unwanted goods in black neighborhoods. Residents of majority black Langdon Park in Ward 5 recently learned that Department of Parks and Recreation vehicles will soon be rolling into a new home in their neighborhood.

Langdon Google MapsLangdon Park and Ivy City in northeast DC. Link to Google Maps.

That was only discovered after neighbors noticed activity at the site and did some online searching. The search revealed a lease agreement for the site—and the fact that the city failed to fulfill its legal requirement for notifying residents. ANC officials, who didn’t receive their requisite 30-day notice, were in the dark.

And Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie learned that he also had been illegally kept out of the loop—after investigating, he found that the Council had already unwittingly approved the city’s plan through a 10-day passive approval period last year.

City officials admit their mistake, but they see no reason the project shouldn’t more forward as planned.

The site’s location is problematic because it adds an unwanted good to an already overburdened population. Ward 5 already contains a hugely disproportionate amount of the city’s industrial sites. What’s more, DC, like most American cities, has asthma rates that largely fall along racial lines—black children are far more likely to have respiratory issues than white children.

The addition of more smog-belching trucks to a majority black area of the city, an area that already has too much air pollution and the asthma rates to match, is the stuff of textbooks on environmental racism.

It comes just a few years after a similar fight in Ivy City, Langdon Park’s Ward 5 neighbor, where then-Mayor Vincent Gray announced plans for a new bus depot in another overburdened majority black neighborhood. Mayor Muriel Bowser killed that plan when she came into office, in a win for local residents.

But now she’s advancing an almost identical project. In explaining their decision to move DCPR from its current location in Shaw, the administration stated that the existing site is simply too “commercially desirable” to house vehicles. The burden, then, is intentionally being shifted from a gentrified neighborhood to one with a majority of people of color.

Jeremy Wilcox, the Langdon Park resident who was the first to find the lease agreement, told the Washington Post what it communicates to the neighborhood on no uncertain terms: “We are a dumping ground—Ward 5 is a dumping ground.”

The methods and the scale might be different, but Denver and DC keep putting unwanted goods on the shoulders of people of color. It’s a game American cities have been playing for far too long.