DC, Tenants, Zoning, Rehab, and Gentrification

Housing Wade's World

            Marble Falls     It started simply enough.  I got an email from a booking agent seeking an interview for a book that included “gentrification” in its title.  I couldn’t say “No” to that.  Displacement of long-time residents, both homeowners and tenants, is a big issue in cities all over the country and the world.  We’ve organized and campaigned around these issues for decades, as we’ve fought for affordable housing programs.  I’ve seen the process play out in my own neighborhood in New Orleans for more than forty years as the community has steadily become whiter and richer, close to the Quarter and the River, high ground that didn’t flood in Katrina, and rife with B&B’s, Airbnbs, and sidewalks filled with people pulling roller bags every weekend.

The professor was from the University of California at Merced, but we would be talking about Washington, DC, in this case.  The book was Before Gentrification:  The Creation of DC’s Racial Wealth Gap.  Tanya Golash-Boza and I talked at length on Wade’s World, and it went fine, but I blame her for pushing me down a dark hole in trying to get my arms around all of the programs that DC has created to confront gentrification that sounded like best practices, but too often were examples of winning the war on some blocks, but still losing it in the city.

Before I drag you down with me, let’s give Professor Golash-Boza’s argument a fair hearing.  She is clear that gentrification is caused by “disinvestment, carceral investment, and racialized reinvestment.”  She knows DC, having been raised there, and now running the Washington Center for the UC system.  She makes the personal and sociological case of how over the last fifty or more years, DC has gone from “chocolate city” to the opposite, despite federal employment having created a unique Black middle and professional class.  Investments in security and policing left DC schools, social services, and health care deficient and pushed people to the Virginia and Maryland suburbs allowing developers and transplants to propel gentrification.

My beef is that Golash-Boza kept mentioning active in-place DC programs which are exactly the kind of programs we fight for, yet she said they had been unable to stop the tide.  One was TOPA, the Tenant Opportunity Purchase Act, an “innovative program to assist low-to-moderate income District residents threatened with displacement because of the sale of their building. District law states that tenants in buildings up for sale must be offered the first opportunity to buy the building.”  I had heard a little bit about this program, which had actually be around for decades, I now found, from a tenant organizer in DC this spring, who was mired in the process of what it took to be able to actually create this coop housing from start to finish with tenants.  DC will even loan families up to $200,000 for downpayment assistance for first-timers who want to buy.  There is rent control that restricts annual increases to no more than 10% and only 5% for the elderly and disabled.  She mentioned inclusionary zoning, and DC has that in place, too.  Developers have to provide 10% of square footage for affordable units and 50% to 70% of any bonus density they are allowed in a project must also be affordable.  The units are given out by lottery and someone could qualify for an individual unit with an income between $33000 and $50,000.  They will even give people $75,000 to rehab their places.

I could list a handful of cities where we are organizing that are fighting for each of these programs and would call winning any single one of them a victory to keep the struggle alive.  Now that professor has made be spent a big block of time reading about each of these programs and their guidelines, I can see that they aren’t perfect, but still they all, singly and together, are municipal models.  Golash-Boza told me they were all good, just too little, too late, and not big enough to win the fight.

That’s a huge bummer.  Many cities are still resisting exactly these programs, because of the power of landlords and developers and their lobbying and campaign contributions.  This is true even of cities with strong community and tenants’ unions.  Can we win programs like what DC already has in place, but scaled up even bigger and moving even faster?  Have we already lost the fight against gentrification?  Are we fighting today’s battles with yesterday’s tools?  We better all worry about these issues, if we want cities to be sustainable for all of us, not just the lucky, wealthy, and white.