Washington Torn Over How to Grow Without ‘Breaking Up a Village’

Posted June 5, 2018 6:27 p.m. EDT
Updated June 5, 2018 6:31 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Mahogany Books in this capital city’s poorest ward reflects both the aspirations and the challenges facing rapidly revitalizing neighborhoods across the District of Columbia and beyond.

The bookstore opened in November inside the 9,300-square-foot Anacostia Arts Center, a mini-mall of art galleries and shops that is trying to blend into the historic neighborhood.

Its owner, Derrick Young, both loves his native Washington and fears for it, and he worries about displacement, both physical and cultural.

“When people here see things starting to turn around, they know it’s not really for them,” he said of the overwhelmingly African-American population in the ward. “Investors coming in with lofts, condos, to attract a different demographic — that’s just wrong.”

A few blocks from his store, the city is trying to tear down Barry Farm, a 432-unit public housing project built in 1943, and replace it with a 1,400-unit mixed-income development, with 50,000 square feet of retail. In April, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals blocked the redevelopment. The court said the district’s zoning commission failed to address the “adverse impact” of “gentrification on their existing community” when it approved the project in December 2014.

The battle between market forces leading to gentrification and the pushback to preserve and expand affordable housing is playing out here and in cities nationwide. After decades of divestiture and population decline, “now the city’s a very popular place to be, which is great, what everybody wants, except it comes with collateral challenges,” said Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia. “Affordable housing is front and center.”

At a recent meeting with his counterparts from other cities, “everybody was talking about the challenge of affordable housing,” Mendelson said. “It’s the unfortunate side of economic growth.” Proposed changes to the district’s comprehensive plan that would limit challenges have roiled citizens’ groups, affordable housing advocates and developers. They are sharply divided over what can and should be built and how much. Critics who contend that development proposals lack sufficient affordable housing units have filed court appeals, as happened with Barry Farm, often delaying projects for years.

Developers are threatening to take their money elsewhere or use a less cumbersome “by-right” process that allows them to build somewhat smaller projects but with fewer low-rent units and without facing prolonged community challenges.

“We can’t afford a two- to four-year legal process and the cost and time associated with that,” said James D. Campbell, principal of Somerset Development, a Washington company that has gone both routes.

The proposed revisions to the broad plan’s 54-page framework prompted 280 witnesses to sign up to testify at a 13-hour hearing in March. The Council is not expected to vote on the revisions until the fall, Mendelson said. If they are approved, the district government will consider about 3,000 amendments submitted by community groups and developers.

In some ways, the conflict between development and affordable housing is more acute in Washington than it is in other cities. Development is limited by restrictions on building heights and federally occupied land, intensifying market pressures in older, formerly overlooked neighborhoods. So many low-rent apartments, row houses and mom-and-pop stores are being replaced by upscale retail and high-cost housing.

Middle-income professionals are not yet renting a dormitory bedroom with a shared bathroom, as some do in San Francisco. But some are finding long-term residence in Capitol Hill hostels through Airbnb, according to The Washington Post. Even the homeless are being displaced from their tent cities, as developers move in to build luxury units with upscale ground-floor retail.

The demographics are daunting. A recent study of 32 U.S. cities found that Washington had the widest income disparity, and that the gap existed largely along racial lines. The median income for white households in 2016 was $127,000, more than three times that for black families. Nonetheless, officials promote the city’s commitment to increasing affordable housing and note that the district spends more per capita for that purpose than Boston, New York or Cleveland.

“Denver is so proud it is doubling the amount in its housing trust fund to $30 million a year,” Mendelson said. “But we’ve got over $100 million going into ours.”

The Denver plan, announced in April, awaits City Council approval; most funds would come from the sale of bonds, with some coming from an increase in the marijuana sales tax.

To speed up the production of affordable housing here, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is seeking to revise the comprehensive plan to curtail court challenges. Since 2013, 4,593 housing units in the area, including 706 for affordable housing, have been stalled because of appeals of zoning commission decisions, according to the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a nonprofit organization supported in part by developers. Many community groups say they want more lower-cost units than currently proposed and seek to use the appeals as leverage.

Portner Flats, an eight-story, 96-unit low-income building, recently replaced deteriorated subsidized garden apartments in northwest Washington. The project encompasses a separate building with market-rate units that essentially underwrote the affordable-housing units.

The project showed that the district was “growing and thriving but also inclusive,” Bowser said, adding that the city would “use the prosperity we’re creating to make sure more Washingtonians can stay in D.C.”

“The best way to ensure that is we have safe and affordable housing in all eight wards,” she said.

The Portner building, a project of Somerset Development, is in the revitalized U Street corridor, once a hub of black-owned business and entertainment. In 1968, the area was the center of riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A street sign today proclaims the area has gone from “riots to renaissance.”

But in the gentrified neighborhood, Portner is an outlier. A residential building next door promises “bespoke living” with two-bedroom apartments renting for $3,000.

Nowhere is the rapid march of market forces more evident than across town, in the neighborhood east of the Anacostia River known as Ward 8, where the median household income was $30,910 in 2015.

Busboys and Poets, a local bookstore and cafe chain, plans to open a location there this year, and a Starbucks is slated to occupy space in Maple View Flats, with 114 units of affordable housing built on city-owned land and not subject to zoning appeals.

Up the hill from the Anacostia Arts Center, Kadija Bangura, the center’s marketing manager, who grew up in London with parents from Trinidad and Sierra Leone, paid $187,000 in 2013 for her 1905 semidetached house. Its estimated value is now $420,000. She knows she is part of the change but worries about its effect on her older neighbors.

“It’s not just putting people out — it’s breaking up a village, really,” Bangura said. “It’s a challenge for me. I don’t know how to help. And I don’t know how to really make a difference positively for those folks who’ve been renting for years and are now being displaced or who own and are now being displaced because of rising property taxes. I wish I had a better solution.”

Just over a mile from Bangura’s house, the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum offers another perspective. Its current exhibit, “The Right to the City,” focuses on six district neighborhoods, including Anacostia, that have undergone change.

It is important to capture the perspective of people living in what historians have called “the usable past,” the museum’s curator, Samir Meghelli, said. “For me, it’s asking what might a more-just future for the city look like, and asking, ‘Do people have a right to the city?'”