Housing Inequality in D.C: When Redevelopment Means Displacement by Carolina Meurkens

[Illustration by Daniel IG- @iggdeh]

As a native New Yorker, I didn’t know much about D.C and its rich cultural history when I arrived here in 2013 to attend the George Washington University. I joined other GWU freshmen as we explored the monuments, the Smithsonian museums, Embassy Row on Halloween night. We walked on Saturday mornings to Adams Morgan and checked out the cafés and boutiques, peering into the bars we were too young to get into. I didn’t know then that D.C would become my home, that hidden underneath all that government and diplomacy was also a rich history of Black culture that would be foundational to coming into my own Blackness.

For decades, D.C has been affectionately known as “Chocolate City” colored by its majority Black population and a prolific history of Black art and culture. Like New York, Chicago, and cities across the North and Midwest, D.C became a home for African American families fleeing racial violence in the Deep South during the mass movement of the 20th century known as the Great Migration. Many of the musicians, writers, artists, and influential Black figures that would go on to lead the Harlem Renaissance found their place in D.C on U Street, known as Black Broadway. Anchored by its proximity to Howard University, the cultural community that flourished on U Street was also instrumental in leading some of the nation’s first civil rights protests. By 1957, D.C became the first major city to have a Black majority. And when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, there was perhaps no city in the nation as mournful as D.C. 

As D.C poet Kenneth Carroll wrote, “Chocolate City rose from the ashes of 1968 along with black people’s hopes for self-determination, whether it took the form of home rule or statehood or something else.” More than 60 years later, historic U street has seen some of the most drastic demographic shifts due to redevelopment. I spoke with tenant organizer Daniel del Pielago and D.C resident/ housing rights activist William H. Jordan about the consequences of gentrification in the District. William moved to D.C from Virginia Beach in 1980 to attend Howard University, got married and raised a family of four in Northwest D.C. He witnessed the displacement of Black folx in his neighborhood of Columbia Heights/Shaw/ U Street, which was targeted for redevelopment in the early 90’s with the construction of a new metro line on 14th Street. He says that while the displacement spans decades, it’s worsened in the last ten years and he isn’t so sure he wants his kids settling down in D.C anymore due to the costs of living.

“I have four children between the ages of 23 and 33. I always envisioned D.C as the place where they would live, at least some of them. But now I would tell them not to move here. The cost of living is outrageous, and  my male children would be targeted in their own neighborhood policing tactics designed to support gentrification as not belonging. Ironically, I was comfortable with them going to school outside of D.C because they would’ve been targeted by the institutions of the city or the dynamics in the streets,” William says. 

Daniel also arrived in the DMV area in 1980, after immigrating with his family from Peru to Northern Virginia. He moved into the District in 2000 and started doing tenant organizing work with the Latino Economic Development Corporation. Today he works for Empower D.C, a non-profit organization that works to enhance, improve and promote the self-advocacy of low and moderate income D.C residents in order to bring about sustained improvements in their quality of life. Daniel echoes similar observations as William, having witnessed the systematic displacement of Black residents. 

“It’s very methodical. There is an actual plan to remove Black people from this city. I’ve seen it happen building by building, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, Ward by Ward,” Daniel says. “I’ve been working for Empower DC for close to eight years now, and for us it’s really important to involve the people who are directly affected, which is difficult because the people we work with tend to be low income folks. They’re not only dealing with housing insecurity, but a myriad of issues that are all centered around systemic racism and white supremacy.”

The plan Daniel refers to is the complex protocol of redeveloping public housing properties that emerged in the 1990s. William attributes modern redevelopment plans to the Mark to Market (M2M) policies put in motion by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) under the Clinton Administration. Enacted in 1997, M2M came about in a time where Republicans and Democrats alike were pushing for “welfare reform” and “deconcentrating poverty”. Their policies were backed by rhetoric that was code for defunding welfare programs that were essential to the livelihood of low-income residents, a consequence of a legacy of white supremacy that led to the housing discrimination evident in many African American communities across the country.  

The Section 8 housing program enacted in 1974 provided rental subsidies to developers who built affordable housing projects for low-income residents. The shift to Mark-to-Market (M2M) in 1997 was said to preserve the affordability and availability of low income rental multifamily properties while reducing rents to market levels, by restructuring rent and mortgages to reduce the cost of subsidies given by the federal government

M2M laid the groundwork for nationwide redevelopment of urban centers, creating precedent for redevelopment policies that pushed for mixed-income communities and neighborhood revitalization. Similar to M2M, Hope VI was another policy that led to systematic displacement of low-income residents. Under Hope VI, HUD provided grant money to local housing authorities to demolish and reconstruct “distressed” properties. Tenants were relocated and given a Section 8 voucher to subsidize their rent in the private market while their public housing property was demolished or reconstructed to create mixed-income housing.

Tenant organizers like Daniel and William have seen how policies enacted to create mixed-income communities often lead to the permanent displacement of many low-income residents. A study done in 2016 titled HOPE VI Data Compilation and Analysis detailed the following: 

“Between 1993 and 2010, the HOPE VI program demolished 98,592 public housing units and produced a total of 97,389 mixed-income units. Of the 97,389 total mixed-income units, most (55,318 units, or 57%) were replacement public housing units, and affordable and market-rate units made up 30 percent and 13 percent of the remaining units, respectively. Although 43,274 units have been lost from the public housing stock, 85% of the original public housing units were replaced with units intended to be affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. Researchers found that original tenants occupied only 20.7 percent of revitalized units. Original residents returned to 36.1 percent of the 55,318 public housing replacement units.” 

The data showed that demolishing low-income housing to create mixed income communities produced little to no deliverable improvements for low-income residents. And low rates of return showed that displacement happened on a national scale. 

In 2003, Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced his plan to attract “100,000 new residents”, which would “coordinate commercial, housing and capital investments”. In conjunction with guidance from the D.C government, developers targeted predominantly Black neighborhoods that had been historically overlooked and underfunded by private investors. 

“When it passed in 2003, every agency in the city was refocused to bring 100,000 new residents into the city. Of course that was code for displacing 100,000 old residents to make room for the new residents, although they presented it as an add on. But that hasn’t happened in 300 years,” William says. 

Today, Daniel and William have joined residents fighting to stay in their homes at the Park Morton housing development in Park View, a neighborhood that has seen drastic gentrification in the last decade. The redevelopment of Park Morton is part of the city’s New Communities Initiative. Like Hope VI, the program was designed to revitalize severely distressed subsidized housing and redevelop neighborhoods into vibrant mixed-income communities. New Communities promised to create a one-for-one replacement to ensure no units would be lost in the redevelopment process, ensure residents had the right to return to their communities, build the new development first before relocating residents, and create mixed-income housing to deconcentrate poverty.

Daniel says this is far from what’s happening on the ground. “The new communities initiative is another redevelopment scheme very similar to Hope IV, which affected residents here in the District at Arthur Cappers. It’s a very aspirational set up. They say: we’re going to redevelop the property, we’re going to relocate you… you’ll come back and everything will be great. None of that has happened at any of the community sites.” 

The New Communities Initiative targeted four sites for redevelopment, Park Morton being one of them. It’s commitment to building first and ensuring that residents have the right to return to their original neighborhood was a promise to reverse the trend of redevelopment and displacement in the District. In 2017, the Washington City Paper reported that two of the four community sites discarded their build-first strategy

In 2017, Bruce Monroe Park was selected as the build first site for Park Morton, followed with a plan to build a mixed-use development with 273 homes and 90 replacement units for Park Morton residents. But the plan has been stalled after a group of Park View residents sued the city for taking away valuable green space in their neighborhood. 

The residents of Park Morton continue to fight for the right to stay in their homes. They’ve seen firsthand that redevelopment often means displacement. William says the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made residents more vulnerable. 

“Before COVID-19 hit, they had displaced maybe 15-20 families. Since the pandemic, about 80. Most people have been displaced just because of the timing of the emergency,” William says, pointing out that the housing authority emphasizes that this is voluntary moving. “Everyone who’s moved so far has left voluntarily, but that’s after getting a call everyday, eviction notices, harassment and audits, all the things they do to intimidate and demoralize you into moving. And then there’s the lead hazard that’s lurking under the surface. It was caused by negligence and now they’re using it to get rid of residents.” 

As residents make the difficult choice of staying in unsafe living conditions or moving without a guarantee that they’ll have a place to return to, developers schedule units for demolition. Daniel and William emphasize that the efforts at Park Morton are revolutionary because for the first time, residents are insisting in taking ownership over the redevelopment process. 

“Don’t think of it as a housing project designed to do good for people that went wrong. That may have been the case somewhere along the lines but today, it is a scam. They figured out how to manipulate the system. In fact they have a name for it now, called RAD,” William says, referring to the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) initiated under the Obama administration, that continued the trajectory of privatization by allowing private companies to rehabilitate and manage public housing in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. 

“What you will learn from our Park Morton effort is that we’ve said, well if you won’t stop it, then we’ll join you. We want residents to RAD themselves. So we’ll redevelop ourselves, we’ll use these same tools for our own good. And of course they responded viciously to the suggestion that they share the wealth,” William emphasizes.  

“When we make demands that put people first, they don’t want to hear that or even budge an inch because logically other folks would rise up and say they want a piece of the pie too. Because at the end of the day that’s really what we’re asking for, to give us a piece of the pie,” Daniel adds. 

Photo taken by Conrado E. Castro at the Black Homes Matter Rally

I asked Daniel and William what we can do to advocate for the people of Park Morton and they responded with this: Familiarize yourself with the Park Morton Equity Plan. Say it often and demand it. 

“This fight affects everyone because the city is now in the process of gentrifying the gentrifiers. If the people of Park Morton don’t get justice, neither will we. I’m further down the chain than they are but I’m on the chain nonetheless,” William says. 

He notes the importance of remembering that the housing crisis in D.C and nationwide did not emerge in a vacuum. It’s symptomatic of a system that has commodified and discarded of Black and Indigenous bodies for centuries. “What’s happening today is analogous to the Trail of Tears and the rise of King Cotton. You’re still moving Black bodies like the internal slave trade, but instead of cotton it’s real estate. The model is absolutely the same and it’s important to realize that we’re working against the legacy of certain stereotypes. In the case of Park Morton, it’s of the low-income Black woman. They aren’t just consumers of affordable housing, they need this housing to build their homes, to develop their hopes and dreams for their families just like you.” 

Carolina Meurkens is a freelance writer, editor, & educator, as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Mixed Mag. As a first-generation American of Afro-Brazilian and German descent, Carolina’s work explores the intersections of cultural heritage. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction at Goucher College.

Daniel is an award winning copywriter based in the U.S and illustrates articles, exclusively, for progressive journals, magazines, and newspapers under the pseudonym @iggdeh which you can follow on Instagram.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: