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When people talk about gentrification in DC, a few neighborhoods tend to come up: Shaw, H Street, and increasingly, Anacostia. Without downplaying real issues arising in those neighborhoods, let’s not forget a fundamental cause of the problem: powerful people who use their privilege to prevent the place they live from changing, pushing the pressures of growth onto the less wealthy and less empowered.

A growing population causes a chain reaction

It’s not that neighborhoods like those listed above are the only neighborhoods where newer, wealthier residents want to live. It’s just that new residents who can afford more expensive homes and rentals have limited options in neighborhoods like Glover Park, Chevy Chase, and Mount Pleasant. Besides what is naturally turning over and becoming available there, few new homes and apartments are being built and coming onto the market.

This supply/demand imbalance leads to rising prices and rents in those neighborhoods, which bumps people looking to rent or purchase into another place, heating up the market over there.

Some of the current residents in that other neighborhood might take advantage and decide to sell, or maybe they get forced out by rising rents and move to the next neighborhood. You can see how the dominos fall.

I have been a part of this scramble, and so have others I care about. Not knowing a lot about the city when I moved here, I moved into Shaw because I wanted to be close to the city center, and every year after I have moved east as my rents have surged. As a teacher in DC, I had multiple students leave my classroom (more accurately, the District) because their families made eastward moves like me.

A small group of residents have fought this development to a standstill for years. Image by Susan Balding.

A few neighborhoods contribute to this huge problem by abusing their power

Why are so few homes (in particular, those affordable to middle-low income households) being built in these wealthier neighborhoods? Too often part of the problem is that people living in that neighborhood have historically opposed development through land use and zoning tools.

I once asked a non-profit affordable housing developer why they didn’t build more affordable homes in “higher opportunity” neighborhoods. Of course, the most obvious answer is limited resources: the land cost is so much that the non-profit can build more homes for low-income folks at sites with cheaper land. While they weren’t happy about concentrating all of their affordable housing construction in particular neighborhoods, they felt constricted by resources and their mission.

But this developer also added that they understood land cost as not only a reflection of supply and demand, but also a projection of what it would cost to successfully build something at the site. In higher-income neighborhoods, that cost factored in the money a developer expected to spend on battling opposition.

Of course, anyone can oppose a project in any neighborhood. But it is no coincidence that historically, the most consistent and successful opposition shows up in wealthier neighborhoods. You’re a lot better at winning zoning and land use battles if you have access to power, money, resources, legal help, and lots of time.

There are many tools at your disposal if you want to challenge a development project, and there should be. Neighbors should have the right and ability to help shape the fabric of their neighborhood. But if those tools are most often used effectively by certain neighborhoods, patterns of exclusion show up.

People of all incomes should have the chance to live in all neighborhoods

These patterns of exclusion contribute to all of the city’s affordable housing going into a few places. This is a map shows the affordable units (already produced and in the pipeline) in DC made affordable through subsidy, including inclusionary zoning units that come embedded in any larger development project:

Putting all of our affordable homes in certain neighborhoods is not equitable, and does not afford lower income or even moderate income families the same opportunities as upper-income folks.

Sure, land prices are cheaper in these neighborhoods that are seeing the most construction, but developers would build more in high-land value neighborhoods if it weren’t so difficult. There are policy solutions (such as some we helped propose for DC’s Comprehensive Plan) to address this that would incentivize development of needed affordable homes and “missing middle” housing in traditionally exclusive neighborhoods.

Besides, accepting that “this is just the way it is” is accepting the fact that we are the 17th-most segregated city in the country. I’d rather try to figure something out.

Image by Elliott Brown licensed under Creative Commons.

Widening our lens about gentrification

Recently I read this great piece on Market Urbanism, and while I don’t fully agree with all of the list below, I think their statements about gentrification are worth sharing:

Image by Adam Hengels.

The forces of gentrification are complicated and very real. There’s a lot to unpack in discussions about neighborhood change, and serious pain and issues to be dealt with.

But I hope we step back and take a bigger view of what is happening in the city and region. It is all very much connected, and the challenge needs to be shared by the entire city and region.