Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

In March, a record 275+ witnesses signed up to testify at a DC Council hearing about proposed amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan — a document that guides how and where to grow. It was a passionate public debate about gentrification, housing policy, and the future of our increasingly expensive city that stretched all the way into the early morning.

Since the hearing, it has become clear that this desire for community conversation is not limited to the DC Council chambers. Recently, a similar debate broke out on the Adams Morgan neighborhood listserv, where daily messages about local events and babysitter services were suddenly replaced by a variety of neighbors jumping in to share their views on housing, community character, and social inclusion.

The emerging growth debate in Adams Morgan

The discussion was sparked by a remark about the newest addition to the neighborhood, the recently-opened Line Hotel. The Line opened its doors to the public in January and has attracted instant attention in the community (including a visit by one of the city’s most famous power couples).

Before its opening, the property had already been the subject of numerous controversies, including a debate about a tax abatement and jobs agreement, a dispute between the project’s business partners, and a $2 million settlement agreement with community activists who had sued to overturn the project’s zoning waiver.

The neighbor’s remark applauded the “vision and creativity” of The Line and argued that it is now a “fantastic piece of real estate” after the former property sat empty as a “derelict building for so long.” His closing remark: “Let the good development continue!”

That didn’t sit so well with others in the neighborhood who have a decidedly less favorable view of the project. Chris Otten (one of the community activists who settled with the hotel’s owners) responded quickly to critique this point of view. The development of The Line, he claimed, had caused “years of construction nuisance…and health impacts.” He also pointed out that property values in the adjacent area had risen, creating the threat of displacement of low-income residents, and referred to The Line as an example of “gentrification by luxury greed.”

From there, the conversation quickly expanded. Many neighbors jumped in to share their perspective on gentrification and ideas for how to address the challenge in Adams Morgan. One wrote that “Adams Morgan doesn’t live in isolation. Property values are rising all over the city and have been for years” and suggested that neighbors were better off advocating for specific affordable housing projects in their area. “If even a fraction of the energy that went into fighting The Line went into…building affordable housing it would have happened years ago.”

Another neighbor chimed into to support this idea of building new affordable housing in the neighborhood, arguing that she “was fortunate to buy an apartment and so have reasonably priced housing. Let’s keep the diversity of Adams Morgan with rental housing as a necessary component.”

Otten seemed to agree with this idea, saying that we should “hop on opportunities to preserve and grow potential affordable units in our neighborhood.” But he then argued for more impact studies of new projects and emphasized that Adams Morgan residents need to “protect our community from overdevelopment.”

Adam’s Morgan has become much more exclusive over time

At the Comprehensive Plan Council hearing, I had heard similar statements from other residents of Adams Morgan who claimed that the overbuilding of luxury apartments and condos had been causing gentrification in the neighborhood in recent years. I was curious to dive into this claim, so I took a look at some census data for Adams Morgan over the last 30 years (courtesy of NeighborhoodInfoDC).

Here’s what I discovered:

  • From 1980 to 2010, the population of Adams Morgan went from 15,352 to 15,630. It barely budged.
  • Over that same period, the average real annual household income in our neighborhood went from $72,753 to $172,249 (in 2010 $)
  • Our neighborhood also lost diversity over that time, going from 51% white to 68% white

In many ways, Adams Morgan is now the District’s classic example of a neighborhood that has moved from “gentrification” to “exclusion,” using the terminology of the Urban Displacement Project, a UC Berkeley initiative that measures the income levels of census tracts over time to identify areas that experience losses of low income residents paired with a growth of high-income residents. Our neighborhood is witnessing what can happen when gentrification reaches its more advanced stages.

But was overdevelopment the cause?

If we compare Adams Morgan to other DC neighborhoods, it doesn’t rank highly in terms of the amount of development that has occured in recent years. The population is virtually identical to what it was in 1980, while other areas of the city have seen substantial construction of new buildings along with huge population increases.

In fact, building permit data shows that, from 2008 to 2015, Adams Morgan built only 57 new housing units, representing a mere 0.5% of the total new units in the city, despite the fact that the neighborhood holds 2.6% of DC’s population. Adjacent neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights and U Street contributed far more housing in that time period: 136 units (1.2% of the city’s total) and 877 units (8.0%), respectively. (Data from Jenny Schuetz, calculations mine.)

But this lack of development didn’t ease the pressures of gentrification. New residents — primarily white and affluent — still managed to move into Adams Morgan as houses came onto the market, existing buildings were renovated, and apartments were rented out at higher prices over time. The demand they created pushed up prices, which wealthier home-seekers were able to afford while less affluent folks were not. Our neighborhood is a case study of how gentrification can still happen without development, not because of it.

What’s next for Adam’s Morgan

So what does this actually mean for the future of our neighborhood? I think the local residents who chimed in to the listserv discussion were on to a pivotal idea. We have to identify sites where we can build more affordable housing in the neighborhood and then advocate in support of these developments. The recent success of the Hebrew Home redevelopment in Petworth provides a great case study in how this can be accomplished. What spaces in our neighborhood could we rally around in a similar way?

If we really care about addressing exclusion in Adams Morgan and holding onto the neighborhood diversity we have left, we should change our approach from fighting new buildings to proactively advocating for the specific buildings we want. This will require identifying opportunities for new or larger buildings, utilizing public subsidies for affordable housing, combining that with market-rate housing production to add additional cross-subsidy, and partnering with well-intentioned developers (yes, they do exist) who care about improving our local community and building quality homes.

Blocking new construction in our neighborhood won’t solve the problem of gentrification. Rather, it will serve only to effectively lock the gates to low- and moderate-income residents by limiting the housing supply so only the wealthiest individuals are able to afford the high rents and home prices.

Instead, let’s begin the meaningful work of finding places to put new housing — with a special emphasis on housing for very low and extremely low-income residents—so we can keep Adams Morgan as an example, not a cautionary tale, of how to create a vibrant, diverse neighborhood open to all.

This article has been updated to explain clearly that the income levels (1980 vs. 2010) in Adams Morgan are in 2010 inflation adjusted data.