A recent National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) study confirms what everyone living here can feel: Washington, DC, has gentrified more intensely than any other city.
Katherine Shaver's piece for the Washington Post, “D.C. has the highest ‘intensity’ of gentrification of any U.S. city, study says,” is a fairly straightforward summary of the study, and highlights its most startling results: that “the District also saw the most African American residents—more than 20,000—displaced from their neighborhoods during that time, mostly by affluent, white newcomers,” and that “62 lower-income census tracts in the District gentrified between 2000 and 2013, putting the city third behind New York and Los Angeles for the highest number of neighborhoods that had transformed.”
It's great that our paper of record is reporting on this kind of research, which can and should have profound impacts on the way that we plan and govern our cities. Reporting on research is one way to get the attention of our councilmembers and mayor.
Organizing is the most powerful tool that we have available to push our causes forward, but regardless, the elected officials that we select to make decisions on our behalf do indeed make decisions about what DC should be. (Sometimes, they've done so in violation of a clearly defined, publicly stated preference.) Anything that conveys to them that the city that they are in charge of isn't working well for all its residents is an important addition to the conversation.
However, while NCRC's study is striking, it's not really a surprise. Merely summarizing such research feels, at this point, less important than irresponsible and evasive. We are desperately in need of a press that asks both how and why we got to where we are, and that is willing to take to task those in power who are the ultimate backstop for what happens in the city that they have been chosen to run.
The local press needs to be asking harder questions
For example, did DC deliberately court a creative class? If it did, were wealthier, whiter residents with a sheen of cultural capital recruited at the expense of longtime residents? Where and what are the specific instances of this occurring? Who was involved? Who is implicated? Was the way in which this was done, as a 2018 lawsuit alleges, illegal? What, then, must we do?
Just as stories like Shaver's keep rolling out about the vagaries of gentrification, my insistence that they aren't enough seems to keep coming. l criticized Washington City Paper's Answers issue entry about gentrification for City Observatory last year for the same reasons. While I was at Washington City Paper myself, in 2012, I asked if lambasting the white co-option of formerly black establishments as “swaggerjacking” was enough, given the clear evidence of DC's trajectory of gentrification. In one of my first posts for Greater Greater Washington, in 2010, I pushed back on a nationally known blogger for “shrugging” about gentrification in the face of displacement.
I do my best to offer possible solutions while I am asking the same of others, which leads to admittedly strident paragraphs like the following:
[Harvard University’s Lily] Song’s call to unravel the system could easily begin with a reevaluation of what we deem as acceptable, what we permit, and where we permit it. We can begin that work today. We could choose to commit to radically inclusive fair-housing policies in our cities, especially as the federal government dismantles funding and protections for that work. We could institute a land-value tax. We could choose to pay out financial dividends to our residents, be more generous in our voucher systems, or legitimately institute reparations. We could cease funding roadways and funnel that money instead into public transportation. We could permit, in places zoned exclusively for single-family homes, denser housing. We could ban parking minimums. We could do all of these things, and more, quite swiftly.
A year on, I’d add greater emphasis on the unequal distribution of development and Housing Production Trust Fund spending in DC and suggest, perhaps, a by-right permitting process for housing that meets a certain level of affordability. We could also strengthen or expand policies that mitigate displacement such as TOPA and rent control.
But, fundamentally, I would like to stop writing takedown-ish media-on-media snipes like this.
We need harder looks, not handwringing
Reporters can investigate what activists and advocates insist to be true, and can powerfully illustrate and corroborate those claims. They can also identify solutions.
Yet we are approaching a decade, if not more, of our local journalists and gadflies bemoaning gentrification rather than using their power and agency to elucidate a different vision for a fairer DC. The press is not objective, and not doing something is as much of a chosen action as doing something. Journalists should no longer simply highlight a study about gentrification while allowing root problems to go unexplained and responsible actors to continue unchallenged.
We have a responsibility to hold our communities and the politicians we've elected accountable. The press—which includes GGWash—is part of that ecosystem. Our public conversation is not helped by writing about gentrification with some sort of wide-eyed wonderment, or with righteous indignation without substance.
I don't take issue with talking about gentrification, poverty, homelessness, bureaucratic mismanagement, physical and cultural displacement, corruption, or inept decisonmaking. But we are just as complicit as our elected leaders if we don't honestly and seriously attempt to explain why and how exactly DC has changed, and what we should do now.