Photo by Hakimu Davidson.

Is gentrification black and white? Or economic? Last week, at a meeting about the often ominous issue of gentrification, a panel of young black professionals rejected the common idea that gentrification means white people moving into black neighborhoods. Instead, they argued, gentrification is about economics and a product of market forces.

The panel, “The Gentrification of Chocolate City: Reality vs. Perception”, featured former director of DC’s Department of Housing and Community Development Jalal “Jay” Greene, and GGW contributor and owner of Nspiregreen LLC, Veronica Davis.

In a brief presentation, Hakimu Davidson, of the Greater Washington Urban League’s Thursday Network, defined gentrification as “a process by which middle-class people take up residence in a traditionally working-class area of a city, changing the character of the area.”

Davidson listed advantages and disadvantages of gentrification. Advantages included an improved use of urban land, safer inner-city neighborhoods, higher tax revenues (to provide more funding for social safety net services such as rental assistance, energy assistance, emergency food assistance, and various other forms of assistance for the city’s dependent population) and more business investment.

Among the disadvantages were a displacement of residents, a loss of community identity, and a shift of financial services (from high concentrations of social service expenditures to more recreational and cultural expenditures).

From a strictly economic definition of gentrification, statistics demonstrate that as an area’s ethnic identity becomes “whiter,” there is a corresponding increase in median household income thus indicating the process is gaining a foothold, according to the panel. This assertion makes logical sense, but, however factually accurate or inaccurate, operates under the dangerous and loaded axiom that people of color are poor and people not of color are wealthy.

This default position often forms the fault line and negotiating position from which conversations at community meetings deteriorate into us versus them sessions leaving people to feel more dejected than they did before attending.

Although the assembled group, almost entirely African-American with a majority female, acknowledged it is “dangerous to say that gentrification is not a race issue,” the consensus held strongly that gentrification more closely correlates with economics.

“We over simplify the conversation by looking strictly at a race breakdown. We clamor to define it instead of discussing how to stop it. Each neighborhood has a different story. The issue happens at a micro level, each block by each block, instead of a macro, city-wide level,” said Davis, a New Jersey native, who came to DC in the mid 1990’s as a student and is a homeowner in the historically middle class neighborhood of Hillcrest in Ward 7.

“Race can’t be completely dismissed from the conversation. We are only one generation removed from segregation. People born after 1975 are the first cohort that grew up in a desegregated world, for all intents and purposes, and without overt racism. So really we are first generation where everyone had access to higher education and thus we are starting with higher incomes than previous generations.”

Davis cited the DC government’s Homestead Program in the late 1990’s as a public program that incentivized gentrification. The Homestead Program awarded foreclosed, abandoned, and dilapidated homes at nominal prices in order to move the properties off of the city docket. These homes, often purchased in the U Street and 14th Street NW corridor for less than a thousand dollars, were then fixed up for less than $100,000 and subsequently assessed at $300,000.

Would this have happened naturally? The panel agreed that it would have, but this program “moved the process along faster than what you would usually see organically.”

Speakers referenced demographic shifts in the history of the city. Georgetown had a reputation as a slum in the 1920’s, and Anacostia was nearly 80% white up until the 1950’s. Given this, there was a consensus that change is natural as people come and go between and within neighborhoods. Davis noted that there is an emerging group of middle class African Americans that are “not choosing to buy or if they buy they are typically choosing the big house in Prince George’s County.”

Further discussion focused on the influence of HUD and HOPE VI projects, of which DC has the largest presence of any American city other than Chicago. “HOPE VI helps the lower income people stay, but it is the middle income people who get displaced. They make too much to qualify for housing programs but they don’t make enough to afford the cost of living in the city,” the panel said. “These formulas look at the Adjusted Median Income, not the cost of living. We are moving to extremes where we have a city of very high income earners and very low income earners.”

One of the problems is a pervasive “fear undertone” that has branded “bike lanes, cupcakes, and dog parks as code for white people,” said Davis who pointed to a social component of “a lot of day cares but no pre-schools” in certain neighborhoods that have a heightened fear, alertness, and sensitivity to a real or perceived encroachment of change.

Misinformation was credited with spreading and perpetuating the “fear undertone” according to Greene. “DC has caps on how much your property tax can be raised. There are exemptions for seniors. Nearly half of the multi-family housing stock is rent controlled. Working in Prince George’s County, I can tell you Maryland’s property taxes are higher than DC.”

“It is a polarizing word. One of the main causes is public policy,” said Greene. “From that standpoint it is called revitalization. What we try to do is re-concentrate areas of poverty with more mixed income neighborhoods through the investment of public dollars. Hopefully you have positive outcomes but you have negative outcomes at the same time.”

The panel and audience agreed that “large pockets of poverty have not worked” and with a movement towards mixed-use development “we try to manage displacement.” However, Greene said mixed incoming housing is not a panacea as it is hard to finance by bringing together two sets of investors accustomed to very different systems. “One is used to generous tax credits and one is used to return on investment.”

While the conversation was honest and refreshing, it ended back to where it started, as “DC is creating jobs that many residents are increasingly unqualified for there is a supply and demand problem that is not going to go away.”