By Emmanuella Ezike, Khadeen Grant and Geoffrey Martin

In 2022, Medici Road worked with the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) and partners to secure a Choice Neighborhood grant. The application built upon previous efforts to replace aging public housing in the Greater Deanwood area of Ward 7. More recent plans developed with residents, also aimed to spur job creation, shopping, and entertainment, and increase the number of affordable units.

Yet, despite a 2016 count of 7,049 subsidized units in Ward 7, many families remain unhoused. Some remain invisible. They live in the neighborhood parks or are double-housed with other families. In July, we spoke to a young man in a neighborhood park. He stopped to talk to us because he assumed we were government representatives there to provide housing placements. Although he was disappointed that we were only there to ask questions to learn about community needs, he graciously shared his story anyway. He shared his battle with cerebral palsy, while living in a rented basement where the conditions were not conducive to his health. 

“I have been waiting for a housing placement for many years and am desperate to move.”

We have heard similar stories from other park patrons on various waitlists to secure housing through the District’s programs; one person reported being on a list for over five years. Unfortunately, they are not alone. In 2021, 76% of low-income renters who needed rental assistance did not receive it. A recent report warns that we risk losing up to 180,000 units by 2027 without federal intervention. 

Historically, subsidized housing has been concentrated in under-resourced neighborhoods in the District, as seen in Wards 7 and 8. We know that redlining, zoning restrictions and not-in-my-backyard sentiments are among the many reasons this exists. But, we also observe that our housing policies have been over-reliant on the free market to meet the housing needs of low-to-moderate-income residents. The private market has little incentives to build enough affordable and subsidized housing because it does not favor wide profit margins. 

Although it is now widely believed and accepted that revitalization is the solution to spurring investment in under resourced neighborhoods, it has allowed us to ignore the actual effects of the free market on underserved communities for far too long. Revitalizing places like Shaw and Navy Yard has priced out longtime DC residents who have lived in these neighborhoods, many of whom have been forced out of the District altogether. This issue is too stark for us to continue to discuss in hushed tones at water coolers and coffee shops. 

The idea makes money sense. We get it! By offering incentives to the private market to meet affordable housing shortfalls, the government gets to spend money on other needs that benefit our society. But it has not been working for people in poverty, other abled and or elderly. In cities across the country, they are being priced out of neighborhoods they have called home for generations, or they are forced to move to under-resourced neighborhoods with concentrated poverty and few amenities that make life more challenging than it should be. And we know that corporations have very little incentive to operate in these neighborhoods. Take the Walmart debacle, for example.

A report found that only 69% of buildings that received funding from LIHTC, a program designed for the private market to facilitate affordable housing production, could report how tenants’ earned their incomes. The intricate relationship between public spending and market forces must be addressed to curb the rapid people and community displacement that comes with neighborhood revitalization. When researching this topic, we resolved that local governments and communities must be more intentional about balancing market forces with public investment so that all residents can thrive. City and Federal governments must make complex decisions about where to invest limited resources that benefit everyone.

We propose that if strengthened, community-level strategies, like Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) between community organizations, developers, and local governments, can ensure that new developments provide tangible benefits to communities at risk of displacement. CBAs could uplift community voices through ongoing, collaborative planning and engagement involving residents and community organizations. Suppose locally elected leaders prioritize securing multi-year support from private developers for amenities that meet the needs of existing families and businesses. In that case, communities will see more equitable revitalization and less displacement. These multi-year agreements should include funding for inclusive programs for people at risk of eviction, like families and seniors. Further, community leaders should ensure that CBAs have rent guarantees for people earning between 30% and 50% of the area median income, below-market rents for long-standing businesses and penalties for defaulting.

Community leaders and City governments should secure guaranteed job opportunities, scholarships, and training programs designed for the long-term prosperity of existing residents. Often, community leaders enter into CBAs that give preference to residents for construction jobs created from revitalization projects. Often, these jobs are temporary and disappear when the project is complete. CBAs should also prioritize long-term, sustainable opportunities like guaranteed training and preference for jobs that remain with buildings, like property maintenance and management. In these cases, long-time residents will truly experience neighborhood stabilization and upward mobility and go a long way in preventing or delaying displacement. 

Lenders in the private sector who fund these programs should also find a way to give preference to developers who include CBAs in their plans. If leveraged appropriately, these shifts strengthen social ties in communities, rebuild physical infrastructure, and help transform communities from low to high opportunity

CBAs are a great place to start. But, as cities revitalize forgotten neighborhoods, they need to think about displacement, especially of people whose stories are not captured in many databases. Our most vulnerable populations, like sick and elderly people are being left out of the progress. Cities and peer organizations can go to places less frequented, like parks, to speak to the people there. Some do not want to be there but they have no choice, and if we don’t speak to them we won’t know. We know where to find them because many of us avoid patronizing these places. Funding these activities will take time and money, but aren’t people worth it?

Community revitalization does not need to be negative. Displacement through revitalization, may be an unintentional consequence of attempting to invest in forgotten communities. But, it still counts among the long list of policies and practices that have harmed communities of color and vulnerable populations. We, our partners and peers, can increase the number of affordable housing and the subsequent quality of life for residents equitably, with local governments and private markets working with residents to protect everyone’s interests.  The infrastructure we need is available through community benefits agreements, tax incentives, and the like, to accomplish these goals. And although Affirmative Action has been overturned, we believe there is more appetite in community development for innovative solutions that transform neighborhoods equitably. The time is right now to do the right thing.

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

-MLK Jr.