Has gentrification been good or bad for D.C.?

Has gentrification been good or bad for D.C.?

Is gentrification good or bad? That depends on who you ask, and where you live.

If you’re a fan, then you’ve probably been quite pleased as D.C. has led the nation in gentrification for years. In fact, the district was the “most intensely gentrified city” in the nation in 2019 according to a study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. But this past June, that same organization placed D.C. thirteenth on that list, pleasing many critics of gentrification with the seemingly sudden drop, but leaving some questioning the new ranking and whether gentrification has actually slowed.

So, has it?

Produced by Kurt Gardinier


  • Ari Theresa Civil Rights Attorney & Founder, Stoop Law; @actheresa
  • Ally Schweitzer Business and Development Reporter, The Affordability Desk, WAMU 88.5; @allyschweitzer


  • 12:00:14

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast it's Kojo For Kids with two-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup Champion Abby Wambach. But first, "gentrification," that word gets a strong reaction in this town. When a neighborhood gets more upscale, is that good or bad for the city? That depends on who you ask and where you live. But what's not up for debate is that for the past 20 years, D.C. has often led the nation in gentrification. And in 2019 it was ranked the most intensely gentrified city in the country by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

  • 12:00:54

    KOJO NNAMDIBut this past June, that same organization placed D.C. 13th on that list pleasing many critics of gentrification with the seemingly sudden drop. But leaving some questioning the new ranking and whether gentrification has actually slowed. Let's find out. Joining me now is Ally Schweitzer, Business and Development Reporter with The Affordability Desk at WAMU. Hi, Ally.

  • 12:01:17

    ALLY SCHWEITZERHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me.

  • 12:01:18

    NNAMDIAlly, before we get to whether gentrification and D.C. has slowed or not, please describe what gentrification is and what role it's played in shaping our city for the past two decades.

  • 12:01:30

    SCHWEITZERGentrification refers to an influx of wealth into a working class or poor neighborhood coupled with the pricing out and the displacement of people who live there. And over the last 20 years or so as you said, gentrification has completely reshaped the racial economic physical and cultural makeup of D.C.

  • 12:01:52

    NNAMDIAnd how has all of that worked so to speak? How has gentrification helped and hurt the District?

  • 12:02:00

    SCHWEITZERWell, so the economic development piece of gentrification has made D.C. a financially healthy, actually thriving city. Long gone is the control board era of the 90s when Congress assumed oversight of D.C.'s finances. And so that huge boost in revenue that came with the economic development piece has enabled the city to make really significant investments in services and crucially into affordable housing as well.

  • 12:02:25

    SCHWEITZERBut the downside is equally significant. For one, gentrification has displaced much of the city's workforce. It has pushed people into housing that's farther away from jobs and opportunity. It has concentrated poverty. It has deepened racial segregation. And overall it's made much of, if not most of the city more inequitable and economically hostile to working people most of whom are Black and brown.

  • 12:02:51

    NNAMDIAlly, let's go back to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition studies that I mentioned. In 2019, the Coalition ranked D.C. as quoting here, "the most intensely gentrified city." But last year it moved the city down that list to the 13th spot. So what happened over the course of that year and is gentrification actually slowing in the District.

  • 12:03:13

    SCHWEITZERWell, I'll answer that question with some background. I mean first of all, the first study that came in '19 looked at 2000 and 2013. And as we know, you know that was a period of intense change in D.C. It started with the Tony Williams era post control board, massive economic development downtown. It also coincided with the recession. And that was a time of a lot of job growth in D.C. unlike the rest of the country. So the city added a lot of new residents during that time, but not enough new housing.

  • 12:03:42

    SCHWEITZERThe recession slowed down housing development while more people were moving to the city. So you had a lot of college educated, white middle class people, myself included -- I moved to D.C. in '07 from Maryland. A lot of white middle class people moving to the city competing with poorer people for housing. Displacement was rampant. And that was between 2000 and 2013. D.C. lost 20,000 Black residents. That's according to the NCRC. So fast-forward to the study that came out last year, that looked at D.C. from '13 to '17.

  • 12:04:13

    SCHWEITZERD.C.'s population still growing, gentrification still happening, but two things were also taking place. One, the city had begun to build more affordable housing. And perhaps more importantly, other cities during that time had become to experience their own intense gentrification and they began to eclipse D.C.'s. So I think that better explains why D.C. fell so much in the rankings. It's not that gentrification slowed down that much. It's that other cities started to enable displacement to an even greater degree. And let me just add this one last thing. I think our guest is going to talk about the impact of appeals that block new housing construction in the city.

  • 12:04:47


  • 12:04:48

    SCHWEITZERI know that activists involved in that fight like to take credit for D.C. falling in the gentrification rankings, but I have yet to see any real evidence of that. It strikes me as very counterintuitive and frankly illogical that blocking the creation of new housing, even if it expensive luxury exclusive housing, actually decreases displacement, because what the research shows is you don't stop displacement by decreasing housing supply. You do it by building and preserving housing at a variety of price points including market rate and affordable housing.

  • 12:05:21

    NNAMDIYou mentioned our guest. That would be Ari Theresa, Civil Rights Attorney and the Founder of the Stoop Law Firm. Ari Theresa, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:05:29

    ARI THERESAHi, thanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:05:31

    NNAMDIYou were interviewed in a recent piece for the Washington City Paper where you detailed why you think gentrification has slowed in the District pointing to a court case in the year 2013. What case are you referring to and how do you believe it may have led to a slowing of gentrification?

  • 12:05:49

    THERESAI'm referring to the Durant case. And that was an appeals court case where residents won their case, won their appeal. That case ended up being sent back, I think three times, and I don't think anything ever got built there. I'm pretty sure nothing got built there. But I think what happened after that was a lot of residents started appealing these cases. People started realizing that the ear that they were not getting at the Zoning Commission perhaps they could get at the Court of Appeals. A lot more people started appealing. So between 2013 and 2017 there were roughly 50 appeals. Whereas in the 20 year period before there were about 20 appeals.

  • 12:06:40

    NNAMDIAri, in simple terms, how does this appeal process work? And why do you believe it has benefited D.C. residents?

  • 12:06:48

    THERESAWell, appeals typically come after a Zoning Commission hearing and an order that's been issued by the Zoning Commission. Residents feel that the Zoning Commission didn't listen to their concerns or didn't adequately address their concerns. And so they appeal it to court. And the court typically is very differential to the decision of the Zoning Commission. The decisions have to be pretty bad for a case to be sent back. I know in the case of Durant the Zoning Commission copied verbatim the development's proposal for how they would like the Zoning Commission to view their application. I think that -- well, I know that appeals impacted the ranking. And I want to talk about two cases in particular. I know that the study has a very small sample size.

  • 12:07:46

    THERESASo just a couple of projects can impact the rankings significantly. But out of the 50 appeals I just want to address two, Barry Farm and Brooklyn Manor. And these are two sites that were not emptied of people. The appeal of Barry Farm began at the Zoning Commission. The opposition at Barry Farm began at the Zoning Commission in 2014, so even though Barry Farm ended up being emptied of its residents in 2018 that was not captured between 2013 and 2017. Same thing with Brooklyn Manor.

  • 12:08:22

    THERESABoth of these census -- census tracks 74.01 of Barry Farm. Census track 91.02 of Brooklyn Manor under the methodology of the study would have been eligible for gentrification. And that did not happen during the timeframe, because of appeals. The people at Brooklyn Manor are still in their properties because of arguments that were posed at the Zoning Commission and also because of the appeal that is outstanding.

  • 12:08:48

    THERESAWhen you look at -- you know, you add those two sites, which would have gentrified, because there would have been a massive increase in market rate housing because both of them have 500 units. About four to 500 units -- or had in the case of Barry Farm of deeply affordable housing and it was going to be redeveloped to a site with about 1400 to 1500 market rate housing. And so that would have gentrified. And it did not during that time period. And just those two sites would take D.C. from 13 to number 8 on 50 appeals.

  • 12:09:20

    NNAMDII understand -- it's my understanding that there are efforts by the D.C. government to try to make it more difficult to file such appeals. Is that correct, and what indeed is the District doing to make it more difficult?

  • 12:09:35

    THERESAWell, they're trying to make it through the comprehensive plan. They're trying to make it harder for residents to win the appeals when they get to the Court of Appeals. They're trying to make it so it's harder for these cases to be successful. But also the mayor has floated the idea of limiting standing, which is interesting because the court already has very detailed rules about standing and who qualifies for standing. So I don't know what exactly she's going to propose here. But that has been floated.

  • 12:10:12

    NNAMDIWell, we got an email from Sheryl who says, is stopping new housing the answer or is it better to preserve affordable housing? Ari, it seems that the increased number of appeals may have delayed some development. But has that served to preserve more affordable housing and resulted in fewer residents being displaced?

  • 12:10:33

    THERESAI believe so. We've studied these PUDs, these large development projects that have occurred all over the city. And from 2010 to 2018, 20 of the 90 PUD projects were proposed in two of the 180 census tracks.

  • 12:10:52

    NNAMDIAnd I should explain to listeners that PUD means Planned Unit Development.

  • 12:10:56

    THERESACorrect. So they were proposed in two of the census tracks. And those census tracks saw tremendous displacement of Black residents -- or tremendous demographic change. The white residents increased by 130 percent. The Black residents decreased by 15 percent. And the overall number of Black residents dropped by 2900 even though the area added 11,000 people. And so you have this area with the most supply of housing, the most new housing being built in this area, but you see the most displacement. And certain people benefited from that. And certain people did not benefit from it. And I think when you look at the demographic changes it's pretty clear what happened.

  • 12:11:47

    NNAMDIHere is Delabian in Washington D.C. Delabian, you're on the air. We only have about a minute left in this segment. But go ahead, please.

  • 12:11:53

    DELABIANI believe that housing prices are determined by white desire not to live particularly near Black people, so housing prices go up. I'm a former city planner and it feels to me that if every alley closing meant that some part of that four area ratio had to be rented or sold to Black people so that all new construction had a 20-15 percent Black population there would not be the pressure on housing prices to go up to the point that Black people can't afford it.

  • 12:12:31

    NNAMDIOkay. Delabian, we only have about 20 seconds, but do you believe it should be based on race or income?

  • 12:12:37

    DELABIANOn race because when little Abner moves in housing prices don't change.

  • 12:12:41


  • 12:12:42

    DELABIANWhen a doctor who is Black moves in, housing prices begin to change.

  • 12:12:45

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:13:16

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing whether or not gentrification has been in fact reduced in D.C. because D.C. is no longer leading the nation in gentrification. Ari Theresa, you heard Delabian's point. Delabian describes herself as a former city planner. What do you think of her idea?

  • 12:13:33

    THERESAI think that it would be tough to get through legally, but I agree with her. I think that here are dual housing markets and a lot of pricing action isn't premised on supply and demand of housing, but it's premised on our attitudes about where we want to live and who we want to live with.

  • 12:14:00

    NNAMDIAlly Schweitzer, even though development -- even if development has decreased, are poor Black and brown people still being displaced at the high rates you mentioned a while ago, 20,000 over a 10 year period. What are the latest numbers available on displacement?

  • 12:14:16

    SCHWEITZERWell, probably the best numbers I've seen and they're not amazing, but it would be the NCRC analysis the most recent study that they put out last year. I mean, those numbers cut off at 2017. But NCRC indicates that between, you know, '13 and '17 more than 16 percent I think it was of census tracks or neighborhoods in D.C. were still gentrifying. That's a lot less than there were during first analysis. I haven't seen numbers more recent than that though unfortunately. Maybe some demographers are listening and they hit me to a more recent analysis.

  • 12:14:52

    NNAMDIWell, we got a tweet from Morris, "Please are your guests to provide one neighborhood in D.C. that has experienced an increase in density and market rate housing and a decrease in housing prices. Shaw, Columbia Heights, Brookland, Navy Yard, Capitol Hill, Southwest, Petworth, Mount Vernon. Where is the leprechaun?" And W.Jakarimelton tweets, "How is displacement defined? A person selling their home and being replaced by someone of higher income is slightly different than say an apartment conversion where previous occupants were lower income." Ari, you filed a class action suit against the District government on behalf of a host of predominantly Black clients and community groups. Talk about the lawsuit and what the result could mean for your clients.

  • 12:15:33

    THERESAWell, the lawsuit was brought, because I had clients who went before the Zoning Commission in many different areas, most of them Black neighborhoods. And they received decisions from the Zoning Commission that did not jive with the law or with regulations. When I investigated the matter further, I realized that the District pretty much stated what they wanted to do back in 2006. They released several statements saying that they wanted to attract people, who were between 18 and 34. They wanted to attract this creative professional class of resident. And they stated how they would do it. They stated that they would identify neighborhoods that were production, distribution and repair. Neighborhoods like Navy Yard and Union Market and they would change the zoning regulations to make it so those areas were more livable for the people that they were trying to attract.

  • 12:16:30

    THERESAAnd what I realized was when my clients went before the Zoning Commission to oppose these projects there was an unofficial policy of not taking their concerns seriously. They would not provide written impact reports for them even though they would do the same for -- they would do that for white residents and white neighborhoods seeking impact reports about things like historic preservation. And that's the same regulation that Black residents were using to seek reports from the Department of Housing and Community Development about adverse impacts to these large development projects in terms of price stability. Okay.

  • 12:17:08

    NNAMDIOkay. Ally Schweitzer, throughout this pandemic with so many people and businesses struggling financially, the residential real estate market has been booming. In fact, Zillow, the online real estate company reports that the D.C. Metro housing market gained $75 billion that's with "B" -- $75 billion in value last year making the D.C. Metro market the fourth most valuable residential market in the nation. How did that happen during a recession? And what does it say about our region's economy and income inequality?

  • 12:17:38

    SCHWEITZERWell, just remember D.C. is a pretty unique city economically. You know, in that often when the rest of the country is struggling, D.C. does okay. And that's largely, because of the stabilizing presence of the federal government. By the way, when I say D.C. does okay, I mean, at large maybe the whole state in general, not necessarily individual groups who are very much suffering from displacement and unequal access to education and jobs. But there are a lot of jobs here and that's an insurance policy against recessions. The downside, of course, is that D.C. is also saddled with the consequences of things like government shutdowns in ways that other places are not.

  • 12:18:15

    NNAMDIOn the phone now is Ashley Davis who is a realtor in Alexandria, Virginia. Ashley, you are on the air. Go ahead, please. What do you want to tell us?

  • 12:18:23

    ASHLEYHi, Kojo. Thank you for having me on the air. Yes, in my neighborhood, the people, who are buying in my neighborhood, which is across the street from one of the Metro stops are mostly people moving from D.C. and the Crystal City Pentagon City area who are looking for more room, because of the pandemic or, you know, yards and they're both working from home, a little bit more space to spread out in. So that's what I'm seeing in this neighborhood.

  • 12:18:48

    NNAMDIAnd most of those people you're saying, Ashley, are from D.C.?

  • 12:18:52

    ASHLEYEither from D.C. or from the Crystal City-Pentagon City area from condos or apartments in those areas.

  • 12:19:00

    NNAMDISee, Ally, we've been focusing on D.C.'s gentrification, but have we been seeing similar gentrification patterns in neighboring communities?

  • 12:19:07

    SCHWEITZEROh, yeah, no doubt. I mean, it might be less visible, but there's absolutely displacement taking place throughout our region. I mean you can see that in the rise in real estate values through suburban Maryland and Virginia including my neighborhood in Montgomery County. You see that in the overcrowded living conditions that many residents are forced into because housing costs are so high. They have to split up the rent. You know, people tend to associate gentrification with the construction of new high rise apartment buildings. But in D.C. and in the suburbs, it's also really important to look at what's going in the housing that's already there. You know, turnover in single family homes is also a major contributor to gentrification.

  • 12:19:44

    NNAMDIHow have other jurisdictions, Ally, tried to encourage or to reign in gentrification? And what outcomes are we seeing in these communities?

  • 12:19:53

    SCHWEITZERWell, every locality wants to be more like D.C. economically, right? But I think they're at risk of repeating the same mistakes that D.C. has made. You know, namely courting investment without shoring up enough affordable housing. Governments should absolutely be trying to grown their economies if they want to provide better services. But just given that, I think -- I want to say it's Fairfax County, for example, that doesn't require any -- a minimum number of affordable housing units in new development. I mean, that kind of policy, you're kind of begging for displacement.

  • 12:20:25

    NNAMDILinda in D.C. called in to say, but couldn't stay on the line, "I think that gentrification is criminal. It supports large developers who downsize their units to studios and one bedrooms that move families out of the area. The onslaught against the Black community in this city has been absolutely horrible." And now here is Renee in Northwest Washington. Renee, your turn.

  • 12:20:45

    RENEEOh, I appreciate the opportunity. I think my comments following up on the one you just read. For example, Brooklyn Manor, which is in Ward 5, the city gave a $47 million tax increment financing to the developer to build triple the number of units. But the number of -- it has subsidized units now. The number of units that are affordable to low income people will be the same number. However, they'll be so much smaller. Where there were was 209 units of three, four and five bedrooms for large families there are now going to be only 64 and now four and five bedrooms. And even 200 of those are for seniors where no non-senior can live with the senior. In other words, I could not live with my grandchild if I had one.

  • 12:21:40

    NNAMDIGot you.

  • 12:21:41

    ASHLEYSo this is District led displacement. Even the very year that (unintelligible) came out with the study in 2019 when the Council voted that said we need more large bedrooms, but they did the opposite. So this is District led displacement and it's very --

  • 12:21:59

    NNAMDIOkay. Got to interrupt, because we're almost out of time. Ari Theresa, for those listening who like our caller dislike gentrification, is D.C.'s drop in the ranking from first to 13th most intensely gentrified city a reason for happiness or celebration?

  • 12:22:17

    THERESAAbsolutely not. I think that study captured certain things. I think gentrification is largely a qualitative phenomenon. I think it includes cycles of disinvestment. So I think that even if COVID has impacted things the neighborhoods that were far from investment are going to experience more disinvestment and less services. And all of the things that we like to say are good about gentrification, a lot of people don't experience them. You know, schools aren't that great.

  • 12:22:53

    NNAMDIOnly got about 20 seconds.

  • 12:22:53

    THERESAA lot of things aren't. Yeah. No, I don't think it's a reason to celebrate.

  • 12:22:58

    NNAMDIAri Theresa, Ally Schweitzer thank you both for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back it's Kojo For Kids with two-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup Champion Abby Wambach. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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