24 Nov 2020 • Reporting From
In Washington, DC, all eyes have been on Trump and Biden. We turn the lens towards the impact of gentrification
Gentrification continues apace in the US capital, reports William Richards, fuelling the displacement of Black Washingtonians.
The streets of Washington, DC feature every architectural style imaginable in conditions on a spectrum from handsomely appointed to quaintly bedraggled to completely gutted. Residents and visitors alike are inspired by the federal buildings and national monuments that occupy L’Enfant and Banneker’s robust plan. Others are delighted by the consular buildings and ambassadors’ residences. Rock Creek Park is a great lung of deciduous trees enjoyed by millions of people every year, and yet feels mercifully empty most days when you need to escape the thrum. Our most famous trees, cherry blossoms numbering in the thousands, attract just as many visitors during three glorious weeks in the spring and provide the backdrop for innumerable photographs.
Our population growth rate seems to be slowing somewhat, but more than 100,000 people have moved here in the last decade. Several infrastructure projects promise to aid the city’s growth and resolve some of its congestion, including an enormous bridge that will link the Anacostia and Navy Yard neighbourhoods (just recently approved by our National Capital Planning Commission). A metro subway line linking our downtown with our international airport is in its final stages. Another new metro, linking two ends of an existing U-shaped line, is troubled by jurisdictional squabbles, but has broken ground in one of the fastest growing areas of the region. We are also a multimodal transportation hub with planes, trains, automobiles, but also bike- and scooter-sharing, rail-to-trail paths, a growing network of bicycle lanes and even a few pedestrian-only commercial strips.
The deluge has mostly been made up of millennials, however. American University’s Kogod Millennial Index places this metro region as 27 per cent more attractive than the average American city for the 22- to 38-year-old bracket, making us the number two destination in the nation. That was in 2017, and while recent studies have shown a slowing rate of millennial workers moving here before (and certainly after) the pandemic, gentrification continues apace – fuelling the displacement of Black Washingtonians.
Washington, DC, is becoming whiter and more expensive by the year
Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, stretching two blocks within eyesight of the White House, is a response to George Floyd’s death as much as it is an indictment of our economy’s invisible hand rapidly remaking large swaths of this city and pushing Black Washingtonians into the easternmost parts of the district in Anacostia and Maryland counties beyond the border. In 1970, African-Americans comprised 71 per cent of the population of the district. Within a generation, the Black population has fallen – and continues to fall – below 47 per cent. Since the 1970s, Latinx and Asian communities have grown into that gap, but make no mistake: Washington, DC, is becoming whiter and more expensive by the year.
Incomes also reflect this disparity. The median household income of Black Washingtonians across the city’s eight wards is $52,755, compared with $139,038 among white Washingtonians. What are people doing with all that money? Buying real estate. In recent decades, home prices have steadily climbed up 11.9 per cent over 2019 to a median price of $645,000 (nearly double the US average), according to Redfin’s most recent numbers. The city-wide average is 20 days on the market, and homes in my neighbourhood are frequently under contract within a week of their listing, usually snapped up by 40- to 50-somethings moving up economically or moving into the city.
Washington, DC has fast become a playground for the top quintiles of the economy and is losing its Black heritage in the process
Some parts of the city east of the US Capitol Building have seen 50 to 75 per cent of the low-income populations displaced – and subsequently replaced – by buyers whose incomes crest above $200,000 or more per year. The great irony is that these particular row houses were built by the working class for the working class, many of them ripped from pattern books and constructed between 1870 and 1893 to meet the demands of a rapidly growing city. According to Zillow, today the typical home value in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood is $871,433, up 3.1 per cent from last year and expected to increase by 6.2 per cent by this time next year. At the time of writing, there are 66 homes for sale above $1 million in that neighbourhood, roughly two miles square.
For some observers, the widening gap created by gentrification in the capital of this democracy is a happy paradox imbued with the manifest promise of ‘the great American experiment’. For others, it is evidence of a failed experiment in city building, rife with systemic problems created by deleterious policies in a juggernaut economy whose beneficiaries disenfranchise races and classes, and discriminate against the powerless. Washington, DC has fast become a playground for the top quintiles of the economy and is losing its Black heritage in the process. Everyone agrees there are still two Washingtons, but if we become an economic and racial monoculture within the next generation, as we are on track to do, it will be at our peril.
Richards writes about architecture and cities, and is the cofounder of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy. He is the author of several books, including a forthcoming survey on cohousing and community trends, published by Princeton Architectural Press. His column will feature in our upcoming Jan/Feb issue, Frame 138.