Giving Gentrification a Good Name; Throw Money at the Problem. Just Aim in the Right Direction

By Margery Austin Turner

The Washington Post OUTLOOK Sunday August 11, 2002, Pg. B03

After decades of seemingly unending decline, the District of Columbia's population is growing again. This is good news. To thrive, the District needs more residents -- they pay taxes, fund services, invest in housing and patronize neighborhood businesses. But if the influx of new households pushes rents and house prices too high, low- and moderate-income families may be crowded out and vibrant communities may be lost. Longtime residents who suffered through the city's years of decline may suffer again, as they did in the 1950s and '60s when urban renewal forced more than 20,000 people from Southwest.

Growth doesn't have to cause displacement or the loss of thriving communities. If the city is smart and manages its newfound growth, it can bring renewed vitality to all the city's neighborhoods and benefits for all its residents. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments predicts that the city may gain as many as 30,000 households by 2010, bringing the total to 281,000. The District has the housing stock to accommodate this growth. According to the 2000 Census, there are roughly 26,000 vacant housing units available for occupancy. Moreover, city officials estimate that another 4,000 properties are abandoned or boarded up.

But these vacancies are not in the neighborhoods where most of the growth has been occurring. Instead, they are concentrated in neighborhoods such as Historic Anacostia, Ivy City, Penn Branch and Capitol View, which are still losing population. With the right mix of incentives and assurances, more people could be convinced to venture into the neighborhoods that need growth -- and the reinvestment it brings. This reinvestment would not only benefit the current residents of these neighborhoods, many of whom are poor and minority; it also would reduce pressure on the neighborhoods that are currently threatened by displacement.

So far, the increase in population has been concentrated in a relatively small group of neighborhoods. New residents have flocked to Columbia Heights, Logan Circle, Shaw, Dupont Circle, and parts of downtown and Capitol Hill, snapping up vacant homes and apartments, fueling new development, and changing neighborhood composition and character.

In the Logan Circle area, for example, the number of households increased by almost 14 percent (about 1,300 households) between 1990 and 2000. Where prostitution and drug dealing were once rampant, a new Fresh Fields supermarket and the Source Theatre flourish. Vacancy rates have plunged to below 5 percent, and house prices have risen dramatically, climbing from an average of $ 98,500 in 1994 to $ 144,200 in 2000.

Other D.C. neighborhoods have not fared as well. Historic Anacostia (which the city has designated as the area between Martin Luther King Drive and Fort Stanton Park, and between Morris Road and Good Hope Road) lost both population and housing stock during the 1990s. The total number of Anacostia households fell by 14 percent and the number of housing units declined 8 percent. Vacancy rates for both rental and homeowner housing are high -- 11 percent of all homeowner units are vacant and available for sale, while 15 percent of rental units are vacant. In addition, the city estimates that more than one of every 10 Historic Anacostia properties is abandoned or boarded up.

The challenge for the city, by no means a small one, is to reduce the pressure on neighborhoods such as Logan Circle, where prices are rising too fast, and to attract more new residents to neighborhoods like Historic Anacostia.

As recently as 1990, few experts would have predicted that the District of Columbia would be faced with the challenge of managing growth. In 1970, there were more than 260,000 households in the District, but by 1990 the number of households had fallen below 250,000. By 2000, the Council of Governments and others estimated that the number would decline even further -- to 222,000. Not only were middle-income families (white and black) leaving the city for the suburbs, few new arrivals to the region were choosing to make the city home.

By the end of the 1990s, however, the District had stopped losing population and had started to grow as the declining crime rate, booming economy and improved fiscal health helped make the city a more attractive place to live.

What will it take to attract newcomers to the neighborhoods that need them most? The majority of people driving the city's growth are childless singles and couples -- white, black, Hispanic and Asian. Some are in their twenties and early thirties, and just starting out in their careers. Others have finished raising their children and are returning to the convenience and vitality of the city.

The D.C. government already has most of the tools it needs to lure similar people to other areas of the city. The city could target its homebuyer assistance and low-cost mortgage financing to areas such as Historic Anacostia to attract new homebuyers from a variety of income levels. City agencies should accelerate efforts to take control of abandoned properties so they can be renovated and occupied by new owners. In order to make new and existing residents feel safer, these neighborhoods should get priority for stepped-up police protection. Finally, government should provide tax and other incentives to help bring back neighborhood grocery stores, shops and restaurants, which would attract new residents and improve the quality of life for existing residents.

Meanwhile, in booming areas such as Logan Circle, the city should use the money from its new Housing Production Trust Fund and federal block grant programs to set aside affordable houses and apartments for low-income residents. It should require developers of new housing to include low-cost units. It should press landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers, so that low-income families can choose to stay if they wish.

Clearly, the city can't afford these kinds of comprehensive investments everywhere, nor would they work in every neighborhood. City officials have to be strategic, starting in just a few neighborhoods and coordinating activities by multiple agencies in order to have a visible impact. And the city government can't do the job alone; it needs partners such as the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Fannie Mae Foundation, the Board of Trade, housing developers, D.C. Agenda, and nonprofit community development organizations. But the city has to assume leadership, and put some money behind the effort. Otherwise, more neighborhoods will become unaffordable for all but the very affluent, and the District will have missed the opportunity to rebuild itself as a thriving, economically diverse community.

* * * * *

Margery Austin Turner directs the center on Metropolitan Housing and Communities at the Urban Institute and is an author of the recently released report "Housing in the Nation's Capital: 2002." Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Institute.

Return to Marge Turner's page