Gentrification in DC


Crisis Magazine, 2005



Standing Their Ground











AS LOUISE THOMAS begins the third-hour of her shift at Martha’s Table, a social service organization in Washington D.C., construction workers from a nearby project of new condominiums stop by.

Thomas, 76, has lived in Northwest Washington for 60 years. In the last decade she has seen the complexion of her neighborhood near Florida Avenue and 14th Street change dramatically. Her block, once notorious for a ruthless open-air drug market, is now hot property. Buildings that were burned out during riots in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr. assassination in 1968, have been replaced by big businesses and loft—style condominiums.

The disabled and elderly men and women from Clifton Terrace, a former public housing complex, no longer make the short trek to Martha’s Table to get daily meals, because they no longer live there. The housing complex is now a condominium with a mix of low-, moderate- and high-income residents. The public schools in the area, like Cardozo Senior High School, where six of Thomas’s seven children went, are no longer filled to capacity. Most of the newcomers don’t have children, and those who do send them to elite, private schools.

In the last three or four years, Thomas has seen families displaced and the number of families needing help, both homeless and hungry, double in size.

“Everything is being built for people who have money,“ says Thomas, who has volunteered at Martha’s Table since retiring 12 years ago. “I was living in Georgetown when all the change happened, and you see Georgetown now. We are headed for some bad trouble.”

ACCORDING TO A recent study by the Center for Housing Policy, nationwide the number of working families spending more than half of their income on housing has increased 76 percent. Most housing experts advise that no more than 30 percent of a family’s income should be used on housing.

The real estate boom has hit the average Washington D.C. resident particularly hard. With housing prices rising rapidly, affordable housing for low-to-moderate income workers is increasingly scarce.

“There is no doubt there is a housing crisis,” says Bonnie Caldwell senior legislative director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). “The federal government is not providing funding, but they are pushing everyone to homeownership. I am not sure how that is going to happen when people can’t afford market rent.”

According to the report., “Out of Reach 2004.” published by NLIHC, the fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Washington D.C., is $1,045: for a two-bedroom it is 1,187. A person in D.C. working for minimum wage ($6.60) for 40 hour’s per week can only afford a monthly rent of $343. A person would have to have a job that pays $20.10 an hour for a 40-hour week, or $41,800 a year, to afford a one-bedroom apartment. The average annual salary a person has to make to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent in the city is $47,800.

Nearly 60 percent of all D.C. residents are renters. The estimated median annual income for a District renter is $33,155.

“There is a profound gap between the number of poor people and the number of housing units for them,” says clinical psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove, author of Root Shock, How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It. “This crisis has reached a point where average people with a job can’t get a place to live.’’

THOMAS CAME to Washington in 1929 at the age of five. Her father moved the family from Fayetteville. N.C., so that he could work shoveling coal and heating the District’s public schools. They lived above a store in the then all-Black neighborhood of Georgetown. Horses and streetcars lined the cobblestone streets. The outhouse they used next door was both a comforting reminder and a stark symbol of the difficult life they had left in the South.

But the District’s Alley Dwelling Act of 1934 combined with the federal Housing Act of 1949 — which identified “blighted areas” — changed the landscape of her neighborhood. The properties in Georgetown were deemed unfit for habitation by the city’s Board of Condemnation of Insanitary Buildings, which indicated that they needed to be “razed.’ Consequently, Black Georgetown residents, most of them renters, were served with eviction notices.

But according to the book Black Georgetown Remembered, during the next 20 years, many of these alley dwellings were not razed, but restored, then referred to as ‘coach houses: and sold to affluent “newcomers” of the sort who predominate in the formerly Black neighborhood today. With a flick of the wrist, the Black population in Georgetown was gone.

For Thomas, when she received a condemnation notice on her building five years ago, it seemed that Georgetown was happening all over again. If it weren’t for the District’s 1977 tenant-purchase law, which allows tenants the first right to purchase if an owner chooses to sell, Thomas might have become homeless.

In March 2000, the 28-unit building at 1418 W Street, NW, where Thomas rented a small apartment, was deemed uninhabitable by city officials. It was tagged as one of the city’s 75 “hot properties.” Housing inspectors cited hundreds of housing code violations ranging from fire hazards to rodent infestation.

City officials put notices on residents’ doors notifying them that the building would be condemned and that residents would have 21 hours to evacuate the property. Residents were not offered aid in finding a new place to live, nor in repairing the building.

After years of having their complaints about the bad conditions in their building fall on deaf bureaucratic ears, residents were skeptical about the timing of the condemnation notices. Around the same time that the Columbia Heights Metro subway station was completed, a $149 million redevelopment plan was announced for the neighborhood. Tenants felt the notices were an effort to get rid of low-income residents to make way for new higher-end development.

In April 2000, residents of 1418 W Street, NW sued the city for discrimination. In turn, the city sued the landlords of 1418 W Street NW for negligence. It was the first lawsuit against a slumlord in the city’s history. A settlement in July 2000 required landlords Kenneth J. Welch and his son Patrick Welch to pay $275,000 for unfinished repairs, $30,000 to relocate residents while the repairs were made and $25,000 to cover the tenants’ legal fees. The agreement also forbid the Welchs from owning interest in other residential properties in the city. In addition, the pair was instructed to sell the 28-unit building to the tenant association for $1.

But the tenants’ victory was bittersweet. Speculators began calling tenants within months after they took control of the property. In August 2003, just three years after they had bought their building, the tenants of 1418 W Street, NW, sold the property with each individual unit receiving $114,000. Within a few months, the buyer put it back on the market for $4.4 million, netting just over $1 million in profits. They are now being renovated into loft-style condominiums starting at $200,000. Thomas was one of four families that had resisted the buyout but were outnumbered.

“You can’t really fault low-income folks for looking at large amounts of money as millions of dollars,” says Thomas’s daughter Deborah Thomas, 51. “Nine times out of 10 they have never seen that amount, no matter what it is, all at one time.”

Like her mother, Deborah was faced with a similar situation at her Capital Manor apartment just a block away,

In the fall of 2002, tenants in the three buildings that made up Capital Manor received notices that the landlord was opting out of Section contracts. A few weeks later, they were informed that there was a contract to purchase the property.

The residents formed a tenants’ association so they could establish a cooperative and buy the three buildings. But there was one problem -matching the $3.4 million offer already on the table.

Fundraisers such as car washes and bake sales helped the tenants get the $1,500 needed to retain an attorney and they looked to nonprofit organizations for assistance in financing. The residents struggled to raise the funds and eventually got the money from several sources. They received $2 million from the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund, $1.5 million from the National Cooperative Bank and the remainder of the down payment in a loan from the Unitarian Universalist Affordable Housing Corporation.

In January 2003, the tenants of Capital Manor apartments purchased their three buildings — a total of 102 units.

LIKE MANY transitional neighbor hoods. Capital Manor has seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Osmin Rodriguez, vice president of the Capital Manor Cooperative, has seen it all.

A native of El Salvador, Rodriguez moved to the District from the Virginia suburbs eight years ago to become the property manager at Capital Manor. His second week on the job, someone was murdered in one of the buildings. Not too long after, Rodriguez had to pull a bullet out of the wall in the home of an elderly woman. If a flowerpot had not been in the apartment’s window, the bullet might have killed her.

“We would call the police and they would call back three hours later and ask if you still lived there,” Rodriguez remembers, laughing wryly. “They would hit the gas pedal and zoom through our block, and that was at noon. At night forget about it. You call emergency, they would send the fire department.”

But in the midst of the drugs and violence, there was a sense of community that helped neighbors stick together when times got tough.

In 1985, for example, a fire nearly destroyed one of the Capital Manor buildings. Thirty-four families were left homeless. Neighbors went door-to-door collecting food and making meals for residents while they were housed temporarily at St. Augustine Church, the oldest Black Catholic church in the District.

When a young neighbor passed from cancer, leaving behind eight children, Deborah Thomas informally adopted two of them, though she had four children of her own, including one who is blind. Louise Thomas also took in two of the deceased woman’s children. And then there was the elderly Russian woman who barely spoke English. Everyone pitched in to make sure she was cared for.

Despite the drug dealers and the endless violence that plagued the neighborhood, it was still a community where families shared personal joys and pain. Children played outside, and there was community involvement. But as the homes near Capital Manor became hot real estate property, the neighborhood began to change.

Kimberly Mitchell, 38, has lived in Capital Manor since she was 8 years old. She remembers the rough times, but has positive memories that outweigh the bad. The single mother of one, who also cares for her ailing mother, longs for the old days.

“Those people across the street don’t communicate with us,” Mitchell says, referring to the people living in the half million-dollar homes across from Capital Manor. “This area used to be more family oriented. There’s no life around here anymore. You don’t see kids on the street. Like people moving into this area are suburbanites. Their lifestyles are different.”

Kurt Ehrman, 38, is one of “those people.” Ehrman, who is White, has lived in a row house across the street from Capital Manor for the past five years. He moved to the District from Kensington. Md.. which he described as “painfully boring.” He wanted an affordable home closer to his job, and at the time the neighborhood seemed like a good place But Ehrman says he regrets not doing his homework before moving to the area,

“It is not easy living across the street from Section 8 housing. There are problems wherever there is low rent,” says Ehrman, who complains of noise at all hours of the evening. “Change has been very slow. The buildings are an eyesore. How much are we willing to compromise to maintain affordable housing in the city?”

Mitchell works as a realtor for a firm that seeks to maintain afford able housing in the city. But what is affordable in the city nowadays is all relative. The properties she markets to low-income renters, including one-bedroom condominiums starting in the low $200,000 range, are out of reach for Capital Manor residents.

Laws such as the tenants’ right of first refusal is something that is “monumentally too small to solve the problem” of the housing crisis, says Fullilove, the author.

Nevertheless, forming cooperatives like the tenants of Capital Manor is one solution to maintain affordable housing. It has enabled those who would not have been able to afford property individually to own their homes,

But for many in the District, the solutions are few and far between.

“The fly in the ointment is the single-family house,” says D.C. Council member Jim Graham. “We have homeowner groups, community development corporations. But it is a small number compared to the number of row houses that are turning over at very high prices.”

“But how can you turn to Mr. and Mrs. Jones, who bought one of these houses 30 years ago and want to sell it and want to retire?” asks Graham. “How do you turn to them and say you can’t sell it at a market rate? These are the smartest investments these people have made in their lives,”

THE HEAT in the rental office conference room in the Capital Manor apartments hangs heavily on a hot Saturday morning in July 2004. The crowd is mostly Hispanic. One little girl with glasses and a fresh new pink miniskirt sits next to her mother in a green lawn chair and translates periodically for her.  It’s 11am, and many of the people in the room have to go to work in the afternoon.

Deborah Thomas walks with a cane to the front of the room, limping from a bad knee. She is bent over uncomfortably, like a broken signpost. The residents in the room have been waiting for her. She takes her seat at the front with the rest of the board of the Capital Manor Cooperative Association.

As the meeting begins one resident, who sits in the front in a bright red uniform, is upset about the persistent problem of outsiders in her building. Another complains about doors being jammed with pennies.

“If you see something happening in any of these buildings, send in complaint forms,” says Deborah. “We need to stop thinking as renters and start thinking as homeowners. It makes no sense to invest these dollars and end up the same way. We are all in this together.”

Tenants are worried because there have also been problems with the contractors, including change orders for construction that may increase the cost of the original contract. The prospective date for completion of the renovation of the three buildings is summer 2005. Renovations include new mechanical and sprinkler systems, fire-rated walls, flooring, cabinets and appliances.

But the setbacks don’t deter Deborah. She knows a little bit about battles. She’s fought them all her life — and she’s got the scars to prove it.

One evening in April 1995, Deborah and two of her children were sleeping soundly in their apartment when she heard a window break. Before she knew it, her apartment was engulfed in flames and smoke. Neighbors broke down the door. The entire unit was gutted and everything she owned was gone.

Deborah suffered third-degree bums and was in the hospital for six months. Her ex-boyfriend, who had previously threatened to kill her, was charged in the crime and sentenced to 14 to 42 years in prison. Deborah and her children moved into her mother’s apartment. After about three months, she met an advocate for the homeless who advised her about the Section 8 program.

“It was something I had never had to do in my entire life, which at the time I thought was degrading, but I had to get over that.” she recalls.

Since then she has owned her own business, where she created and sold original hand-sewn dolls. She has also worked with mothers who require TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) assistance and with troubled teens.

Today, Deborah is in temporary housing until the Capital Manor renovation is finished, One building has been completed and the tenants have moved back in. But Louise, however, is still wary of the changes in her neighborhood.

“New people are moving in and complaining about everything.” Louise says. “But this time we are standing up [to them].”