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City on a Hill: Gentrification, depredation

March 14, 2013


Last week, I took part in one of Georgetown’s Alternative Spring Break programs—Worker Justice D.C. For seven days we gallivanted around the city and its surrounding locales, immersing ourselves in the struggles of working people and joining up with organizations that advocate for them. All of it was incredible, but one experience stands out to me as especially poignant.

On Thursday, March 7, we headed over to Alexandria to work with a grassroots organization called Tenants and Workers United. Our task was to assist in organizing the residents of the Beauregard neighborhood in the west of the city, whose low-cost housing is set to be demolished next year and replaced with luxury condominiums. Twenty-five hundred apartments are slated to face the wrecking ball, but developers led by real estate giant JGB Properties have only proposed plans for 800 low-cost apartments in the redevelopment plan, and it will take 40 years for them to all become available.

The long and short of it is that thousands of families will be kicked out of their homes and forced into a low-cost housing market already saturated with the victims of D.C. metro area gentrification. Beauregard is the only remaining low-cost option in the Alexandria area, so residents have to look far and wide for new options. One man I talked to said he was planning to move to a Maryland neighborhood on the other side of the District, and had to leave his job to do so.

If it seems like a raw deal for Beauregard residents, that’s because it is. Few want to leave the stable, friendly community and its good neighborhood schools. For undocumented residents, going out into the housing market means risking exposure, and a move to another town can mean losing a coveted job for anyone.

But JGB and its partners sweetened the pot to get their plan past the City Council, including forking over $66 million for traffic improvements, a new fire station, and $12 million for parks and recreation. Tenants and Workers United is trying to rally the community to stop the council from redrawing the city’s zoning ordinances to suit the developers’ desires, but the plan may go through anyhow.

Usually, problems of gentrification in D.C. and the surrounding locales are dealt with by government setting aside low-cost housing. District Mayor Vincent Gray pledged to create 10,000 units by decade’s end in his recent State of the District address. But, the efforts have thus far fallen far short of providing housing for every gentrification victim, and do nothing to stop low-income citizens from being displaced by rich folks moving to town. A different approach is needed, and Tenants and Workers United may have put their finger on it.

They want the Alexandria City Council to mandate that if the development is to go through, the owners of the condominiums must set aside enough housing immediately to allow every family already living there to stay in their homes. It’s an ambitious proposal, but one that makes sense for D.C. and the surrounding cities to adopt if they are serious about combating gentrification. Putting the impetus on developers to set aside low cost housing takes the burden off of government and makes the companies think of their tenants as human, rather than numbers on a balance sheet each month.

Setting aside affordable housing always comes at some cost for developers, but given the size of many of the real estate corporations, as well as the increasingly lucrative nature of developing in D.C., these costs are unlikely to deter economic growth. The city could also come up with ways to balance out the impact on developers, perhaps by lifting the height limit on buildings to allow for larger projects.

Gentrification is more than an economic issue—it’s a question of individual rights. Making sure families are not directly displaced by housing development is not a panacea for economic inequity, but if our local governments are serious about making economic progress work for everyone, they will move to beat back the influence of large developers and make sure there’s a place in their communities for families of all incomes.

If you need cheap housing contact Gavin at gbade@georgetownvoice.com.


Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is Managing Editor of The Georgetown Voice


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