Rebuilding a city without the poor

Solomon Faison, Sidwell Friends '17

Gentrification - displacement of poorer residents for incoming middle and upper-class residents - is taking place rapidly in the district, and many low-income minorities are forced to leave their homes. Sidwell Senior Solomon Faison localizes this widespread issue by adding his personal perspective. (Published: 2016)

Illustration by Will Masters, Sidwell Friends '19

"Look at all these white folks moving in like 90 going North,” my Uncle Bobby told me (“90 going North” is a classic African-American phrase that denotes constant occurrences). My Uncle Bobby was commenting on the influx of more and more middle-class white residents into his area. He is living in my late great-great-grandmother’s house in Northeast Washington D.C, in an area that was mostly filled with poor black residents when he first arrived more than 60 years ago.

In D.C., long-time black residents are moving out of the city into Prince George’s county, among other areas. Now that my Uncle Bobby is 72, many of his childhood friends have retired. Being retired, they no longer have enough money to pay high rents or mortgages for their homes. In fact, the number of homes with rentals under $800, an affordable rate, decreased from 65,200 in 2002 to 35,000 in 2012 according to the Thus, with rising rental prices, my uncle’s friends are no longer able to stay in D.C. Instead, they have moved to areas outside the city, where homes are comparatively cheaper. From 1997 to 2007, of the 240,000 residents displaced, 80% were African-American.

Gentrification was often a result of natural housing market trends. Middle and upper-class residents renovate and restore housing in poor areas and move in. As a result of the nearby changes, mortgages and rental prices rise, leading to more evictions and foreclosures. The changes in the real estate market are coupled with commercial changes that slowly transform poor black urban areas into white middle-class neighborhoods.

Today, the D.C. Council contributes to gentrification. The New Communities Initiative (NCI), started in 2005 by Mayor Anthony Williams, targets majority black communities such as Barry Farm, Lincoln Heights, Northwest One, and Park Morton. Started with a goal of “reclaim[ing] neighborhoods troubled by concentrations of violent crime and poverty,” the program tears down public housing to create new “mixed-income communities.” These communities replace affordable housing with privately owned market-rate housing in a supposed one-to-one ratio (one housing opportunity at market value rate per every apartment at an affordable housing rate).

However, the rebuilt affordable housing is also owned by private management companies instead of by the city ( This is gentrification: the displacement of poorer residents for incoming middle and upper-class residents.

According to the American Community Survey created by the U.S. Census Bureau, since 2000, there has been an increase of gentrified D.C. neighborhoods from 4.9% to 51.9%. Those most


affected by gentrification in D.C. are low-income black people, according to Organizing Neighborhood Equity D.C. or ONE D.C., an organization founded for economic and racial equity in the city. In the past, private owners have set higher criteria for renter eligibility, making it more difficult to move into the affordable housing. It is estimated by Kalfani Ture, a social justice expert, that there has only been an 8% resident return rate to the rebuilt mixed-income communities.

Barry Farm, one of the aforementioned communities facing gentrification under NCI, is a historic community first built by former slaves in 1876. In Barry Farm, 444 housing units are scheduled for demolition. However, the project funding is short $200 million. With the current shortage in funding it is unlikely that the council will be able to guarantee housing for all of the current residents. Some residents believe black people in gentrified neighborhoods have not received

fair treatment from the politicians they helped vote into office.

Moreover, many question whether the District is economically motivated. Commercial vendors and realtors stand to benefit from gentrification and may have targeted the subsidized communities from the start. For example, the plan to destroy Barry Farm was created ten years ago. Th is foreknowledge may have led politicians to ignore potential revitalization programs in favor of community destruction. Seemingly, the city is using NCI as a means to save money on revitalization and bring in more affluent residents. As a result, some feel like they are ignoring poorer residents in favor of gentrification.

However, several organizations are taking action to save threatened communities. In order to save Barry Farm, ONE D.C., Empower D.C., the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, and the Barry Farm Study Circle have come together and made a list of demands to the D.C. Council. (Their demands can be found online at The plans call for a cessation of demolition, evaluation of the project’s cost, and evaluation of the effect of the NCI on communities. The organizations plan to change the council’s plan for Barry Farm before the demolition.

Gentrification is the result of group disempowerment. Voices are ignored just because they are black or poor. Why is this important? Because, so many my age will not be able to have discussions on their great-great-grandmother’s porches. Families are being moved out of historic communities into new areas. They will not be able to live in the same homes as their ancestors. If you are interested in helping, contact any of these organizations.