By Audrey Lyon
This piece was originally published in the Washington Post, here
The remarkable wave of real estate development across the District is difficult to miss. Many neighborhoods that a short time ago were frozen in decades-old economic stagnation have new residential and commercial buildings.
The new energy sweeping these neighborhoods is encouraging, but I can’t help asking where this leaves the low- and moderate-income people who lived in these areas. And what’s the plan for helping those still there to stay rooted and secure? The rising tide of development doesn’t usually lift the boats of those with fewer resources.
Too often, a city’s answer to neighborhood revitalization is much like one by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who announced in September a plan to provide more than $50 million in public funds to the Wizards and Mystics basketball teams to build a practice facility and arena on the campus of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital.
“With this new development,” Bowser said in a news release, “we are driving private investment to the St. Elizabeths East campus, boosting the local economy, creating hundreds of jobs, and putting more District residents on their pathways to the middle class.”
The public investment in St. Elizabeths has, as the mayor hoped, triggered development of a new complex of apartments, offices and retail above the Congress Heights Metro station. Getting it done will require razing four rent-controlled apartment buildings, home to poor, elderly and fixed-income residents. These buildings are owned, according to residents quoted by The Post, “by two politically connected developers, who have failed to make improvements to the four apartment buildings even as many residents live in squalor.” The consolation to these displaced residents: A mere $1,200 in moving costs and the potential to live in the new building – but in smaller units.
Local governments prime the pump of investment to build a city’s economic vitality. The Shaw neighborhood’s housing developments Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, Lincoln Westmoreland and Channing E. Phillips are among the few good examples of the use of public funds to encourage investment in housing. But why do government officials routinely assume it makes more economic sense to invest, say, $50 million in a facility for a sports team than to make similar commitments to help longtime community residents stay put?
I’ve spent more than two decades working with D.C. residents who own homes in or near these changing neighborhoods and who don’t stand a chance of keeping up with rising tax assessments, let alone the costs to keep their homes maintained. Most have lived long enough in their residences to own them outright. But, even when they hold down steady jobs, they don’t have the money to repair leaking roofs, fix broken
plumbing and electrical systems or make them accessible to a family member using a wheelchair. They are trapped in conditions that most of us would find intolerable.
But there is little, if any, “public investment” in helping them restore their homes to even basic levels of comfort and safety. And there are almost no serious resources for low-income renters to stay put in the communities they’ve called home for decades. Why not use public money to help modest homeowners and renters to remain where they want to be?
If publicly supported private development boosts the local economy, wouldn’t a government-subsidized home-repair program do that, too? Such a program could give steady work to carpenters, roofers, plumbers, electricians and others. And it could put low-income homeowners on the path to economic security.
The D.C. Single Family Residential Rehabilitation Program provides qualified District residents up to $75,000 in loans or grants for roof repair, accessibility and other basic fixes. But, most of the homeowners I know who looked into the program could not navigate its complex rules and onerous requirements. That could explain why this program helped far fewer homeowners repair their homes last year than my much smaller organization, which has a tiny pool of funding compared with the District’s program.
I’m not saying it is never appropriate to provide public funding that enables well-resourced private entities to invest in seemingly risky areas of the city. But the benefits of this conventional model of urban economic development almost never trickle down to the least well-off. It’s time for a truly effective multi-pronged approach that invests smartly at different points on the economic continuum.