Boarded-up houses and sides of buildings marked (or marred) with graffiti betray the bright, shiny new shopping complex which dominate most of Park Road in Columbia Heights; there is a history here, one which is not made visible - or perhaps been erased - with the conception of the “new” Columbia Heights.
Multi-use, upscale apartment buildings have sprung up on the five North-South blocks surrounding the station. Most of the apartment buildings offer studio or one-bedroom apartments that complicate living arrangements for families with children seeking to live there. These housing complexes have replaced many of the family-oriented town houses that once littered these streets. These town houses, as well as family business are found further down 14th street or on the perpendicular streets - a good five blocks from the station. Due to lack of space, a challenge for any metropolitan city, and building-height restrictions (the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 restricts most buildings in D.C. from being over 13 stories), many of these town houses are multi-functional, housing both families and businesses. Construction is taking place in this junction of new and old Columbia Heights, so if the pattern of gentrification continues it is very likely that the Black and Latinx population of the neighborhood will be pushed further down 14th and away from the station as upscale housing not accessible to many of the original residents continues to be built.
The issue which comes to light after thorough research as most pertinent to the Columbia Heights neighborhood is that of gentrification. A colorful mural outside of Tubman Elementary School in the center of Columbia Heights illustrates the many identities and characteristics of the neighborhood. What is Columbia Heights? Emblazoned next to the face of one beautifully painted resident is an answer: “a mix of cultures that is fascinating.” Others state that Columbia Heights is “diverse,” and “really musical, lively.” J.B Wogan points out that “next to one painting of an African-American teenage boy, the observation is more ambivalent: ‘It’s changing.’” A national report conducted by Governing regarding gentrification in the fifty largest cities in the United States classified neighborhoods within cities into three categories: gentrified, not gentrified, or not eligible to gentrify. In D.C., Columbia Heights has been classified as gentrified. According to the census, home values in Columbia Heights have risen a staggering 159%, providing quantitative evidence as to why residents who have lived in Columbia Heights prior to 2000 often have trouble remaining in the area. Wogan goes on to discuss how plans for new housing in Columbia Heights were made with the intention to keep as many original residents in the neighborhood as possible; this was thought to be feasible because the district “had at its disposal some of the strongest affordable housing protection laws in the country,” but these were not enough to stop the displacement of lower-income residents as they moved out of the neighborhood in droves.
Demographics Data Analysis:
The graph above illustrates the housing composition of the neighborhood and whether homes are: owner occupied, rented, or vacant. 73% of homes are rented, 20% are owner-occupied and 8% are vacant. 80% of all occupied homes are rented which is above the DC rate of 60%. The average size for homes, both rented and owned, is slightly over 2 and only 20% of homes had children living in them. These numbers could be reflecting the increasing volume of young, childreness professionals who are moving in. 1,085 residents were unaccounted for in the total number of people owning or renting – could they represent a homeless population in Columbia Heights?
The map below reflect the media household value per census tract. The Columbia Heights median is $523,021. This is on the low end – some census tracts have medians of over 2 million dollars. There is a clear distinction between home values on the west side and east side of 16th Street. Homes on the west tend to be worth much more and this distinction is in line with other socioeconomic factors like education attainment and income.
Perhaps the most common topic in gentrification rhetoric, is that of displacement. Here is where the topic is less muddled and where the adverse effects of gentrification can be really appreciated. When gentrification occurs, rent prices sky-rocket, forcing most of the older, often Black or Latino residents to have to leave or stay, but barely scrape by.
The rent is too damn high for housing…
“Condo prices are out of control.” – Denise
“The area with it being so high now you have to pay $3,000 for a tiny studio. You have to be making much more than $100,000 or there has to be a couple that together are making those numbers. Low-income people have had to move out to Northeast, to the Maryland suburbs. However, even in Northeast the same thing is happening. The same redevelopment is taking place.” – Roberto
“It definitely is being impacted by the real estate boom, more condos… Buying vacant buildings, buying people out, and making these places luxury apartment buildings. Then there is mixed condos and different people and cultures here.” – Ian
…and for businesses too.
“If this were rented we would’ve been out a long time ago. That’s what happens in D.C. As soon as the area starts to move up, those who rent get taken out and the area is remodeled and rent is raised. The city in the last 5 years has raised the property tax in order to move us out… In this area, we’re the oldest business really. All the others left. Most of the businesses that are here now...none of them are older than 10 years, besides perhaps one or two.” – Roberto
There are resources within the housing market and externally that attempt to leverage economic situations:
“D.C. has some of the strongest tenant rights associations and tenant law and a lot of advocacy and grassroots here that build into that framework of social justice and there’s more awareness of issues gentrification and displacement as development happens. And then there’s also a lot of welfare, to in ways offset the disproportionately high prices of rent compared to people’s wealth.” – Ian
Continuous displacements has created community that extends beyond physical space:
“I think we go to each other cause we all have had really similar circumstances living in D.C. The best we can do is comic relief, like joking about it, with other people who are from here or aren’t from here. Like that’s where you kind of keep it alive. Letting it be known that it is a problem. That gentrification is happening at a rapid rate.” – Denise
“I think to piggyback on that you have to create it and it’s created by the people that you consciously make a decision to be around and engage… it’s something that you take with you if it’s inherently you. Like minds come together and in those moments that culture feels like it’s tangible, that you can naturally strive for and achieve, based on the people around, more so than this block or that block or neighborhood… it stays alive that way as opposed to a geographic location.” – William
“You talk about things and there’s no written history. That’s kind of how it is. We need to talk about it as if it’s a memory cause it is almost… I always say people don’t come here with the intent to purposely be negative or take away things. We can find the good in everything, but drastic change just happens so quickly. Things are getting taller and tighter together so fast.” – Denise
There is really little justifying the displacement of individuals. It is immoral to uproot a group of people in the interest of profit, but there are again factors that extend beyond housing that need consideration. The city’s planning board in conjunction with the budgeting offices needs to put more effort into ensuring that redevelopment does not cause whole communities within neighborhoods to be displaced. There are many options to consider further researching and investing in (e.g. housing vouchers, rent control, and subsidized housing, buyouts/reimbursement). If the city is planning on uplifting and reviving a neighborhood, the priority should be those already there, not those seeking to move in. Every effort needs to be made to keep residents already living there, because as residents of the neighborhood, they more than anyone understand the needs of the community. Simply pushing the community elsewhere solves nothing. It is important to keep individuals involved and living in or as close as possible to their neighborhood as possible. Individuals should leave their neighborhoods by choice, not force.