This post is second in a series on gentrification in the District of Columbia.
Part 1 – D.C. Gentrification and Section 8 Subsidized Housing
Part 2 – ‘Gentrification’: The Birth of a Word in D.C.
Part 3 – Metro Growth and ‘Gentrification’ Use
Part 4 – Neighborhood Revitalization and Displacement
I dislike the term “gentrification” because it glosses over what is a complex process, placing a negative stigma on needed neighorhood economic revitalization and ignoring the forces that slow neighborhood change. While the reduction of affordible housing and number of rental units that often comes with new neighborhood investment is a problem, gentrification can be slowed or stopped by a variety of factors: freeways, large institutions, stubborn property owners, public housing projects, etc.
One of the most important brakes in cities like DC on rapid neighborhood change is the federal government’s Section 8 housing programs. Under one facet of this program, builders can receive loan to construct a building if they agree to rent it to government-approved low and moderate income families. In exchange, the government requires tenants pay 30 percent of their income as rent, and the government pays the remainder up to a fixed “fair market rent.” This way building owners — either companies or nonprofits — have an incentive to provide affordable housing. (The program contains an individual subsidy and voucher programs, but I don’t know as much about their impact in DC.) In DC these Section 8 buildings serve as an important brakes on the gentrification process, and ensure a base level of affordable housing for the city.
Therefore, I was blown away by this quote I read in the Post recently:
The [housing] study also sounded a warning about subsidized housing. Contracts for half of the District’s 10,561 apartments that participate in the federal Section 8 program, which subsidizes rents for needy tenants, are due to expire within the next year. Building owners can decide whether to renew their contracts or sell the buildings, making the apartments no longer affordable.
Greene said it is unclear how many buildings will leave the subsidy program. “If a Section 8 contract expires and you have a really hot condo market, there’s a lot of pressure on that owner to sell it at a profit,” he said.
To try to mitigate the impact of a drop in Section 8 housing, the city is beefing up its program that helps tenants buy their apartment buildings, Greene said. Under District law, tenants have the first right to purchase a building up for sale.
With so many of these subsidized buildings up for renewal and possible development, I wondered whether this would provide the impetus for aggressive speculation in revitalizing neighborhoods, potentially at the cost of affordible homes for thousands. This housing report (PDF) from the NeighborhoodInfo DC website below contains a map of the projects, color-coding them by which will expire this year. However, their map isn’t very detailed, and doesn’t include any information about the nature of the properties. To create my own I located a Department of Housing and Urban Development’s database of all Section 8 property recipients in the nation, and extracted 117 properties located in DC. Then I plotted the properties on a map of DC to produce a clickable map. Here’s a detail:
What I found in these two maps confirmed my suspicions about who owned these buildings and where they were located. While the three non-Northwest quadrants have a smattering of properties, by far the largest concentration is in the Midcity area most affected by the 1968 riot and thus targeted for redevelopment in the 1970s: the 7th Street and 14th Street corridors including the neighborhoods of Shaw, U Street, and Columbia Heights.
In these communities I’ve sometimes heard people wonder why the pace of gentrification seemed so slow. Even community leaders in Shaw sometimes wonder why — or whether — revitalization has skipped over the neighborhood entirely. While reactionary churches have something to do with it, the neighborhood’s high density of Section 8 buildings are the greater cause. (For lots of reasons best left to another post.) These properties and their residents are very stable, thanks to regulated rents locked in place by multi-year contracts with the feds.
When the HUD contracts with the building owners expire, it seems clear at least some of the private owners will cash in the astronomical property values and sell the properties wholesale, causing the forced eviction of the building tenants. However, according to the HUD data many of the buildings are owned by nonprofit corporations, most of whom I assume wouldn’t sell. A small number may seize the opportunity to capitalize on the high demand for real estate and re-develop their low-rise properties to be denser, mixed use properties appropriate to the neighborhood. Ideally the new buildings would include the same number or perhaps even a greater number of subsidized units, in addition to market-rate units and retail space. Sites along 14th Street and in Shaw (one adjacent the Metro) are two that seem good choices for this option. There are many potential obstacles to be sure, as I am not sure many models exist for the unusual financial arrangements such a project would require.
This latter path could provide additional economic opportunity in the city, as well as boosting the economic diversity of the neighborhood. “Gentrification” is often a zero-sum discussion of winners and losers, but the remarkable convergence of events can allow community organizations and city leaders to build a denser, more diverse, and more dynamic city. No matter exactly how the situation plays out, the large concentration of Section 8 properties in the Midcity neighborhoods will define the path of their development for the forseeable future.
The next step for my research will be to look closer at the data from HUD to determine which expiring contracts may result in a sale or new development, and what their location might mean for revitalization trends in the city.
> Section 8 Properties in the District (See below of a key of the property details)
> WaPo: “Price Increases Migrating To Poorer Neighborhoods”
> The Urban Institute’s NeighborhoodInfo DC (The post story was about their recent housing report)
Key for map:
Number of Units
Primary Financing Type
Ownership Effective Date
Management Co Type
Mgt. Co. City
Mgt. Co. State