The White Elephant of Shaw Redevelopment

O Street Market

The Washington Post had two stories today evaluating the economic impact of the Washington Convention Center on the city and its impact on Shaw. The Post reports that attendance at the convention center is flat and with an annual operating cost to taxpayers of roughly $20 million is generally not performing as well as supporters had hoped. A companion article by Paul Schwartzman describes how Shaw remains a “renaissance thwarted.” While discussing some of the causes of the blight, including property speculation and negligent institutions like Shiloh Baptist Church, the article omits mention of a major contributing factor: the neighborhood is home to almost 1,400 housing units of subsidized Section 8 public housing.

As I illustrated in July 2006, these projects line 7th, 9th, and 14th streets like a massive Maginot Line against gentrification across the District.

The high concentration of these projects and very low income of their tenants can make the neighborhoods look less appealing to businesses conducting research. According to data from the Washington, DC Economic partnership the median income of the population in Shaw is $25,000, as opposed to $31,000 for H Street NE or $69,000 for Dupont Circle. Secondly, although it generally goes undiscussed, these properties can share some of the problems associated with government-owned large public housing buildings, such as concentrations of crime. One of the murders earlier this year in Shaw occurred in the stairwell of a Section 8 building, and last year a man was murdered just steps from a Metro entrance, which happens to be adjacent a cluster of four Section 8 buildings. (The man police arrested for the murder lived in a nearby Section 8 building.) Police response to a recent jump in crime in the neighborhood has been focused on these buildings — including the decision to station patrol cars 24 hours a day at the 8th Street Metro station exit and patrol the troublesome Kelsey Gardens heavily with cars, a “light tower” of floodlights, and even a horse patrol.

My point here is not to dwell on the crime, but instead invite a dialogue about the connections between revitalization, crime, and housing. Crime is a complex problem, but de-concentrating the affordable units and investing in social programs — not horses and floodlights — seem like logical first steps.

(As a side note, D.C. passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance last year, which am planning to examine later.)

> W. Post: “Convention Center Not Living Up to Lofty Goals
> W. Post: “A Thwarted Renaissance Near the Convention Center

Also see these related posts:
> Where is the Convention Center’s Retail?
> Mapping Shiloh Baptist Church’s Properties
> D.C. Gentrification and Section 8 Subsidized Housing

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I think the vacant buildings would take care of themselves if the crime situation would resolve itself. There is just way too much Section 8 Housing in one area to be safe. If property values shot up I can’t imagine Shiloh hoarding all that property. But then again, I don’t really understand Baptists.

  2. Good post.

    I see concentrated “ghettos” of low-income housing like we have in Shaw as the remains of old, failed out-of-site-out-of-mind housing policy. Back in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, when DC “ended” at 16th street for many people, Shaw’s low-income housing wasn’t on anyone’s radar. I’m sure the notion of more public housing there seemed fine to DC Council and decision-makers, as there was no perceived direct impact to development or the core of their constituencies. There is more concern now, as there is a sense of an impediment to the city’s rebirth, and redevelopment of the area being thwarted.

    It reminds me of a conversation I had with someone who lives in Chevy Chase about Manna DC – now OneDC – and the work Manna was doing in Shaw protecting existing low-income housing. It occurred to me that this person had never lived anywhere near low-income housing, and was unfamiliar with the problems that go along with it. At one point I asked them, “what would you do if a 12 story low income building moved in next door?” Without hesitation this person said, “move.” My response, “but you just said how great you thought the work ManaDC is doing was…” To which they replied, “yes but in Shaw it doesn’t affect me. A building next door would.”

    Ultimately concentrations of low-income housing affect everyone but have never helped anyone; they’ve always resulted in a collection of societal problems in one place, attracted crime, and created unsafe environments for tenants and neighbors.

    Why the city allows (even legislates apparently) these concentrations and hasn’t whole-heartedly embraced mixed-income housing on a larger scale, I don’t know.

  3. Emerald, these buildings were constructed under a short-lived HUD program that has long been discontinued. In response to the problems you describe the federal government created the HOPE VI program to re-build dense low income projects as mixed income projects. In my mind, the only problem with that program is that it often results in a net loss of the most affordable units.

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