Million Dollar City

June 26, 2017
By Yanique Redwood

Next year my daughter will graduate from University of Maryland. I have been anticipating this moment for many reasons, one of which is the end of in-state tuition, which will allow our family to become more mobile. Our goal since moving to the area in 2012 has always been to move into the District. Cutting my commute by at least half has been at the top of my agenda. Frankly, the hour-long drive into D.C. with NPR on the radio is getting old. However, what I saw this past weekend as I explored D.C. neighborhoods with my husband made my knees shake and left a knot in my throat and stomach.

We first drove into northeast D.C. A white woman told me a few months back that she wouldn’t move there because it was sketchy. I know that is code for “black people live there.” So, because I actually like to live around black people that seemed like a logical place to start, and the area is closer to work than southeast D.C. As we drove, many areas did not seem very walkable and there were few amenities, not surprising at all given the history of disinvestment in African-American neighborhoods. See our timeline of the history of D.C. to learn more.

Next, we drove to the H Street area where the transformation from black to white and poor to wealthy is quite palpable. There was a strange mix of empty storefronts, mom and pop restaurants, a tattoo parlor and glossy new apartment buildings with a streetcar coming through. We saw black people at a bus stop in front of 7-Eleven and soon after white young people at restaurants. We stopped in front of Senate Square Apartments. Two-bedroom apartments were priced at $4,000 per month. This would not work for us. We will need at least three bedrooms because my mom and daughter will likely be living with us. Not only did this building not have any such size, but what would the cost be if it did?

We then wove our way through the city passing through Chinatown where chain restaurants like Corner Bakery and Starbucks had Chinese letters on the storefronts—a jarring image, but that is a blog for another day. We ended up near my office in the U Street area. We parked the car intending to walk to Taqueria Nacional on T Street for a quick bite to eat. There was a townhouse for sale on the corner. Just for kicks, I decided to look up the price of that townhouse. It was a 2-bedrooom/1-bathroom on the market for $1.2 million dollars. My legs started to tremble, not because of my own dashed hopes of living in the city but because of the larger context—that people who look like me, most with less means, have been weeded out of this city. It dawned on me that they are never coming back.

As we rounded the corner at 15th and T and approached the restaurant, every face was white—young white people sitting outside laughing and chatting. We looked at the people outside of the ice cream shop next door and then the eatery next to it and realized that we were the only black people in the restaurant, maybe on the entire street. As we walked back to the car after a very sobering lunch, I took a picture of two signs in a small patch of lawn on tree-lined 15th Street. One sign read “Black Lives Matter” and the other read in three languages “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” The irony was not lost on me.

In all of my sadness last night, I was reminded of the Housing Leaders Group of Greater Washington convened by Enterprise Community Partners, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, City Community Development, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region. I was reminded of the first meeting in a series of dialogues that the group is hosting with leaders from around the region where restaurant owner Andy Shallal made an impassioned plea for public housing as a part of the housing affordability equation. He said, “Not the kind of housing where people are just left to waste away, but the kind where people have the supports they need to thrive.” Mr. Shallal, you give me hope.

I also think of Aja Taylor at Bread for the City organizing residents to put housing affordability front and center, and I am heartened that residents of the District are coming together in new ways, including across ward and across race (through conversations that we organized in partnership with the Meyer Foundation) to name their shared plight and to see each other as necessary partners in this struggle.

As I move from meeting to meeting all across the city, everyone is asking how things got this way and what are we going to do to stem the tide. Unfortunately, there is no magic here. We created the policies that got us exactly where we are. It is not too late for us to create the policies to preserve what is left so that all people, not just the white and wealthy, can live in the nation’s capital. One such set of policy ideas comes from one of our grantee partners, One DC. If you are serious about eliminating inequities, let’s get to work.


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