by Will Merrifield

The exploding housing costs that have accompanied the influx of new residents into DC have brought mass displacement of life-long residents and a subsequent spike in family homelessness.  Currently, in the District, a person making minimum wage must work approximately 132 hours per week, 52 weeks a year, or earn $27 an hour at 40 hours per week to afford a 2 bedroom apartment at “Fair Market Rent”. 

The reality of this housing market is that if you are a senior citizen on a fixed income, a person with a disability, or a low to medium wage worker, odds are, you cannot live in DC without some sort of housing subsidy or other support. In other words, there needs to be a way to fill the gap for these individuals between what they can spend on housing and the current market rate. 

The most effective way to fill this gap is funding public housing and rent subsidy programs in the long term. Unfortunately, the District’s subsidized housing waitlist is currently closed and numbers approximately 70,000 households. While the number of low cost rental units has dropped by 50% since 2000, the number of rental units in the city costing more than median rent has tripled.  DC government claims these issues are due to a lack of resources and are largely out of their control.

However, while DC officials are telling the community that they do not have enough revenue to adequately invest in affordable housing, they are routinely sacrificing public resources in the interest of “smart growth.”

In the past year, plans to help DC’s soccer team, DC United, materialized. Mayor Gray proposed to trade away the Reeves Municipal Center, at 14th & U St. NW, in order to help the soccer team build a new stadium at Buzzard Point. In addition to the land swap, the city would put up about $150 million in tax incentives to acquire the property, trading the government building in a prime location and essentially absorbing the stadium’s financial risks through dubious tax deals.

The Reeves Center land swap that may occur in our city’s next mayoral term is just one example of the District’s subsidization of large-scale commercial developers to the tune of billions of dollars through real estate devaluations and public land giveaways.

Meanwhile, the city is taking in budget surpluses of over 100 million dollars each fiscal year. The city government is gambling our tax dollars in the interest of developers and building a city for people who do not yet live here, and likely will not stay.

The net result of these decisions can be seen on every street corner as market rate affordable units are being converted to luxury condos. These policies have led to the mass displacement and homelessness described above.

As of February 2014, there were 2,527 homeless children in DC Public Schools. That number excludes the countless families that are not technically homeless but instead rely on others to take them in night after night. Furthermore, these policies have the effect of dehumanizing and further marginalizing low to medium income residents of Washington, DC. This past winter,  the city completely ran out of shelter space and was housing families in rec centers, which is usually reserved for natural disasters. Essentially, the District is telling these residents that they are not wanted and have nothing to offer the City.

We as a community must take a stand to end this cycle of displacement. DC is not a playground for “young professionals”. Economic development that prioritizes amenities for these individuals over affordable housing is both unsustainable and immoral. 

Change will not come from the top down. Real change will have to be led from the bottom up and must prioritize the needs and realities of the most marginalized and disaffected residents of the city. This change must start in community meeting spaces where residents can talk to one another with the ultimate goal of creating their own vision of DC and how it should develop in the future. It’s critical that organized communities and activist groups work to share more resources to strengthen the impact of these efforts.

Through this process directly impacted communities can develop their own leaders, create meaningful political coalitions and generate the necessary political will to make their vision a reality. But that process must start now and must be urgent.  As any minimum wage worker, disabled senior citizen, or recently homeless family can tell you- right now we are rapidly losing ground.

Will Merrifield works at the Washignton Legal Clinic for the Homeless as a staff attorney and serves on the Washington Peace Center's Advisory Council

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