Don't ask me why, but today my thoughts shifted to D.C.'s plans to relocate the Reeves Center from U Street to Anacostia's main street. The idea being that day-time foot traffic would somehow bring more economic development opportunities to Anacostia and to its small business community.
By now I've worked in Anacostia for five years -- both as a consultant, a small business owner, a neighborhood booster, and as a professional supporting/assisting/attracting small businesses. I've been there for Anacostia's small businesses from the planning stage, to the building stage, to the staffing stage and to the grand opening. I've cheered the success stories and mourned the closings of those small businesses that had great heart but not many paying customers.
That got me thinking about the government agencies that are currently located in Anacostia (about half a dozen on Good Hope Rd and MLK Jr, Ave SE) and made me question honestly IF have they been a significant "driving force" in bringing new retail and food opportunities to the community?
The short answer: not really
Yes, their employees do contribute -- somewhat -- to the economic development of local businesses, but that contribution it is limited. Government employees (at least some) do partake of lunch in the neighborhood and maybe the occasional happy hour after work but in reality government employees in Anacostia spend the majority of their time in Anacostia, well, working in their offices. And once the work day is over they go home -- and with them some of those food options that they enjoy during the day. King's Cafe on MLK across from the Anacostia Professional Building is a prime example, their operating hours mirror office hours. The lone parking garage in Anacostia closes when DHCD does. It's a great looking building but it is only really active 5 days a week.
Government agencies (for the most part) are five-day-a-week, day-time only entities. Even accounting for their daytime visitors/clients their contributions to local businesses are minimal. Even for the agencies that do see a lot of foot traffic like the DC Department of Health, their clients don't tend to have the disposable income to support local small businesses in a significant way. It is hard to imagine someone waiting in a line for 5 hours to have their electricity turned on to splurge on a meal and drinks at Uniontown or head over to Nubian Hueman in the Anacostia Arts Center for a gown.
Small businesses depend on not just foot traffic, but foot traffic with some kind of disposable income attached. Historically, for the residents of Anacostia anyway, when the government agencies and office buildings close so do most (if not all) of Anacostia's food and retail options. It hasn't been until the last few years that new food options such as Uniontown, Big Chair Bar & Grill, and NURISH Food & Drink came on the scene and in order for those places to survive and thrive they need six or seven day a week customers; they need evening and weekend customers to survive; they need the support of customers in walking distance of their establishments.
Anyone who has been to Anacostia's main streets on a Sunday knows how it turns into a ghost town. You could easily do the Electric Slide -- naked -- down MLK Ave and no one would notice. There are no food options on a Sunday (NURISH did initially open on Sundays but the lack of foot traffic led them to close on Sundays) and there is very little retail (if any).
In order to have a vibrant business district, you have to have one that keeps more than banking hours. Anacostia's small businesses can't be limited to customers who work, 9-5, five days a week. Anacostia's small businesses need customers who come home to Anacostia and wake up in Anacostia. Anacostia's small businesses need customers who are based in Anacostia, who will attract family, friends, and visitors to Anacostia not just for 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, but 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Anacostia, like most communities east of the river doesn't need more government workers who might spend some of their disposable income in the community -- we need more residents with disposable income who will spend most (if not all) of their disposable income in the community.
I live in Congress Heights yet I spend probably about 1% of my disposable income in my own neighborhood. Not because I don't want to, but because I have few options that suit my needs. I work in Anacostia and while I spend way more money there than in Congress Heights I still have to go outside of Ward 8 -- and almost always over a bridge to spend the majority of my income.
What I and my neighbors need are more options -- better options -- and what those businesses need are more customers over more hours -- with some disposable income -- to support their business.
So when it is reported that Anacostia residents are against plans to open yet another income-restricted apartment building in their neighborhood of less than 10,000 residents (and now there are plans for four large scale projects) it is because they have done the math and it does not add up to a vibrant Anacostia. It does not compute for more retail or food options, it does not result in job creation in a neighborhood desperately in need of new jobs.
For those seeking a a beautiful (yet still affordable by D.C.'s standards) single family home, it doesn't get much better than Anacostia and the real estate figures support that. Homeownership in the Anacostia neighborhood is at an all-time high and houses for sale stay on the market for a short period of time.
On the flip side, the apartment rental market in Anacostia is tiny and comes with lots of caveats. First, there are few rental options near the metro (a key point in attracting renters). The best rental option near the metro comes with income restrictions and the rest of the apartment rental stock in the neighborhood is either small or not on par with what someone would who has disposable income to spend. Plans for new rental housing stock are 100% low-income with income caps between 30% - 60% AMI. Future renters in those projects would have to fit in a very slim economic bracket -- high enough to afford the rent, but earn below the income caps which for a single person is about $45k on the high end (60% AMI cap). Most of the opposition to the proposed Big K Project is because of the low income caps of 60% AMI. Their concern (and understandably so) is that for a neighborhood that is in desperate need of disposable incomes to support more neighborhood goods and services (and with them local jobs) they are getting more of the same -- low-income residents with vouchers.
And it is not from a lack of people with disposable income wanting to rent east of the river. I probably get an email every single week from someone who reads this blog and wants to rent in Ward 8 but they make around $50,000 a year -- far too much for the income-restricted apartment buildings in my neighborhood. They may want to buy a home here in the future but they aren't ready right now. I am not alone in this. Many of my east of the river neighbors report interest from their working class friends and family in renting here but there are no options for them to rent. These potential new residents aren't necessarily looking for "luxury" but they are looking for quality apartments near public transportation, in walking distance of food and retail options -- in a building where their $50,000 a year salary won't instantly make them ineligible. They are by no means rich, but they do have the disposable income and desire to contribute to east of the river's economy. Even a nudge up from a 60% AMI income cap to a 80% AMI income cap would be a big boost to Anacostia's economy.
So from the Anacostia resident's perspective, the very thing that Anacostia needs more of -- renters with disposable income-- is the very thing they are being shut out of. Why? Because west of the river has an affordable housing problem. But instead of investing more affordable housing in neighborhoods west of the river were rents truly are "sky high" it has been deemed more "financially feasible" to invest in more "affordable" and low-income rental housing where the land is cheapest -- despite the east of the river rental market already being the most affordable in the city.
West of the river has an "affordable" housing problem.
East of the river has an employment and economic development problem.
And while the latter is being asked to sacrifice to solve the former, the former never seems to sacrifice to support the latter.
To those who live in Anacostia and who have small businesses there they go about their day hoping for more but realizing they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is for that reason I hear more and more "die-hard" residents contemplating a move out of Anacostia. While they love their neighborhood (and fight like hell to protect it) they are feeling like the west of the river agenda is trumping their desperate need for an Anacostia with food options and retail, with jobs, and with opportunities for growth.
For many that live in Ward 7 and Ward 8 it feels like when it comes to D.C.'s needs (like more low-income housing) we are "one city" but when it come's to east of the river's needs (like more jobs, retail, and food options) we are own our on -- left to make do with the bad hand we are dealt, in a game that was stacked against us from the beginning.
And any way you slice it, it is going to take a lot more than week day lunches to solve it.