Why investing ONLY in income-capped housing in Ward 8 is setting us up for failure
A NOTE FROM THE ADVOC8TE BEFORE READING THIS POST
The following editorial came about as I was creating a post about the impending auction of 1300 Congress Street SE, a 14-unit residential building steeped in controversy and news stories since 2010. After publishing the post, I felt that it was lacking some key information (namely irony) so I decided to edit the piece.
Two and 1/2 hours later and I was still writing. So like that, a simple post about the auction of a building in Congress Heights turned into a very complicated editorial on the state of DC's income-capped housing strategy. Please note, I intentionally don't use the term "affordable housing" because like the word "gentrification" it's a loaded term and means something different to everyone. I'm a marketing professional, words matter.
I hope the following editorial will accomplish three things:
1. That readers (even the ones who will surely disagree with me) will feel the sincerity, integrity, compassion and honesty in my heart. I have no other objective other than a genuine desire to see everyone (and I mean everyone) have a real opportunity for success (whatever that means for them) and for DC to be an inclusive city for all. DC residents of all income levels, backgrounds, race, sexual orientation, gender, education, etc. should have the opportunity and the ability to live and thrive in DC. DC may be "one city" but it shouldn't be for just one type of resident. You shouldn't have to be rich to live in DC.
2. Spark real, honest and productive conversations in the community, DC government, nonprofit boardrooms, development firms, foundations and in the media. So many of you subscribe to the Congress Heights on the Rise daily e-mails, I assume this is the type of dialogue you were hoping to receive. If not, well I guess you can hit the "unsubscribe" button and keep it pushin'.
3. Encourage a new action agenda with a real strategy (beyond sound bites) that is tied into real deliverables. We all know the saying, "faith without works is dead." Let's stop doing the same thing and expecting a different result! In order to really have a shot of true equity for all DC residents (so we can all prosper as DC prospers) action needs to be real, viable and sustainable. It means an investment of money, time and commitment. It's not always convenient to do the right thing. Sometimes the "right thing" is going to cost more financially, may require a risk politically and may need you to do something contrary to the current narrative. Sometimes, in order to "get shit done," you have to go through a river of crap to do it!
So, having now outlined three goals/wishes in this very long prologue I know I'm probably going to have to wade through some crap of my own because of this post. I have been doing this entirely too long to not know this editorial may spark some kind of controversy, even within my own community. I am mentally preparing myself for at least one DC organization to accuse me (again) of being a "rich gentrifier" and come for me with literal and figurative torches blazing. I can almost hear the matches being lit from here.
I can also think of a couple of folks will surely rub their hands together in glee with the excitement of engaging in their favorite past time: social media trolling. I am always amazed at how I will say "X" and someone will try and claim I said "Y." Social media trolling (aka 'Keyboard Courage') has never made any sense to me. I don't engage in anything that is not productive and there is nothing productive about verbally attacking someone because you disagree with their opinion. It's particularly pointless when the subject of your outrage literally has no idea who you are and couldn't pick you out of a lineup if their life depended on it. That's no shade, that's real talk.
Most social media platforms have a "Block" button and I encourage everyone to use it as they see fit. I surely do. In the decade I've spent as a Ward 8 blogger, community advocate and marketing professional I know better than most that you can in fact "shoot the messenger." But despite that, I will still push the "Publish" button for this post, go out and run some errands and on Monday I will take my darling Teddy to his surgery to remove his tumors, will try to keep myself occupied to keep from worrying too much and will hope for the best.
So folks, may the chips fall where they may. Real talk, I've been working for months on a project to put together a series of in-person discussions on different subjects and this would really be a great one. As soon as I shore up some media sponsors and finalize funding, I look forward to sharing more information and announcing some event dates. At the risk of tooting my own horn, it's going to be epic. Media outlets/sponsors interested in partnering on such a project should hit me up.
AND NOW THE EDITORIAL....
Now that 1300 Congress St SE is for sale (again), let me go on the record right now and say that I pray (and I mean literally pray) that this property is NOT purchased for more transitional, social services or income-capped housing - we have plenty of that in Ward 8 already and I would know. So speaking purely as a Ward 8 resident, someone who wants to see more economic opportunities and jobs come to my community, I am pleading with DHCD to please not purchase this property. Don't even consider acquiring 1300 Congress St in an attempt to roll out more income-capped rental housing. Ward 8 deserves more than a ribbon-cutting ceremony. We deserve the type of jobs, amenities, grocery stores, hospitals, etc. that those living west of the river take for granted.
I can't say this enough, it feels as if the powers that be still see east of the river as the answer to west of the river's "affordable housing" crisis. I'm no policy wonk but it seems to me that income-capped housing should be located in DC neighborhoods where market rents are in fact out of reach of lower-income DC residents. Income-capped housing (let's just stop calling it affordable housing because that's subjective) should be located in vibrant neighborhoods with quality jobs, grocery stores, medical care, public transportation and good schools. Why are poor people always expected to make do with less? Why do they have to get on the bus/train or drive to buy groceries? Why do they have to travel halfway across the city to get to a job that pays minimum wage?
If someone is unemployed or under-employed shouldn't they live as close as possible to jobs, specifically jobs that pay a living wage? The types of jobs and educational opportunities where people can have a real chance of breaking free of generational poverty. Why aren't we doing that DC? Why are we pushing the people with the least to the very edges of our boundaries?
If the real goal is to have an inclusive DC and move people into the middle class why are the majority of the upcoming income-capped housing projects being built east of the river but the dog spa, luxury condos, hip apartments and grocery stores stay west of the river? Why does DC government (and well-intentioned nonprofits) continue to invest in policies that concentrate the unemployed and underemployed in Ward 7 and 8?
East of the river has the highest unemployment rates and the fewest resources but we are expected to be able to accommodate the majority of DC's most vulnerable residents. If someone was dying of thirst would you suggest they go live in a place with a water shortage?
It makes no sense because it's not about providing "affordable housing" it's about tax credits. It's about financing, it's about buying the cheapest land possible (and that happens to be east of the river) and spending your "affordable housing" budget to build more income-capped rental housing in communities where the incomes are already low and already capped because of few jobs, low-performing schools, poorly conceived and/or executed government policies, private sector neglect and overall disenfranchisement and disinterest.
The narrative that Ward 8 ONLY needs income-capped rental housing is not only flawed, it's a blueprint for economic, political and racial segregation. What Ward 8 really needs are well-paying jobs and to generate jobs we need viable businesses, retail, restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, hospitals and yes, even dog parks. I will even go so far to say we also need some national chains to attract the foot traffic needed to support small businesses that are vital to any thriving community. We need enough residents with enough disposable income to balance out our residents who are on the lower end of the income spectrum. We need the purchasing power that can create full-time jobs that provide a living wage.
What we need in Ward 8 (and ASAP) are some non income-capped rental housing in mid to large size apartment buildings because right now we don't have any (or any I can think of). I am constantly fielding requests from teachers, government employees, first responders, office workers, nurses and other working class folks who want to live in Ward 8 but can't because they are single and their 50,000 a year salary is "too high" per the income restrictions of the apartment complexes currently in Ward 8. Don't believe me? Do an online search, it will be an eye opener.
I love my Ward 8 neighbors but some of us are our own worst enemy because we are promoting if not a false narrative at the very least an incomplete one. There are no luxury rental apartment complexes in Ward 8 targeted at millennials or "rich white people." The reality is that most of our mid to large apartment complexes were financed via low-income tax credits or through some form of an affordable housing program. And at 30% - 50% AMI that means that a single person making $51,000 a year can't rent an apartment here, at least not one in an apartment building.
The very thing we need, more working class residents who can invest their salaries in the community is the very type of rental housing we currently don't have. For as much as Millennials are maligned, we could use some in Ward 8, particularly around the metro stations and commercial districts. I'm a graduate of Howard University and during and after college I lived in an apartment complex in Maryland because it was cheaper than renting in DC. And while I spent some of my money in DC at happy hours and clubs I also spent a good part of my income in Maryland where I did my grocery shopping, went out to eat, bought clothes, etc.
Imagine if there was at least one (or a few) non-income capped apartment building near or above a metro station that was in walking distance of a Ward 8 commercial district? I bet you we would have a 2nd grocery store a lot sooner than we will now.
Still not convinced? Let me break it down to you this way:
WELCOME TO THE LAND OF THE OVER-RESOURCED WHERE ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
West of the river neighborhoods are home to some of DC's highest paid residents and their salaries and disposable income are significant enough to support the many businesses, bars, grocery stores, shops, hospitals, cross fit gyms, yoga studios, etc that are constantly popping up. And because these neighborhoods are over-resourced they are in huge demand. So it makes sense that people who can afford it are willing to pay a premium in the form of high rents to live in these neighborhoods. And DC government knows that which is why they sell their WotR properties at a premium price to developers who in turn produce more luxury condos and apartment buildings. To be fair, its understandable that DC government wants to get the highest payout for their property, but at what cost?
And because of the economics of access, "hot" west of the river neighborhoods are missing one major element necessary for an inclusive DC: few (if any) options for low-income, under or unemployed DC residents to either rent or buy in these over-resourced and amenity-rich communities.
So wouldn't it make more sense (at least in the long run) to invest in more income-capped housing in the popular and overly priced neighborhoods that either don't have any income-capped housing (or don't have enough) so that a lower-income population can live there too? I'm no policy expert but that seems pretty clear to me. If the private sector won't/can't provide for income-capped housing in neighborhoods where they can get $3,000 or $4,000 a month rents, DC government should. Not only as a matter of policy but because if both sides of the river are considered "livable" it will take some of the demand off of the trendy west of the river neighborhoods and perhaps the incomes would not increase at such a fast clip. We need balance, we need both sides of the river and all eight wards to be considered as options for people looking to live in DC. Right now most folks are only considering wards 1 - 6 as a viable place to live and raise their family, wards 7 and 8 are not really an option for a lot of people and if it was, there is no place for them to rent a unit in an apartment building anyway.
HERE LIES THE STRUGGLES OF THE UNDER-RESOURCED, BE PREPARED TO TRAVEL OUTSIDE THE COMMUNITY FOR JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING INCLUDING A JOB & GROCERIES
First let me say this. I love living in Ward 8. I have great neighbors, plenty of green space and my mortgage is reasonable. I've built my business on the great things east of the river has to offer such as our amazing artists, history, small businesses and community organizations. But that said, the struggle is real.
Ward 8 has the highest unemployment rates in the city, we have one full-service grocery store for 72,000+ residents and we don't have the income diversity (in significant numbers anway) that can support basic amenities such as sit-down restaurants and retail. Forget Crossfit, there isn't even a gym in Ward 8. Is there any wonder our obesity rates are so high?
Every single month I pay $19.99 so I can drive to Maryland and workout at a Planet Fitness. Why? Because as a whole, our community doesn't have the income diversity or density needed to justify restaurants, retail, gyms and grocery stores. Why would a business (particularly a chain) decide to open their next store in Congress Heights instead of Navy Yard or The Wharf? Businesses are in the business of staying in business.
We can march all day and all night but we are not going to get another full-service grocery store in Ward 8 until it is financially feasible to the company to put it here instead of Ward 6. And every time I go to Trader Joe's in Capitol Hill or Harris Teeter in Navy Yard I see a lot of my Ward 8 neighbors.
The same goes for medical care. Ward 8 has one hospital, the United Medical Center (UMC). UMC's financial viability is based primarily on Medicaid/Medicare payments and the uninsured. Is there really any surprise that anyone with an option and private insurance leaves Ward 8 to seek medical care west of the river? Two weeks ago I had a medical emergency, it was so bad that my friend wanted to call an ambulance. Fear that I would be taken to UMC made me grit my teeth (literally) and beg him to drive me to a hospital west of the river. And I'm not the only Ward 8 resident who does that. Everyone in DC should have access to a quality hospital within their community. As an entrepreneur, I pay for my own insurance and let me tell you it ain't cheap. I'm single with no kids and my insurance premiums are about $580/month for healthcare, dental and vision. To put that in perspective, that's more than half of my mortgage.
Between healthcare, life expenses and my student loan payments, the idea anyone would accuse me of being a rich gentrifier makes me laugh out loud. But I digress, the only way a Ward 8 hospital would prosper is if there are several different types of income streams to make it financially viable. So you either have to import more working class residents with private insurance or place a new Ward 8 hospital on the edge of another community that has residents with income diversity and enough private insurance to balance out those that don't. It's not like this is a new concept, Barrack's Row and Navy Yard benefit greatly the purchasing power of Ward 8 residents.
So in my humble opinion (because this is afterall just an editorial), DC's current income-capped housing strategy appears to be sending/driving the people with the least resources and the greatest need to the sections of the city with the least resources and expecting them to thrive. I'm not sure how that is supposed to work. Let me be clear, I'm not against income-capped housing in Ward 8, what I am saying is we need some non-income capped rental housing in Ward 8 too and right now we don't have it (or no where near enough).
So yes, I am challenging the narrative that the answer to Ward 8's economic challenges is to invest in more housing that will keep us economically challenged. That is not addresssing the affordable housing shortage, that is warehousing poor people in poor communities that can't financially support them.
It's time to flip the script. It's high time for west of the river to invest in solutions for some of our east of the river challenges and the place to start is to provide much needed income-capped housing in west of the river neighborhoods that have grocery stores, medical services, quality schools, good transportation and jobs that pay a living wage.
And in return, send some folks with dollars our way who are ready and willing to live in Ward 8 and invest in our community so that way we too can benefit from a more prosperous DC. Lord knows we have gone without for long enough.
There, I said it.