Gentrification in Brightwood!?

NIMBYs come in all forms, and my current home of D.C. is as full of ’em as anywhere. The Washington Post ran this profile of a longtime resident of Northeast Washington, Mr. Milfred Ellis, who wages what appears to be a one-man campaign against gentrification in this city.

Rising real estate prices–and corresponding rents–are a fact of life in the last few decades in D.C., and housing affordability is a hot topic locally. By some accounts, D.C. is the fourth most-expensive city for renters in the nation, with the average one-bedroom apartment going for around $2000. The racial mix of the city is changing, becoming younger and whiter, and this year the black population fell below 50 percent from over 70 percent in the 1970s and 1980s. However, there are a few issues with drawing the immediate conclusion that black people are being forced out by the forces of gentrification (rising rents). Nearly 100,000 more black people lived in D.C. in 1970 than 1980, and the ’70s were not a decade known for urban revitalization in the nation’s capital. Indeed, this was before D.C. was the “murder capital” and had open-air drug markets. The forces pulling the black population away from the city were likely the same forces that pulled many folks away from cities in the later half of the 20th century — poor schools, rising crime, credit available to finance the purchase of bigger homes in the suburbs.

So this somewhat dismisses Mr. Ellis’s claim (which the Post article repeats without scrutiny) that the black population is declining solely because of gentrification. The g-word is likely a factor in some folks’ inability to afford to live here, but it’s by no means the only reason why there are fewer black people in D.C. now than 30 years ago. Furthermore, in Mr. Ellis’s neighborhood [according to the article] 70 percent of residents are homeowners, who are immune to rising rents (although possibly not to property taxes, but this is not as pressing an issue if home equity is also rising).

With that many homeowners in the area, the only thing that could stop the racial mix changing is the decisions of individual homeowners (or families) taken in the aggregate. It’s not reasonable to impose some sort of demand that black homeowners sell only to black homebuyers, or to cap the number of white or Asian folks that can move into Brightwood. Sadly for Mr. Ellis, it would seem that he’s doomed to face change. Although by and large, I think he’ll manage just fine. My hometown went from over 90 percent white in 2000 to less than 80 in 2010 according to the Census, and I’m overall pleased with the changes whenever I visit my parents there. For starters, the restaurants are much better than when I was in high school!

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