“Housing Is a Natural Right, Not a Privilege”: Anti-Gentrification Activism in Washington D.C.


Black residents of the United States’ capital city used to make up 50% of the population until 2010; facing an aggressive gentrification, it is no longer the case today. Brandi Thompson Summers tells us about the various political, institutional, and cultural initiatives that fight against this forceful displacement.

Thompson Summers Funambulist
Poster in the street described in the text. / Photo by Brandi Thompson Summers (2018).

The title of this essay comes from a poster I found affixed to a construction site at the center of the H Street Northeast corridor, a rapidly gentrifying, historically Black business district in Washington, D.C. The black-and-white image on the poster looks like it was taken in the mid- to late-20th century and shows four young African American boys, with one holding a sign boldly stating “HOUSING IS A NATURAL RIGHT NOT A PRIVILEGE.” The image is particularly jarring within the context of a neighborhood, and a city, experiencing gentrification and the active displacement of people like these young boys. At the same time, the image offers a glimpse into a long history of activism in D.C. by its most vulnerable populations to advocate for their right to live and remain in their “Chocolate City.” This name was adopted by Black Washingtonians in the 1970s because it instilled and reflected a sense of pride and hope for the future of a Black city. But with its Black population dipping below 50% in 2010, D.C. joins a collection of U.S. cities like Oakland, Chicago, and St. Louis, where the numbers of Black residents have been in decline, largely due to economic factors.

Washington, D.C. is currently undergoing a so-called economic “renaissance” as the city has experienced a tremendous growth in population, private sector jobs, and housing stock. Over the past several years, D.C. has consistently ranked as one of the highest among states with the strongest economy. Despite these advances, Black Washingtonians, specifically long-term Black residents, have been largely left behind. Today, with its dense population of over 700,000 residents, D.C. remains largely segregated as the population on the eastern side of the city is almost exclusively Black, and mostly white on the western end.