“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.

According to a 2017 Georgetown University report on Black employment, population, and housing trends, the median annual income for white D.C. families is $120,000, while it is $41,000 for Black households. The report, which explicitly attributes the decline of Black residents to gentrification,
also notes that between 2007 and 2014, the median household income in D.C. increased by about $10,000, but growth remained flat for Black households. Similarly, in 2018 the D.C. Chamber of Commerce published their “State of the Business” report, which described the “unique” impact of affluent white families driving low- and middle-income Black and Brown families out of the city, since these families are not being displaced “by young persons, artists, or other groups typically associated with gentrification, but by wealthier families” (D.C. Chamber of Commerce, 2018) Progressive shifts in politics and policies over the past 40 years have not led to much change. Rapid gentrification, primarily resulting from a spike in large-scale development projects, functions as a perfect rejoinder to segregation, urban renewal, and other forms of systemic inequality, in ways that continue to economically marginalize and displace Black people in the city.

Despite the ubiquitous presence of gentrification in Washington, there is an array of organizations, initiatives, policy, and ongoing cultural activities that address the socio-spatial shift in D.C.’s landscape. Three particular levels reflect activities in the current political struggle against gentrification and displacement in the District: policy, grassroots organizing, and artistic/cultural activities. Each of these organizations, initiatives, and activities uniquely address structural inequalities that proliferate and bolster gentrification and displacement. All of them advocate the importance of longtime D.C. residents’ right to stay in place, and how unnatural and violent gentrification is as an urbanizing process.

Grassroots organizers, non-profit groups, and residents use political pressure, advocacy, and multiple forms of civil disobedience to hold public officials accountable for enacting policy solutions to the ruinous effects of gentrification in Washington, D.C. Historically, D.C. has been a center for progressive policy on issues confronting social and economic inequities. On the one hand, the city achieved Home Rule in 1973, but residents continue to live under undemocratic conditions. The politics of space and place are well known in Washington, D.C., as African Americans have been experiencing displacement since the 1970s. As a result, the D.C. local government passed anti-gentrification legislation, the Tenants Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which is a right to buy program, in 1980. The legislation was created directly in response to gentrification and displacement taking place in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in the late 1970s. This city-sponsored policy, unique to D.C., enables people to keep their homes and stay in their neighborhoods. TOPA allows the tenants of apartment buildings slated for sale to challenge the sale and buy the buildings themselves. The city funds tenant organizers and has $100 million for affordable housing, but city council recently changed the act to exclude renters of single-family homes.

TOPA isn’t a cure-all, but it set an important precedent that underscored the importance of providing D.C. longtime residents the right to stay in the communities within which they live and thrive. TOPA legislation has been especially effective when complemented by advocacy from organizations like the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, which in 2000, successfully proposed the dedication of funding for an affordable housing trust, for technical assistance, and for organizing in buildings under the threat of conversion. As recently as 2017, buildings like The Norwood, an apartment complex located in the Logan Circle neighborhood and home to mainly Latinx immigrant families, was purchased by residents who formed a Limited Equity Cooperative after a prolonged and very visible fight.

One of the most controversial impacts of gentrification in Washington is rising rents. Several of D.C.’s grassroots political organizations focus their attention on equitable housing, particularly organizing against residential displacement, providing residents with tools to challenge gentrification and bolster housing activism. All are actively committed to achieving racial, economic, and environmental justice for those most directly impacted by hyper-development via neoliberal urbanism. One of D.C.’s more widely known and effective groups that explicitly deploys anti-gentrification strategies to achieve racial and economic equity is ONE DC, Organizing Neighborhood Equity. ONE DC is particularly involved in community organizing that is focused on equitable development and tenant-led policy since its founding in 1977. They advocate for the use of community land trusts, fighting against redevelopment plans that promise to disadvantage marginalized communities, and fight to improve inferior housing conditions. Similarly, another grassroots organization, Empower DC, encourages self-advocacy for low- and moderate-income D.C. residents. Traditional community advocacy and organizing by groups like ONE DC, Empower DC, and the DC Tenants Advocacy Coalition (TENAC), focus on direct action like rent strikes, legal contestations, and demonstrations and have resulted in visible challenges to redevelopment all over the city. These groups are all integral to the growth in funding to resist gentrification and strengthen tenant protections by advocating and upholding D.C. tenants’ right to organize.

In conjunction with the important work done by local grassroots organizations, residents in several of D.C.’s most economically depressed neighborhoods have put their bodies on the line to resist the destruction of their neighborhoods. Others have lodged class-action lawsuits against the D.C. government and private developers over various redevelopment plans in the city. In 2016, residents of Brookland Manor in Northeast D.C. sued MidCity Financial Corp, claiming that the developer discriminated against them, and that the planned redeveloped property would not accommodate families who had been living there for years. Instead, the developer planned smaller units that cater to younger, wealthier, single residents. In 2017, a group of residents in the Barry Farms tenant association in Southeast D.C. partnered with Empower DC to file a class-action lawsuit against the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) and its two private developers over the city’s redevelopment plans for the area. One of the more recent and widely-publicized lawsuits against the D.C. government was filed last year in federal court on behalf of several Black residents who claim that D.C. initiatives and policies that destroy public housing units and turn them into mixed-income development actively breaks up established Black communities. Discriminatory zoning and housing programs introduced by the D.C. government over the past two decades have sought to encourage an influx of younger, richer, whiter people while displacing long-term Black and Brown residents. This lawsuit, and those before it, essentially made gentrification and displacement a legal issue with significant economic and social consequences.

In addition to the important advances achieved in the realm of affordable housing and equitable development, cultural and arts organizations and institutions are developing educational programs to teach residents about the ongoing effects of gentrification on various neighborhoods in D.C. Organizations like Teaching for Change, founded in 1990, arms parents and educators with necessary tools to teach students how to build a more equitable, multicultural society. The youth-based program, Critical Exposure, teaches high school students to use photography in order to fight for social justice and equitable education in their communities. Students learn documentary photography and advocacy, often tackling vital and contentious topics like police brutality, food insecurity, and neighborhood displacement. Drawing on the title of Henri Lefebvre’s famous slogan, the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum’s recent exhibition, “A Right to the City,” beautifully documents anti-gentrification strategies and other histories of neighborhood change in D.C. The exhibit highlights different neighborhoods, but tells a cohesive story about extraordinary efforts by D.C. residents to organize and resist urban renewal, neighborhood disinvestment, displacement, and uneven development. Together these cultural programs and practices provide District residents with the means through which they can access information about how to account for the impact of gentrification and displacement in their own communities.

The dynamic collection of political, institutional, and cultural initiatives currently organized against gentrification and displacement in Washington, D.C. underscores the urgency for a politics that prioritize solutions that bring about racial and economic equity over profit-driven, privatized markets that benefit elites. They effectively empower residents to contribute to their urban democracy, resisting the politics of displacement. These groups demonstrate a clear need to explore activism in the context of neoliberal urbanism in the hopes that this activism will disrupt gentrification while concurrently contribute to the design of just policy in the United States’ capital.