I’ve written about gentrification for The Grid before, but the displacement of low income residents in relation to rising rents, while disconcerting, is actually a piece of a much broader paradigm moving into place all over the country – a full blown housing affordability crisis. In Washington, D.C. the average rent has risen 10% since the recession. And D.C. is not alone as cities all over the country are beginning to exhibit a similar disparity between housing and income.
The result is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for working and middle-class Americans to live in places that offer a mix of quality housing, employment, and recreational opportunities. And if the middle-class, a socio-economic cohort that politicians in this country have committed to praising whenever the opportunity presents itself, cannot afford to live in a traditional neighborhood then our cities are truly in threat of being overwhelmed by corporate interests, and being correspondingly homogenized. If this happens, cities will cease to be the places of vibrancy and opportunity that they have long been regarded as.
In D.C., this is evident in the ever increasing presence of luxury condos and apartments. This is not to say that luxury real estate is bad for the city. The problem is that the system accommodates a developer’s interests above all others. The result is a profit-centric approach to construction, rather than a citizen-centric approach. One manifestation of this reality is the overwhelming presence of banks within a neighborhood. Not that banks are bad either, but they’re boring. The presence of two or more banks across the street from one another is the universal signal that a neighborhood’s vitality has been surrendered to corporate interests, who are maximizing their per square foot rent opportunities by leasing to a safe, wealthy tenant.
Another problem is that affordable housing is hardly affordable any more. A brand new two bedroom affordable unit in my neighborhood, Columbia Heights, rents for roughly $1,700. The income restriction requires that the two people living there make a combined $68,000. After the math, that works out to about a third of their income being spent on rent alone. Factor in transportation and sustenance, and the question that stands out is, how are they going to save money? Or plan for retirement?
On the one hand urban planners are excited about new revenue streams coming from high-wealth real estate. Yet, on the other, there is a divergent feeling of angst that the city may be in the process of losing the very essence of its greatness, which is the diversity and richness of culture that has made it such an appealing place to begin with. But what, if anything, should be done in a “hot” real estate market like D.C.? With so much redevelopment pressure surely the District can leverage the desire to build within the city to ensure that all of its residents are being provided for. The question is, what are the levers that will accomplish this?
Credits: Images by Chase Keenan. Data linked to sources.