Why so many black residents left D.C. and Marion Barry on diversity

D.C. Councilman Marion Barry (Ward 8 ) spoke with Michel Martin on NPR’s Tell Me More program today about D.C.’s dropping black population. Martin tried to get Barry to explain his call to stop gentrification as quoted in a Washington Post article from last week.

Flickr: Tom Bridge

The exchange itself is worth a listen, but here are some choice moments:

“What gentrification does is that it displaces longtime residents, longtime people who have been here 10, 20, 25 years and have been renters,” Barry said.

Barry also mentioned that “the Hispanic population grew by 9 percent and we welcome that kind of growth, but this city and other cities have to deal with gentrification.” He goes on to say that “white people… are displacing African American renters, gentrifying the city. I’m not afraid to speak up and say that’s something we have got to deal with.”

Later, Martin tells Barry “what’s interesting about your perspective here is that you were elected initially as part of a multicultural campaign. With your initial campaign you had strong support from a number of multiracial communities, including the gay community which often has been on the leading edge of revitalizing neighborhoods that have previously been in disrepair. So for some people, it’s why all of a sudden now you’re critical of the very people who supported you initially.”

Barry: “Well, I’m critical about the process… We have to stop it.”

Martin: “Yes, but why do we have to stop it?”

Barry: “Because it displaces long-term residents and therefore it changes things.”

We’re not sure if that does much to satisfy your desire for further clarification or not, but Martin raised a point — “why do we have to stop it?” — that is similar to the questions raised by Ta-Nehisi Coates last week: “In all these stories about Washington’s shifting dynamics, I’ve yet to see anyone, in any rigorous way, demonstrate why this shift is–in and of itself–bad for African-Americans,” Coates writes. “There’s this implicit assumption that most black people who departed the District would have stayed if not for the hipster influx. But how do we know this? How do we know they aren’t, say, fleeing the District’s much maligned school system?”

Yesterday we spoke with demographer Roderick J. Harrison, a senior fellow at the Joint Center and a Howard University associate professor, to get a better understanding of the city’s shifting demographics. He framed D.C.’s loss of 39,000 black residents in this light: gentrification wasn’t the major driving force in Wards 7 and 8, where population losses were the greatest. Rather, it was by-and-large classic suburbanization in which people left the city’s poorest wards “that are often considered the worst neighborhoods,” Harrison said.

“The force behind it probably is seen as a positive force. These are people who are some way or another, they are upwardly mobile, they are improving their housing and neighborhood conditions, they are making personal decisions that they see, on the whole, as an improvement,” he said.

Harrison, who used to work for the Census Bureau, said that the 2000 data showed that most of the black people who left Wards 7 and 8 then left for Prince George’s County, Md., which Barry called “Ward 9″ in the Washington Post story.

But Harrison continued: “You always have the problem that those who are more able to move do so, and it’s often leaving behind a population that has fewer resources, lower income, higher poverty.”

Of course, the story is different in more rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods where many whites have settled, but Harrison pointed out that longtime homeowners tend to win out in those scenarios because their home equity improves. Longtime renters, though, are being priced out, and it’s those individuals that is seems Barry is speaking about.

Now D.C.’s black residents can voluntarily move to the suburbs for better housing, economic and educational opportunities, whereas before fair housing laws, many African Americans didn’t have much of a choice over which neighborhoods they could live in, regardless of class. The fact that so many have been able to leave speaks to a freedom to move, one that didn’t always exist for African Americans. But how much freedom is there really when the conditions in your neighborhood are so bad that you have to move from your city entirely in order to have a better life?

  • FeelingwelcomeinDC

    That’s right. Let’s limit people who pay a lot in taxes, because their higher education attainment generally translates into higher paying jobs. Let’s move them out of town and then complain about the city being broke. And why is anyone “losing a majority,” why isn’t anyone saying that DC is becoming more diverse. Since when is that a bad thing anyhow.

  • Eli

    The reason many long time renters get displaced is that Section 8 has rent ceilings based on neighborhood and for whatever reason they are higher than market rent in wards 7 & 8 (providing an incentive to landlords to rent to low-income tenants) and below market in wealthier neighborhoods in wards 2 & 3.

    The real change is happening in wards 4, 5, and 6 where market rents are rising and very recently surpassing Section 8 ceilings, providing an incentive for landlords to raise rent and get market tenants in areas that were low income for the past 10-20 years. The city could of course stop this by raising Section 8 ceilings to compete in the changing market, but for whatever reason city council has not made it a priority.

    In my NE DC neighborhood (Eckington) a 3 bedroom house can get nearly $1900 in Section 8 rent, or as much as $2200 or $2300 in market rent. Who do you think the landlord would pick?

  • Blanonymous Male

    ” And why is anyone “losing a majority,” why isn’t anyone saying that DC is becoming more diverse. Since when is that a bad thing anyhow.”

    Touche! I’d also like to hear an explanation for this, but its not forthcoming.

  • Anonymous

    Tomato Tomatoe all the same. “Losing a majority” “More diverse”= gentrification. All the same. Bad thing when it displaces poor black people.

  • Omowaleday

    The problem with gentrification is that it is both class and primarily race based, and as Marion Barry pointed out, it not only displaces traditional communities, the drive to force them out shreds them. DC used to have Soul, now it is soul-less and becoming ever more so every year. Many whites who are part of gentrification are in a state of denial about what they are doing, while there are others who do not hide their intent and desire to force out the black residents. They come in and begin to make baseless and silly complaints against their black neighbors to the police, who respond more aggressively to their calls because they are white.  America is no where near being “post-racial” or “post-racist,” it is like white people claiming that Jim Crow is dead in order to give it a new look and a new lease on life, which is what gentrification actually is – the new Jim Crow in housing.

  • baiaforever

    I am  a black person and well black people and leaders really dropped the ball in dc.  i don’t think more white people or asians or hispanics moving in is a bad thing. It has actually made the city more prosperous and more hip and younger. what Marion Berry and other black leaders need to focus on is revitalizing the black population still left and helping them to see that attaining greater education is going to revitalize their communities. in some cases now i would say its not that more white people have entered the city but more snobby white people who look down on minorities have moved in… new thats a problem

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/6CIDWKBTNDW24JYORV2CEPRMWU Cee Mee

    So that explains why “peeGee”  and Charles counties are becoming ghettoes. Oh, refer to the previous article for an explanation….

    Low-income blacks who are seemingly “upwardly mobile” are moving out to find cheaper housing, thus, bringing their low-class, filthy, substandard lifestyles (morality)with them. My case in point Oxon Hill, Clinton, and Waldorf in Maryland.