When Early Gentrifiers Can’t Afford to Stay

Michael Feagans / Flickr

Love Cafe is closing on Jan. 29 after nine years on U Street.

Businesses move to transitional neighborhoods because space is cheap and there’s potential for future growth. But sometimes the economic success of these neighborhoods leads to the demise of the early gentrifiers.

Love Cafe opened at 15th and U Street, NW in 2003, two years before Busboys and Poets moved into the corridor and signaled rapid change in the community. This week, Love Cafe owner Warren Brown announced he’s closing Jan. 29 because rent has gotten too high. H Street Playhouse on H Street, NE is closing moving after it opened along the corridor in 2002, ahead of the trendy bars, restaurants and high rents.

Of course, some businesses that moved into neighborhoods at the beginning stages of gentrification do remain. They could be at an advantage because they got their feet in the door early. But gentrification happens in stages, and just like the longtime businesses that successfully weather gentrification, newer businesses also have to keep adapting to neighborhood changes in order to survive.

Gentrification? Try Gentefication.

Leo Reynolds / Flickr

Gentrification, the "G" word, can be a very loaded term.

We write plenty about gentrification here on DCentric, which can be a very loaded word. But what about “gentefication?” According to our sister blog Multi-American, gentefication is “the process of upwardly mobile Latinos, typically second-generation and beyond, investing in and returning to the old neighborhood.” The “gente” comes from the Spanish word for “people.”

Gentefication is being used to describe what’s happening in L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, where Latino investors are developing low-income areas, with businesses attracting second-generation and English-speaking crowds. Some low-income locals of Mexican descent are worried they’ll be displaced by all of this development, even if the business owners are Latino, too.

In D.C., gentrification has taken hold in working class black and Latino neighborhoods, and most of D.C.’s well-to-do newcomers are white; in a city that’s mostly black, 60 percent of households making more than $75,000 are white, according to census data. Therefore the word “gentrification” in D.C. tends to imply neighborhood changes have to do with class and race.

But gentrification, even in the District, isn’t always about race. Take Anacostia, where the gentrification that’s starting to occur is class-based; professional African Americans are settling in the predominately black, low-income area. And just as in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, some of these newcomers have roots in the city and are returning to the places they grew up. So is gentrification the best way to describe what’s happening in Anacostia, or do we need a new word, too?

How D.C. Changed in 2011

Elvert Barnes / Flickr

A diverse group of people ride up and down escalators at DC USA in Columbia Heights. D.C. experienced dramatic demographic changes in 2011.

The year is nearly coming to a close, so we thought we’d take a look back to see just how much D.C. changed in 2011.  Here’s our list, and feel free to contribute more in the comments section:

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Condo Fees and the Pitfalls of Preventing Displacement

Dan Reed / Flickr

Kenyon Square in Columbia Heights is where affordable condo owners are facing escalating fees.

When big condo buildings and luxury developments are built up in gentrifying neighborhoods, a common fear arises: low and moderate-income residents won’t be able to afford to stick around. Reserving affordable housing in gentrified neighborhoods seems like an obvious solution to such displacement.

That was the thinking behind the District’s Affordable Dwelling Unit program, in which developers set aside some condo units at below-market rate for people with lower incomes. The program is intended to make it possible for people with moderate incomes to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights.

An issue the program doesn’t address is condo fees. While the program has kept mortgages down, it doesn’t have any restrictions on condo fees. Some affordable unit owners have seen their condo fees double to $400 or $750 and fear foreclosure could be imminent.

“It identifies a real problem… despite our best efforts to do the right thing,” Councilman Jim Graham said. He represents Ward 1, which is where many of these buildings are located, such as Kenyon Square. Since 2008, condo fees there have doubled to more than $400.

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How to Prevent Displacement

David Gaines / Flickr

Building more housing is one solution to preventing displacement, D.C.

D.C. is a city with 700,000 jobs and about 600,000 residents. Yet, there is an imbalance; nearly two-third of District jobs are held by non-District residents, D.C.’s Director of Planning Harriet Tregoning said on Monday’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

In an effort to rectify that imbalance and also shorten workers’ commutes, the District launched the Live Near Your Work pilot program. District and non-District residents are eligible to receive grants to buy homes close to their places of work.

Encouraging people to move into the District could stoke fears over the displacement of low-income residents; as the demand to live in D.C. neighborhoods increases, so do housing prices. Tregoning told DCentric the way to prevent displacement is to create more housing.

“In general, the way we think about housing is ‘supply and demand.’ So the more housing that there is, the cheaper it’s going to be, all other things being equal,” she said. “Providing much more housing has got to be part of the solution to making sure we have affordability, not not building the housing so as to keep things exactly the way they are.”

Part of building more housing, she added, is ensuring there are reserved affordable units. The city has an inclusionary zoning law requiring new, large residential developments to set aside 8 percent or more units as affordable.

You can listen to the entire The Kojo Nnamdi Show segment here.

Ben’s Chili Bowl Owners Buy Longtime H Street Shop

Adam Gerard / Flickr

H Street clothing shop George’s Place, Ltd. will soon be replaced after 43 years of business. Nizam and Kamal Ali of Ben’s Chili Bowl reportedly bought the property at 10th and H Streets, NE for $900,000. The Alis aren’t set on opening another Ben’s, though; they’re conducting market research to see “what concept might best fit the neighborhood,” Washington City Paper reports.

Back in September, we profiled George’s Place owner George Butler as he was readying to sell his property after decades on H Street. He reflected upon his time on the now gentrifying corridor, and he said he felt there was little impetus to keep longtime, black-owned businesses afloat.

Ben’s is a rarity in D.C.; it’s been on U Street since before the 1968 riots, and has not only survived but thrived as that corridor experienced revitalization. Ben’s has expanded its half-smoke empire in recent years with the opening of a location at Nationals Park and Ben’s Next Door on U Street. The Alis have strong roots in the District; so if they’re the ones to buy up a longtime H Street shop to open a restaurant, should it be called gentrification? If not, then what is it?


Cupcakes and Bulletproof Glass

lamantin / Flickr

Nothing says neighborhood change and gentrification like a cupcake shop. But what if such a shop has bulletproof glass inside? The Washington City Paper reports that the first cupcake shop east of the Anacostia River, Olivia’s Cupcakes, has a “thick sheet” of bullet-resistant glass behind the counter:

“It broke my heart to do that, but it’s a deterrent,” says proprietor Cindy Bullock, who runs the cupcake shop alongside her husband, Bob Bullock, and their daughters, Kristina, 20, and Alexis, 18.

“Several people asked (about the glass) and said, ‘It’s a beautiful shop, its unfortunate that you have it up,’ but we had to have it,” Bullock says.

“I have owned several business in this area and we have been robbed several times,” she explains. “We wanted to make [the shop] elegant and beautiful, but because of the teenagers and having my children here we wanted to protect them.”

D.C.’s bullet resistant glass initially appeared in stores in the wake of the 1968 riots, and became much more widespread at the height of the crack epidemic. Like the Bullocks, many store owners have installed glass after bad experiences.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, the glass barricade coming down is a turning point. It’s also sometimes necessary to appeal to a wealthier clientele. Take Logan Circle, where most liquor and convenience stores had the glass for decades. Then Whole Foods opened on P Street, NW in 2000. Property values rose, and Amare Lucas, owner of Best-In Liquors on P and 15th streets NW decided to take down his glass. The more inviting atmosphere, along with new stock he brought in, attracted more customers, new and longtime residents alike. “Some [customers] told me they had been in the neighborhood for 15 years, kind of passing the store by because of the glass,” Lucas told Washington City Paper‘s Dave Jamieson in 2005. “They’re in my store now. It really gives you a satisfaction.”

D.C. Home Prices Continue to Rise

Mr. T in DC / Flickr

For sale signs in Columbia Heights.

The D.C. area is only one of two metro regions in the country that saw housing prices increase during the past year. That’s according to new ratings by the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Index, which shows D.C.’s prices increased by 0.3 percent from August 2010 to August 2011. Detroit is the only other city that had rising housing prices.

What’s so special about D.C. and Detroit? Government money, apparently; the auto bailout helped bolster Detroit’s economy, where housing prices rose by 2.7 percent after a steep drop in 2009. And government jobs keep the D.C. area’s job market more robust than elsewhere in the nation.

Moderate income D.C. homeowners who have stuck it out for years in the District benefit from rising prices, as long as they want to sell their homes. They can make a pretty penny by selling their now-expensive properties to wealthier newcomers. But as this continues, some neighborhoods, such as Logan Circle, could see almost all of their income diversity disappear. And even though African Americans make up the largest racial group in the District, whites own more homes.

Does D.C. Need Gentrification Commmissions?

Tom Bridge / Flickr

Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry wants to convene a gentrification commission.

When neighborhoods get gentrified, the most vulnerable are often caught off guard. Community activism doesn’t typically gain steam until the prospect of being displaced is eminent.

So Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry’s idea to convene a gentrification commission is interesting, particularly since Ward 8 isn’t really being gentrified. Sure, some wealthier residents have moved in, but residents are rarely being displaced as a result. There is some development in the pipeline, but it’s uncertain what kind of effect it’ll have on the area

“My problem with gentrification is that those persons come into our community and displace longtime residents,” Barry said during Wednesday’s gentrification panel discussion. “Shaw is a classic example. We saw it coming and we did virtually nothing.”

Ward 8 is ripe for gentrification, Barry said, particularly given the high number of renters. Panel speakers referred to gentrification as a looming, unstoppable force. Yes, there were some mentions of dogs and bikes, and Barry remarking that “we have a lot of gentrifiers who are blogging, who are twittering.” Most of the discussion didn’t focus on race, but rather on protecting residents from being displaced through addressing the root causes of poverty: education, jobs and whether residents have become dependent on government assistance.

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Finding Space to Create in Pricey D.C.

Courtesy of Bora Chung

Aaron Martin (left), Brandon Moses (middle) and Michael Andrew Harris (right) practice in Gold Leaf Studios.

Brandon Moses and Michael Andrew Harris, members of the band Laughing Man, met up at their studio space in a worn warehouse on a recent Thursday evening. Moses strummed his guitar and sang into the mic. Aaron Martin, who shares the studio with the band, joined in on his saxophone for an impromptu jam session.

Seemingly neglected, the vacant warehouse has been repurposed for just this sort of activity — for artists to create without concern of disturbing neighbors. Harris rapidly hit his snare drum without constraint. The music went through open window and spilled onto the Mt. Vernon street below.

But through that window, you could see the new high rises across the street, a sign of D.C.’s healthy real estate market. And soon, the warehouse — home to Gold Leaf Studios — will be replaced with a $57 million, 11-story mixed-used complex. About 30 artists who work out of 11 Gold Leaf studios will have to vacate by January 2012.

“Obviously they’re going to make a lot more money,” Harris, 31, said. “We’re just artists paying a couple of hundred dollars for the space.”

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