D.C. Home Prices Continue to Rise

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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.

D.C. Home Ownership By Race

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Whites make up the largest percentage of D.C.’s home owners, and they are followed closely by African Americans. That’s according to new U.S. Census Bureau data detailing the race of people who are on deeds and leases of the District’s 266,707 occupied housing units.

Despite the seeming parity between whites and blacks in home ownership, there are far more black than white people in the District — 70,702 more in 2010 — and a disproportionately low number of blacks own homes when compared to whites. Whites over-represent home owners.

As for renters, African Americans are on most of the leases in the District, followed by whites, Latinos and Asians. And all of this data excludes D.C.’s 17,316 multiracial residents, which constitute 2.9 percent of the city’s population.

Owner-occupied units
Renter-occupied units
Percentage of total population
Black: 48,887 77,012 50.7%
White: 51,838 55,144 38.5%
Latino: 5,676 12,342 9.1%
Asian: 3,311 6,246 3.5%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Why is home ownership so important? It’s long been viewed as one of the keystones in building wealth and climbing out of poverty. And although the black middle class was particularly hit hard when the housing bubble burst because so much of their wealth was tied up in home equity, District home owners have fared better than elsewhere. D.C. is the only city where housing prices increased over the past year. The District’s home ownership rate has risen by 45 percent over the past decade, but it appears the rate isn’t increasing fast enough for everyone.

Trading Living Space for Cheaper Commutes

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Housing in the D.C. suburbs costs a lot less than in the city, particularly with rising housing costs, but higher transportation costs could outweigh the savings.

That’s according to a new report [PDF] by the D.C. Office of Planning, which shows residents in dense neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights spend an average of $840 a month on transportation, whereas those living in suburbs in Montgomery County could spend $1,177 a month. DCist reports:

The numbers bear out what many people know from experience — higher residential density and more transit options make it cheaper for people to get around. Sure, you might be paying more for less space in that new house or condo, but alternatives further asunder may well spike your costs for getting to and from work.

Living in a smaller apartment or house in order to be closer to buses and Metro stations may not be feasible for everyone. Having less space isn’t as big an issue if you’re single or are living with one partner. But if you have three kids and a spouse, your quality of life could be significantly reduced by living in together in a small place. Perhaps the decision to move from D.C. and into the suburbs isn’t the best bottom-dollar choice for single folks. But some families may make the move because they can’t justify living in such cramped quarters so that one or two adults have cheaper and quicker commutes.

Affluent Minorities Live in Poorer Neighborhoods than White Counterparts

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A class divide doesn’t fully explain racial neighborhood segregation, a new Brown University study finds.

Nationally, affluent blacks and Hispanics live in poorer neighborhoods than where the average low-income white person lives.

The D.C. region bucks the trend somewhat; here, wealthy minorities live in areas with the same, not higher, poverty rates as where poor whites live. The proximity of Prince George’s County may skew the results for the region, the Washington Post reports. The county, which is 65 percent black, is home to high concentration of affluent African Americans:

Blacks and Hispanics… who earned more than $75,000 lived in neighborhoods that were virtually the same as neighborhoods populated by whites earning under $40,000, as measured by average income, poverty rates, education levels, home values and housing vacancies.

“Income, and being successful in class terms, does not necessarily put you in a different kind of neighborhood,” said John Logan, a Brown University sociologist who analyzed census data in his study released Tuesday.

Many in D.C. proper view class, not race, as the District’s biggest divider, but racial segregation is more prevelant in the city than in the region as a whole. And the wealthiest areas in D.C. also have the fewest numbers of African American residents. For example, the black population accounts for only 5 percent of Ward 3, the city’s wealthiest area, where the median income is about $97,000.

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Who Owns D.C.’s Homes


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A new Brookings Institution report on affordable housing in D.C. notes that between 2000 and 2009, home ownership increased by almost 45 percent. But the rate jump wasn’t felt evenly across class lines; home ownership actually declined among households making less than $50,000 annually:

Percentage change between 2000 and 2009

Household incomes Renters Homeowners Overall
Less than $50,000 -24 percent -32 percent -26 percent
$50,000 to $75,000 Unchanged Unchanged Unchanged
More than $75,000 +81 percent +58 percent +63 percent
(Source: Brookings Institution)

In the span of nearly 10 years, D.C. experienced an increase in the number of people with more money and a decrease in the number of people with less money.

This new report is an update on one issued five years ago, which had recommended increasing the rate of home ownership to help boost affordable housing. But housing prices in the District are increasing, so naturally it’s becoming more and more challenging for lower income people to buy homes. Some lower-income home owners are finding it increasingly beneficial to sell their properties that have appreciated so much in value.

Even knowing exactly how much affordable housing there is in D.C. has proven to be difficult, researchers noted. The report recommended improving the process of documenting the housing stock, and included other suggestions such as increasing property taxes to raise money for affordable housing.


Is Anacostia Being Gentrified?

The word “gentrification” elicits certain images, particularly in D.C: dog parks, coffee shops and bike lanes. But the mere presence of such things doesn’t mean residents are being displaced.

The Washington Post tried to also dispel another stereotypical marker of gentrification –  white people — by profiling a group of middle and upper income African Americans who have moved into (or back) to Anacostia:

“I used to think it was about race — when white people moved into a black neighborhood,” said lawyer Charles Wilson, 35, president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association. (Wilson ran against Marion S. Barry Jr. in the 2008 Ward 8 City Council race.) “Then, I looked up the word. It’s when a middle-class person moves into a poor neighborhood, and I realized, I am a gentrifier. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t like that word. It makes so many people uncomfortable. The g-word.”

“Actually, I thought it was if you see a white guy in Anacostia, listening to an iPod, jogging or walking a dog!” joked Sariane Leigh, putting her hand on her hip and waving a sweet potato fry for emphasis. Leigh, 33, works by day helping low-income communities access education. In her free time, she writes a blog called “Anacostia Yogi,” and teaches “Soul Flow Yoga” at the Hillcrest Recreation Center on Denver Avenue in Southeast.


Elvert Barnes / Flickr

These residents chose Anacostia over other neighborhoods because they like living east of the river, and many longtime residents say they are happy to see professional blacks moving into black neighborhoods, the Post reports. Those profiled are active in the community, such as Courtney Davis who published a children’s books meant to bolster the image of kids in Ward 8. “I’m fighting for this neighborhood,” Davis told the Post. “It still has some work to do. But I’m not here to make a quick buck and run off.”

But are these new, wealthier residents making it too expensive for low-income residents to remain in the neighborhood? Typically, gentrification is thought of not just when people with more money move into a working class neighborhood; it’s also when that movement raises housing prices and prices out low-income residents. And by-and-large, displacement isn’t occurring in communities east of the Anacostia River, according to Roderick Harrison, a Howard University professor and senior fellow at the Joint Center.

“Probably the more appropriate term is ‘succession,’” he said. “People have been moving out of wards 7 and 8 because once you can afford to do so, you do. People feel they’re improving their lives with moves to Prince George’s County.”

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High Property Taxes and Changing Neighborhoods

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Pamela Johnson, who owns a storefront in the H Street NE neighborhood, says her property value has gone up so much that she can’t afford to pay her tax bill. Her story is included in The New York Times gentrification piece, which caused Matthew Yglesias to ask if property owners can ever be the victims of gentrification:


Normally you think of the gentrification problem as applying to renters. Objective conditions improve in a poor neighborhood, which is good. But the improved conditions lead to higher rents, so the poor people wind up not benefiting since they have to move out. It’s difficult for me to see how this kind of problem could afflict property owners, who regardless of race or class considerations ought to benefit from asset appreciation.

But as Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic points out, winning out financially isn’t always the only priority for owners:

I actually think it’s fairly easy to understand Johnson’s beef. She likes her neighborhood as it is. She may well be able to “sell high,” but the fact is she doesn’t want to sell at all. She probably would love to see her property values rise, but the neighborhood isn’t simply, for her, a financial instrument–it’s an emotional one.  In that sense, Johnson isn’t very different than millions of other humans who invest in neighborhoods.

Her contention that the city is “driving us out of here.” is very much debatable. But it’s worth noting that a class of owners with a commitment to something more than a naked financial return is a good thing. When Matt asserts that the city is trying to make H Street a “desirable place to live,” I am compelled to ask “desirable for whom?” I’m not being obtuse here–I understand, in the aggregate, his larger point. But very often people find a kind of value in their living condition that eludes socioeconomic data.

And although individual owners may make money by selling properties in increasingly pricey areas, what kind of overall effect do such sales have on neighborhoods? In Logan Circle, for instance, a group of low to moderate-income homeowners are contemplating selling their modest town homes to a developer for $800,000 each. If they decide to sell, they could walk away with a large return. But if they sell and leave the neighborhood, they take with them much of Logan’s remaining income diversity.

Housing Discrimination Against Minorities, the Disabled Persists in Nation’s Capital

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It’s been four decades since the first federal fair housing laws came into the books, but a new report finds that D.C. needs to ratchet up its enforcement against discrimination in housing.

The report, issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and posted below, found that builders are constructing apartment buildings that aren’t handicapped-accessible. It also found that some District landlords still practice racial discrimination against African Americans, and that there’s a lack of subsidized housing units west of Rock Creek Park, in a predominately wealthy and white part of the city.

When a person feels they are a victim of housing discrimination, they can file a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights. The office received 397 house discrimination cases from 2002 to 2010. Complaints, which can contain more than one basis for discrimination, were filed based on the following categories:
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Black Home Ownership and ‘the American Dream’ in Ward 8

D.C. Councilman Marion Barry wants to encourage home ownership in majority black Ward 8, where only 24 percent of residents are homeowners. How? By banning construction of new apartment buildings. He tells Washington City Paper‘s Lydia DePillis:

“The American dream is to own a home. And black people have not gotten the American dream as much as they need to,” Barry says. “Somebody can rent for 20 years, and has no equity in their unit at all.”

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Renters are the most vulnerable to forces of redevelopment and gentrification, since they can’t really profit from leaving a neighborhood with exploding housing prices the way a homeowner can. But owning a home, and having equity tied to it, doesn’t necessarily buffer one from poverty, either. As noted yesterday, one of the contributing factors to the decline of the black middle class is the fact that African Americans generally had more of their wealth tied up in housing than white people did at the start of the recession — 63 percent versus 38.5 percent. Declining housing prices and foreclosures meant the loss of a lot of black wealth — between 2004 and 2009, the median net worth for black households dropped by 83 percent. For white households, it dropped by 24 percent.

On the other hand, the value of homes in D.C. as a whole hasn’t dropped at drastic levels since the peak of the bubble. Only a few portions of Ward 8 saw home values decline at higher rates than the national metro area average.

Even still, there are plenty of questions as to whether banning new apartment construction would even be effective in increasing home ownership. Matthew Yglesias of ThinkProgress writes:

There’s just no way that zoning policy in Ward 8 of Washington, DC could possibly influence black people’s ability to own homes. Banning apartment buildings will reduce the supply of affordable housing and reduce construction jobs. That’s it.

Five Factors Causing the ‘Decimation’ of the Black Middle Class

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson (L) hold the hands of Angela Walker (R) in Suitland, Md. after a rally against foreclosures in the hard-hit, majority-black county. Walker is recently unemployed and facing foreclosure.

The recession from 2007 to 2009 has hit nearly all sectors and communities in the American economy, but minorities, and particularly African Americans, may have been affected the most. Jesse Washington’s recent Associated Press story about how the recession reversed many of the economic gains that took the black community many years to attain contains some grim statistics: in 2009, the average black household had only 2 cents for every dollar of wealth held by the average white household, and in April 2010, black male unemployment hit its highest point since the government began tracking it in 1972.

“History is going to say that the black middle class was decimated,” Maya Wiley, director of the Center for Social Inclusion, tells Washington. “But we’re not done writing history.”

What has led to such extreme losses? Here are five factors contributing to the “decimation” of the black middle class: