The Future of DC Should Include Her Residents, Not Exclude Them

By: Joseph Green III and Jennifer Blemur

Washington DC is the place to live for millenials and the Gen Z demographic. So much so that rising rental rates can barely meet the demand for housing, especially in the past five years. The addition of more condominiums, green spaces, luxury apartments, mixed-use buildings, and commercial properties have changed the city’s demographic significantly. According to the Washington DC Economic Partnership, the housing supply is being outpaced by the demand. Additionally, construction remained strong in 2017, with 4,016 units beginning construction within the first three quarters of 2017. This volume of construction serves as an indicator of economic progress, although not every DC resident shares that sentiment. Where the housing supply cannot meet the demand, neither can affordability. Therefore, the quest for affordable housing continues in a housing market that appears constricted.

In Ward 5, where the average household income stands at $60, 770 and the median price for a one bedroom apartment in DC is $1,310/month, the city’s population growth can present major challenges to many of the residents that fall under the income threshold. In addition to the inflationary expenses related to excessive demand for housing is the question of affordability. A changing neighborhood can make the “lifers” feel out of touch or confused by those changes. Without significant outreach, residents will get lost in the wave of progress without being able to voice their concerns. The city should take all steps necessary to guarantee that residents are not permanently displaced or pushed to the side in the name of development and gentrification.

A major project that will have a tremendous impact on Ward 5 is the Art Place. The Art Place at Fort Totten is a mixed-use development that will hold both residential and commercial units. Owned and developed by the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the Art Place will consist of 305,000 square feet of retail, 929 multifamily residential units, a 40,000 square foot children’s museum, and 170,000 square feet of cultural and art spaces. The Modern, the residential building of the Art Place, began construction in 2014, is a part of the first phase of construction. The second will be devoted to building the cultural components, including a children’s museum. Formerly the Riggs Plaza apartments, which was also owned by the Cafritz foundation, were mostly affordable housing units.

As with many other buildings in the District, to develop the building, the existing residents had to be relocated. The Foundation moved residents into transitional housing and has set aside 141 apartments (out of 520) for affordable and senior housing. These tenants will be also be able to maintain a lower rate. In the Cafritz’s foundation application to the DC Zoning Commission for Phase 2 , the foundation indicated that they have taken steps to do outreach to the community to get feedback from residents on the kinds of services they would like to see provided. One of the goals of this development is to provide an “innovative cultural and arts space to serve both children and adults.” Construction for Phase 2 is slated to start 2020 and will take nearly ten years to complete. There may be future challenges but thus far none have been indicated.

Progress is crucial in ensuring that a city and its economy is healthy and growing. Despite its necessity, progress can happen without the input of neighborhoods. How can DC residents ensure that they are a part of the development and construction occurring around them? One way is to use their Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANCs) to host forums and meetings with developers. Through these commissioners, citizens can get more information about the impact construction will have and what to expect. Furthermore, it helps to bring the community together with a magnified voice. Another way developers can better engage community members is to create more transparency in their hiring process. By incentivizing companies to hire members of the community, policymakers can ensure that members will be more receptive to construction and development in their neighborhoods. Many construction projects last months even years at a time, sometimes creating significant burdens to the already existing members. Increasing job opportunities for members in the community creates a sense of investment in these projects. It also demonstrates a commitment to the people on by developers. It is through a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship, DC can move forward in a revitalization process that keeps the needs of the people in mind while also enabling the city to grow. Foulger-Pratt operates as the general contractor for the Art Place at Fort Totten, and it would be helpful to the general community to find out what kind of outreach they have done with the neighborhood.

Some may argue that development and progress is good for DC and residents should not be resistant to it. While progress has revitalized many neighborhoods, like Columbia Heights, Petworth, and more, the city would be negligent if it did not provide a way to include current residents. For seniors, overextended families, and those with lower-income occupations, progress to them does not look like a children’s museum but rather increased rents or an increase in their property tax. Construction in DC will not be slowing down any time soon, so developers and the city should focus on making development as inclusive and painless as possible. Once development can include all parties, then it will truly become the progress DC needs.