Black homeownership in Wards 7 and 8 has been on the rise.
Will it stay that way?
Rates of Black homeownership have been decreasing recently in Wards 1 through 6, a Public Integrity analysis shows. Wards 7 and 8 saw upticks – is this cause for celebration or concern?
By Kimberly Cataudella, Reporter, Center For Public Integrity
Alfred Wilson, Jr. has lived in D.C. since he was a teenager. He spent his early childhood years in Massachusetts, but he trekked down to Deanwood each summer to spend a few months with his grandparents in the house they owned.
For 23 years, Wilson has lived in this Ward 7 house with his mother, Gloria Weaver Wilson. He serves as her full-time caretaker. As second- and third-generation homeowners, they took over the house in 1998 after spending decades in apartments and rented homes in Park View and Petworth.
Before he earned a living installing payphones and alarm systems all over the city, some of Wilson’s first paychecks came from pumping gas at a station on the border of Park View and Mount Pleasant.
He still drives by this gas station, and he notices that the surrounding neighborhoods look much different than they did when he stood at the pump decades ago.
“The biggest thing I’m seeing is how little Black community there is anymore,” Wilson said. “A lot of the new people living here aren’t Black, and they don’t get to know you. They pull into their driveways and immediately get in the house. And they don’t get the benefit of their neighbors looking out for them – which we’ve always done for each other – because we don’t even know who they are.”
Between 2014 and 2019, neighborhoods in Wards 1 and 4 saw drastic decreases in Black homeownership rates among Black households. Census data shows that some neighborhoods – like parts of Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan – saw those rates drop by half.
In fact, almost every ward in the District saw Black homeownership rates decrease in that same time period, with the exception of two: Wards 7 and 8 saw slight increases in those same five years. But many don’t think it’ll stay this way.
Experts say that a lack of investment in Wards 7 and 8, combined with the lowest housing prices in the District, account for the difference.
Vanessa Perry, a fellow at the Urban Institute and a public policy professor at George Washington University, is a Black homeowner who’s lived in the Washington metro area since she was in junior high. She’s noticed an increase in multifamily units like condos and apartments in Wards 1 and 4, where Black homeownership has decreased the most in recent years.
Additionally, skyrocketing housing costs require that new residents moving into the city have access to more money. Over time, this pushes out longtime residents, many of whom are Black, Perry said. So even if Black families aren’t leaving Wards 1 and 4 – and Perry questions whether they are – Black homeownership rates are decreasing because Black families are having difficulty buying homes. Many have been priced out.
Make less, pay more
While Black homeownership in Wards 7 and 8 may have seen an uptick in recent years, the cause may be underinvestment, said Peter Tatian, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and research director for Urban–Greater DC. While other areas of the city – like Audi Field in Ward 6 and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Ward 2 – have received public investment, Wards 7 and 8 have historically been left behind.
“When you look at the stats for median income for African American families and how much we have in savings, we don’t have enough to purchase and stay in Wards 1 through 4,” said Coldwell Banker real estate agent Ericka S. Black. Median incomes for Black households significantly lag all other races and ethnicities, according to a 2020 report by the Economic Policy Institute.
The median net worth for white families is almost eight times that of Black families, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances. This is driven largely by home equity loss in Black households and the disproportionate increase in Black unemployment rates after financial crises, per a 2019 report by the Urban Institute.
“To make less and pay more doesn’t help,” Wilson said. “Still that way today.”
This all points to the same issue: Black District residents are disproportionately struggling to buy houses in a city they used to call their own.
sub: What does this mean for Wards 7 and 8?
Low property costs and the attractiveness of the area to developers may be positioning Wards 7 and 8 for neighborhood and cultural changes.
Gregory Squires, an affordable housing scholar and a public policy professor at GWU, said to look out for areas that are near the water, are walkable, have public transportation nearby and are accessible to downtown. Those neighborhoods will gentrify first.
“People tell me they want to buy my house all the time, and their thinking is, ‘If we throw money at these people, they’ll move out,’ but they’re not getting the change they want,” Wilson said.
“Then all of a sudden, we start seeing new sidewalks, and the streets start to get resurfaced, and these are signs to Blacks that change is coming. We’ve seen this happen a lot in the last few years.”
The increase in Black homeownership rates in these wards likely comes from new Black residents, rather than existing Black D.C. residents who now have the opportunity to be homeowners, Tatian said.
“In Chicago, New York and other cities, there have been reports of intentional disinvestment, or withdrawal of public services, to reduce the value of property. Then well-connected developers reportedly were able to buy property cheaply, so what used to be a very marginalized neighborhood becomes a profitable area, but not for the benefit of longtime residents,” Squires said.
There’s an argument to be made that this can happen in Wards 7 and 8, Squires said, as those are areas in the District with opportunities for large profits.
Experts noted that city-subsidized development projects can be partially blamed for pushing up the cost of living in D.C., either causing residents to get pushed out or voluntarily leave. The Wharf is an example of a development project that the District government heavily subsidized. The $2.5 billion development project – which received $300 million in subsidies – was advertised to generate $94 million in direct annual tax revenue to the District.
Eliana Golding, DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s affordable housing and workforce development policy analyst, sees subsidies as one way to promote affordable housing, but she disagrees with how the District has put subsidies into place.
“Insufficient investment and the lack of accountable, strategic investment in long-term affordability is to blame, not a certain tool for development itself,” Golding said. “Development is a chicken and egg thing. … The whole ecosystem plays into the cost of housing and what’s pushing people out.”
“Mayor [Muriel] Bowser remains committed to developing every possible tool to ensure every District resident has the ability to make the District their home today and in the future, and ensuring all D.C. residents – particularly longtime Black residents – get a fair shot at a pathway to the middle class,” said Natalia Vanegas, deputy communications director for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, in an email to Public Integrity.
“By building more housing, being intentional about how and where we build affordable housing, and working with regional partners to set and meet regional housing goals, we can alleviate the challenges related to the city’s current housing stock, which is not enough to meet the District’s current and future housing needs. We can also build more inclusive and diverse neighborhoods throughout D.C.”
sub: A changing culture
“D.C. is unique because it’s enticing people, but at the same time pushing those away within the Black diaspora,” said Antwan Jones, a sociology professor at GWU and former member of the Washington, D.C., Commission on African-American Affairs. Jones has owned a home in Ward 1 for four years.
Black culture and the desire for children to grow up around other Black families is a pull factor to bring new families to the District, Jones said, while current and longtime renters have seen gentrification around the city, often making them choose not to put down roots and buy a house in the area.
Jones and Tatian agree that turnover contributes greatly to declining rates of Black homeownership in parts of the city. The District used to be Chocolate City, and when a Black homeowner sold their property, another Black family likely moved in. Today, when older Black homeowners die, their children may not want to live in the home, selling the house for a high amount of cash – and likely to a non-Black family.
Experts warn that calling this “displacement” may not be entirely accurate. “A homeowner can look at how much their house is worth and say, ‘Wow, think of what I can do with all that money,’” said Hilary Silver, a housing scholar and sociology professor at GWU. “Are they being displaced or making a killing?”
Gentrification doesn’t just change the racial composition of a neighborhood, Perry said, but its character and what it can offer residents to come.