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With infrastructure windfall possible, D.C. can avoid mistakes of the past

Past investments have accelerated gentrification, widened inequality

by Kimberly Cataudella

Washington, D.C., could receive more than $2.5 billion in funding for highway and mass transit improvements under President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which passed Friday.

A long history of D.C. infrastructure investments that have been spent on projects that accelerated gentrification and widened inequality for Black neighborhoods has some scholars, organizers and activists worried about how this money will be spent.

Public transportation, broadband infrastructure and bridge repairs are among the needs listed in a White House fact sheet about how the spending might help the District through fiscal year 2026

“Over the life of the bill, the District is expected to receive over $1.3 billion for Federal Highway Administration programs, which cover the design, construction and maintenance of the federal highway system and various federally owned lands,” said Sharon E. Nichols, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton’s director of communications. “For transit expenses, D.C. is expected to receive over $1.2 billion. In addition to these allotments, D.C. is eligible for various discretionary grant programs. It will be up to D.C. to apply for these grants.” 

Norton’s office said because the District lacks statehood and has no representation in the Senate, where the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was drafted, “the people of the District were shut out of the discussion on a crucial piece of legislation.” 

Infrastructure execution can worsen inequity  

“Just doing the opposite of what was done in the past won’t reverse past wrongs,” said Michael Bader, associate director of the Metropolitan Policy Center and a public administration professor at American University. 

Interstate 295 in Southeast Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of The Washington Informer)
Interstate 295 in Southeast Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of The Washington Informer)

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 built roadways through communities of color, displacing Black residents and providing positive change for the mostly affluent and white. But if today’s infrastructure dollars are spent on removing highway structures, it could make things worse for communities who rely on the highways for employment, childcare and healthcare, and it will take money away from other projects that can make D.C. a more equitable place, Bader said. 

Organizers identify two main issues with the way infrastructure dollars are spent. Christina Peay is the vice president of philanthropy and communications at Housing Up, a nonprofit organization in D.C. that develops affordable housing and offers services to homeless and low-income families. When infrastructure money is approved, she said, nonprofits, advocates and organizers usually see two trends: 

  1. Lawmakers often don’t spend enough time asking communities about their needs.
  2. The money is rarely used in its entirety. 

“How do we make sure this money can get to the people who can actually spend it?” Peay said. “Let’s make sure in five years we’re not sitting on a pile of bills, and the problems have only gotten worse.” 

She pointed to the more than $425 million – 16% of the $2.6 billion allocated from the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund – that never made it to struggling tenants or their landlords, which Public Integrity revealed in partnership with The Associated Press.

“If we’re undoing what was done [decades ago], we’re neglecting the communities that need help in 2021,” Bader said. “We need things like regular bus lines, bus rapid transit, reliable transportation from homes to workplaces, to places like childcare, eldercare, healthcare. Resources are needed to ensure residents who have been neglected by the government – like residents of Wards 7 and 8 – can live their daily lives.” 

He cited construction of the Metrorail’s Red Line. 

“It was designed as a hub and spoke system, meant to get people into the city in the morning and out at night,” Bader said. “It ignored the communities living in D.C. to help them get around.” 

Barry Farm neighborhood in Southeast Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of The Washington Informer)
Barry Farm neighborhood in Southeast Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of The Washington Informer)

One of the most notorious examples of inequitable infrastructure implementation in the District is the Barry Farm redevelopment, which most experts interviewed for this piece referenced.

In 1867, the federal government purchased a 375-acre site in Anacostia for the settlement of African Americans after the Civil War. In 1941, the government seized a 34-acre section of the community’s land to build Barry Farm Dwellings, a public housing development for African Americans, per a report from the D.C. Policy Center

“Barry Farm Dwellings, once made up of 444 housing units, is now a ghost town of boarded-up buildings,” the Washington Post wrote in January 2020 when reporting that buildings on the property were set to be replaced with a residential and retail complex. 

That plan included 1,400 units, including replacements for public housing and 100 additional units off-site for former tenants. Residents wanted new buildings before the existing ones were torn down, but that request was not honored, the Post wrote. By early 2019, the city began requiring residents to relocate.

“Thinking about whether or not the long-term residents will benefit from any of the redevelopment that’s happening around the neighborhood — you have to question whether that’s going to be the case and what securities and protections have been put in place,” said Willow Lung-Amam, an associate professor in the University of Maryland’s Urban Studies and Planning Program and director of the Small Business Anti-Displacement Network

Natalia Vanegas, deputy communications director for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development, said their human capital providers maintain constant communication and connection with former residents. Services and support included financial coaching, leadership training and employee referrals.

How does infrastructure spending work? 

Every five years, the District completes a Capital Improvement Plan. It also has a comprehensive plan spanning 20 to 25 years meant to guide the Capital Improvement Plan, said Marccus Hendricks, an infrastructure scholar and professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

The portion of money given to D.C. from the $1 trillion plan may not cover everything on the District’s wish list – and some projects in the plan might take a back seat because something more pressing or unforeseen came up in the meantime. But that’s still to be determined, Hendricks said. 

“DDOT has jurisdiction over local transportation policy, planning and project delivery,” Norton’s office said. “Distributing funds among the many worthy priorities in the District is their role.”

The Capital Improvement Plan lays out infrastructure projects and improvements that lawmakers would like to complete, but only the first year of projects is officially budgeted. The projects are voted on annually because what’s critical now can change five years down the road, Hendricks said. 

Infrastructure spending supported by local dollars, public and private, can end up flowing to areas where gentrification is happening, Hendricks said. Sometimes, private companies and developers can choose to fund infrastructure investments.

“Even when you see the investment in neighborhoods, it raises the tax base, raises the property values,” he said. “Then people get priced out, and you see gentrification happen before your eyes.” 

Between 2000 and 2013, D.C. was named the city with the greatest “intensity of gentrification” of any in the country, per a 2019 report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. More than 20,000 Black residents were displaced from their neighborhoods, replaced mostly by affluent, white newcomers. 

“Generated and subsidized by public and private sector coalitions, gentrification is also a form of uneven development that benefits influential segments of urban populations,” anthropologist and native Washingtonian Sabiyha Prince wrote in 2019

By recognizing what communities already have and value, infrastructure dollars can be better spent to accommodate — rather than uproot and change — a neighborhood, said Bobby Boone, a longtime community retail strategist and founder of &Access, a group that provides equitable solutions for under-resourced communities. For example, there are fewer multifamily units in Wards 7 and 8 than in Wards 1, 2 and 6, contributing to a less walkable community. Much of the retail development has to accommodate cars and buses. 

This doesn’t mean neighborhoods will have a more vibrant commercial base if they have a higher density of multifamily units, Boone said. But the city and investors should understand that the area operates differently than the rest of the District, and infrastructure dollars should be spent to promote incremental growth, not to change the community entirely so it can look like the others.

Infrastructure’s impact on neighborhoods, local businesses

A shorter-term but real concern when major infrastructure projects are funded is the temporary disruption that the work itself can have on neighborhoods.

Construction of the Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties could force small, independent businesses to close their doors, according to a 2019 report that Boone advised. “Ethnic retail,” which the report defines as businesses owned by and/or serving immigrant, Latino, Black and/or Asian residents, is the most vulnerable small business population. 

“For example, I started to avoid University Boulevard because there’s so much construction, so I don’t stop for my morning coffee on the way to work as I often did,” Lung-Amam said. “They’re actively missing some of their customers. How do local governments help make up for short-term losses? Not only that, but also helping to build these businesses in terms of long-term sustainability.” 

Experts worry that owners of small, local businesses feel like they only have two options when construction is taking place around them: Stay open and see their profits drastically decrease, or close their doors in advance. And the pressure to close can be even greater in areas like Wards 7 and 8, where the government has historically invested less. 

“There shouldn’t be only Option A or Option B,” said Manuel Ochoa, principal and founder of Ochoa Urban Collaborative, a community and economic development firm. “If local governments communicate in advance and set a pool of funds to keep small businesses afloat during periods of construction, the small businesses can be in an even better spot once constriction wraps up because the point of infrastructure construction is to make areas better and more desirable.”

A lot of energy went into ensuring D.C.’s historic seafood market remained open during The Wharf’s construction a few years ago, Ochoa said. This can be used as an example for ensuring businesses can keep operating through future infrastructure construction projects. Now, because of The Wharf’s massive success — and because the shops were able to stay in business while many other stores closed down during construction — these seafood shops are thriving. 

“Recognizing the Municipal Fish Market as an iconic D.C. fixture, the Hoffman-Madison Waterfront development team committed to keeping the businesses at the Municipal Fish Market open and operating during construction of The Wharf,” said John Chibnall, a senior public relations manager who represents Hoffman & Associates, one of the two Wharf developers. Madison Marquette, the other developer, did not respond to a request for comment.

“In addition, HMW restored the Market’s historic oyster shed, constructed a new Market operations building and cooled trash facility and provided customer access and additional business signage throughout the construction process,” Chibnall said.

Sometimes disrupting small businesses can be seen as a tradeoff for long-term investment in a neighborhood. And after the Highway Act displaced so many people of color in the ’50s and ’60s, Ochoa said, governments are more worried about ensuring residents can stay put during construction than they are about small businesses. 

“People always talk about the long-term benefit and the investment for the future, but what about today when construction is taking place?” Ochoa said. “It’s messy, noisy and dusty. It’s a disruption for businesses to shut down for a day or a week. It’s devastating if a business shuts down for a month or more. They have to survive and keep functioning.”

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