How DC stakeholders can use strategic accountability to ensure Ward 8’s rapid change benefits all residents

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Photo by Kelly Bell Photography/Flickr.

Change is ramping up in historic Anacostia and other neighborhoods in Washington, DC’s Ward 8. Over the past 10 years, a new US Department of Homeland Security headquarters has opened on the St. Elizabeth’s campus, and DC government agencies and retail outfits like Walgreens have opened near the historic gateway to the community. A slew of projects is slated for the coming years, including a Washington Wizards basketball training facility, a branch of the local restaurant chain Busboys and Poets, several major mixed-use and residential developments, and the 11th Street Bridge Park.

But an influx of new development won’t be the only change coming to these neighborhoods. Population forecasts from the DC Office of Planning show that between 2015 and 2045, Ward 8 neighborhoods like Anacostia, Fairlawn, and Hillcrest will see a 65 percent increase in population, or 20,958 more residents—nearly double the pace of the city’s growth projections in that time (38.6 percent). Planners also forecast a 214.5 percent increase in employment in Ward 8 (9,210 employed residents), compared with a 31 percent increase for the city.

Ward 8 residents discuss these changes with a mixture of fear and hope. As one resident who is looking to buy a home in Ward 8 recently described to us during a focus group, “People are being priced out of the city, and they’re seeing the value of Ward 8 in general. It’s closer to jobs and the city center. And as the prices balloon in other parts of the city, they’re looking to expand. There’s not enough room.”  

Another resident, who had to move out of his former neighborhoods west of the river because of rent increases, expressed concern about the changes he already sees in Ward 8: “No one is prepared for these changes. They’re too drastic.”

The residents’ fears are not unfounded. The nation’s capital is often listed among cities experiencing the most extensive gentrification in the nation, with communities like Columbia Heights and the H Street Corridor being prime examples. Neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8 offer some of the only remaining naturally occurring affordable housing in a city grappling with an affordable housing crisis.

The District has a long history of making development decisions that have enforced or preserved racial segregation. These structural inequities have resulted in mobility factors such as income and employment in Ward 8 trailing behind the rest of the city.   

Residents’ hopes are also not unfounded, as a development boom could help revitalize the area and bring new opportunities. But positive outcomes for residents who already live in Ward 8 aren’t possible unless planners and policymakers manage the neighborhood change already under way.

Seeking the right “delta”

To keep current residents in Ward 8 while promoting new development, an Equitable Development Partnership—funded by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and composed of partners like Bridge Park, Building Bridges Across the River (THEARC), City First Enterprises, the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (WACIF), and Skyland Workforce Center—has set in motion affordable housing, workforce, and small business strategies. 

The Urban Institute is helping these and other entities under the Bridge Park’s equitable development plan identify and gather data to assess if their strategies are producing the numeric changes in housing options and income (“the delta,” as Bridge Park director Scott Kratz calls it) that current residents need to stay and enjoy the benefits of their revitalized neighborhoods. 

One way to understand the delta (or the numeric change) needed to ensure equity for current Ward 8 residents is to look at it from the perspective of two broad groups. The first group is composed of residents who experience significant barriers to employment, such as age or disability, and who may be on a fixed income or have no income (per 2012–16 American Community Survey data, 26 percent of seniors in Ward 8 live below the federal poverty level). The delta for this group must include preservation of and increases in the supply of available high-quality affordable housing.  

The second group is made up of residents who can and often already do work but who might need help overcoming such barriers as discrimination, low incomes, low skills, or low educational attainment to see the economic mobility they need to secure suitable subsidized or market-rate housing. The delta for this group can be achieved through combinations of expanded access to affordable housing supports and increased capacity to earn more income as the cost of living in Ward 8 rises. 

Coordinating strategically accountable investments

Ensuring a positive trajectory for both groups requires varied strategies. Bridge Park, for example, has partnered with Housing Counseling Services since 2016 to provide tenants rights’ education to residents.

The Douglass Community Land Trust exemplifies a strategy that equitable development partners like City First Enterprises are using to preserve the permanent housing affordability needed to ensure people with low incomes can remain in their Ward 8 homes.

Bridge Park has also partnered with the nonprofit Manna to educate and empower first-time homebuyers through the Ward 8 Homebuyers Club. 

For residents who can and do work, partners like Skyland Workforce Center and WACIF are pursuing strategies focused on building skills and growing businesses to help these people increase their incomes so they can pay their share of subsidized housing options or keep up with inevitable rises in market-rate rent.

Skyland is training skilled and unskilled people as contractors for the Bridge Park’s construction, linking them to existing positions and engaging the DC Department of Transportation to ensure residents are hired for those jobs.

And WACIF is championing small businesses through microloans to local entrepreneurs and through training and technical assistance to small businesses in the area.  

Developers and city officials must do their part

By setting and pursuing clear goals for equity—in housing, workforce development, and small business strategies—development planners and practitioners working in and around the Bridge Park footprint are headed in the right direction.

But it’s unlikely that their efforts will keep pace with the real estate and population changes coming to Ward 8 unless city officials and real estate developers do their part to address the delta through policies and access to capital, such as leveraging city-owned property for permanent affordable housing like a community land trust and hiring east-of-the-river Disadvantaged Business Enterprises as subcontractors during construction.

Socially conscious investors’ efforts to capitalize on Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act projects and city agencies’ efforts to field inclusionary zoning and vacant properties reclamation projects show that the will is there. But residents’ hopes for a more equitable future in Ward 8 won’t be secure until high-level stakeholders emulate the partners on the ground by setting, targeting, measuring, and holding themselves to clear and meaningful goals for ensuring equitable prosperity.