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Equity, Inclusion, Diverity, Fairness

Simple Fairness: D.C. Can Roll Out an Equity Agenda in 2021

What is Council Member Kenyan McDuffie focused on this month? For one thing, there’s the ongoing impact of gentrification.

McDuffie, who represents Ward 5, says D.C. policymakers need to be redirected to prioritize economic fairness and inclusivity. This need is pressing. The median net worth of white D.C. households, McDuffie writes in The Washington Post, is 81 times the median net worth of Black households.

D.C is ranked as the most intensely gentrified city in the nation. Research backing that striking statistic comes from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC). Some people argue that gentrification isn’t all bad. Maybe it’s not bad at all; maybe it’s a benefit. People who oppose it, they say, must be misguided, or looking for problems that don’t exist.

The head of NCRC, Jesse Van Tol, says there’s nothing inherently bad about gentrification. But it can be detrimental, depending on how policies are introduced in areas where it occurs. If longtime residents are pushed aside, the character and culture of a place can quickly fade out. When people leave their homes, they do so because they’ve found themselves excluded from the bounty and the benefits brought by gentrification. Consider the pockets of rising rents and swelling property taxes in Mount Pleasant and Brookland, Shaw, U and 14th Streets. Trendy shops, pricey condos, and manicured dog parks attract the well-heeled, but they have a way of gradually pressing familiar homes, shops and playgrounds out of the way to make room for the new.

In the expensive areas of downtown D.C., people call their council offices to ask that the street musicians be quieted. And this, in the city of Duke Ellington, is how gentrification can mean silencing the spirit of a place. To Council Member McDuffie, the calls are agonizing. McDuffie points to Joe Biden’s racial equity Executive Order, which acknowledges the “unbearable human costs of systemic racism.” And, indeed, they are unbearable.

Gentrification Happens. Here’s How It’s Leveraged.

It’s not just D.C., of course. In a number of cities with unique styles and histories, gentrification happens. But in some places, long-term residents manage to hold their own. They stay in place. They raise their kids and run their shops. They benefit from the amenities and the interest that a boom in real estate activity can bring. 

NCRC research suggests several ways to make similar good things happen in D.C. Renters could be offered the option to buy into the new condo developments when apartment buildings are converted. This has long been a way to augment property values without alienating a city’s greatest assets: the people who live there. Equally important is financial assistance for established residents. Consider the power of grants for first-time home buyers and people who would have high debt-to-income ratios if they took on mortgages to stay in place.

In short, making new condos affordable to local residents is essential. It’s a matter of respecting the places and people that make the city what it is. 

Economic equity is a simple matter of fairness. Moreover, it would lead to building up the U.S. GDP by $1 trillion a year, over the first five years alone. It’s a lot for a nation to do, and a lot for the nation’s capital to do. And it needs to be done now, says McDuffie. So far, policymaking has instead “left Black and Brown residents further behind” in all elements of quality of life: financial wealth, cultural wealth, and health care; schooling, career opportunities, and business investments; housing, physical and social mobility, policing… These are a few of the major aspects of experiential inequality. 

Creating the Racial Equity Achieves Results Act (Reach Act)

McDuffie says the D.C. Council has what it needs to get going and make D.C.’s racial equity agenda real. In recent years, community organizers and advocates have campaigned with McDuffie to create the Racial Equity Achieves Results Act (Reach Act). They have also been working on an agenda for direct investments in communities. The Mayor’s office must budget for investments that will have tangible effects in the individual and connected lives of Black residents, and enable the thriving of Black businesses.

In late 2020, the Reach Act received the strongest possible blessing from the D.C. Council — the members’ unanimous vote. On Martin Luther King Day 2021, the Council Office of Racial Equity debuted. The point is to be sure whatever policies the D.C. Council approves are screened in advance for their potential effects on racial equity.

Please weigh in with suggestions, needs, and perspectives. Follow and participate in the dialogue on Twitter: #RacialEquityDC. As the D.C. government intentionally commits to ensuring opportunities — opportunities that so many of the city’s residents have been missing for much too long — then, as McDuffie put it, “the circle of prosperity will grow.”

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