Washington, D.C., Is Taking a Gamble to Fight Gentrification

Washington, D.C., Is Taking a Gamble to Fight Gentrification
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Because you can’t offer someone a path to entrepreneurship if they don’t have housing.

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Building a bridge is ordinarily considered a good thing, a reach across a divide to connect two sides. But in Washington, D.C., one new bridge has received a particularly keen focus on ensuring that everyone in the community can benefit from the opportunity the bridge is expected to bring with it.

On the west side of the Anacostia River, the Capitol Hill neighborhood has farmers’ markets and craft fairs, boutique hotels and chic restaurants — not to mention the seat of the U.S. government.

But across the water, on the east side, the Anacostia neighborhood has struggled to reinvent itself following decades of poverty and neglect. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, two-thirds of residents in Capitol Hill are white, with an average household annual income of $140,000. This is in stark contrast to the area across the river:

IN ANACOSTIA, 96 PERCENT OF RESIDENTS ARE BLACK, 20 PERCENT ARE UNEMPLOYED AND 50 PERCENT OF CHILDREN LIVE IN POVERTY.

The river is a both literal and figurative barrier between socioeconomic classes. And the forthcoming 11th Street Bridge Park — a shiny new development set to connect the two districts — could be eyed less as an olive branch and more as a catalyst to gentrification. It’s a story that has unfolded with alarming regularity in recent times: long neglected neighborhoods become more desirable, and ensuing price hikes force original residents out.

Before we even engaged an architect or an engineer, we spent two years talking with the community.

Scott Kratz, 11th Street Bridge Park

What’s different about this story, though, is the bridge park is actually being planned specifically to benefit Anacostia residents, rather than oust them. “Before we even engaged an architect or an engineer, we spent two years talking with the community,” says project director Scott Kratz. “We wanted to make sure we addressed their needs instead of trying to insert them later as an afterthought.”

The result is a collaboration between local nonprofits and community-development financial institutions, with an explicit mandate to create opportunities for jobs, home ownership and small businesses within the existing Anacostia community. Plans include providing loans and training to locally owned small businesses to help them profit from the neighborhood’s resurgence, as well as prioritizing residents for construction jobs on the bridge park and post-construction jobs in the park once it is built.

One of the most forward-thinking strategies, though, is the creation of a community land trust to help Anacostia residents buy homes in the area. The nonprofit trust will own the land beneath properties so they can be offered at a fraction of their market value. Sales will also be restricted to people of certain incomes. JPMorgan Chase provided $5 million in philanthropic support to the bridge project, $3 million of which will go toward acquiring properties for the land trust.

Ultimately, each strand of the collaboration feeds into helping Anacostia residents reap the rewards. “You can’t offer someone a path to entrepreneurship if they don’t have housing, can’t build savings and can’t pay their bills,” points out Harold Pettigrew, director of the Washington Area Community Investment Fund, a nonprofit partnering on the project. “That’s what’s great about the collaborative. It brings together organizations that may not have worked together previously but have a shared vision and can amplify each other’s impact.”

Dekonti Mends-Cole, vice president of global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase, adds: “It’s clichéd, and yet also true, that collaborations like this create a sum so much greater than the parts.”

Although this is a forward thinking strategy, there is no guarantee it can protect against other market factors and trends. The land trust, for example, can’t solve every problem contributing to the housing crisis — such as demand vastly outstripping supply — and is likely to acquire properties at a slower pace than the construction of the park, which is set to open in 2019. Still, the fact that this development is breaking ground with the needs of existing residents front and center, and has sought to collaborate with community-focused specialists, could provide a better blueprint for future development projects across the country. And that’s hopeful for everyone because, for a city to prosper, its residents must too.