More High-Poverty Neighborhoods in DC Area, Less Affordable Housing in DC

I couldn’t say nearly everything I wanted to about high-poverty neighborhoods in a single post. So I focused only on the big picture. The report I took off from, however, includes breakdowns for each of the major metro areas the researchers analyzed.

So here’s what we learn from it and other sources about the District of Columbia.

The report itself doesn’t provide figures for the District because it carves out some census tracts, i.e., small, relatively permanent subdivisions of a county or the equivalent, as a surrogate for a neighborhood.

So what we get are figures for the central business district and tracts within 10 miles of that — basically, what we consider the Washington metro area, less perhaps some of the more distant suburban neighborhoods.

Some surprises here, at least for me, especially given all we hear about gentrification — and all we who live in the District and nearby suburbs see.

For example, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the metro area increased from 19 to 41 between 1970 and 2010. And the number of poor people in these neighborhoods more than doubled.

Only six neighborhoods that were high-poverty at the beginning of the period had poverty rates at or below 15% at the end. And only seven had poverty rates at or above 30% in both years. So newly high-poverty neighborhoods account for most of the increase.

This may have something to do with the fact that the metro area, like the country as a whole, had experienced large poverty increases during the Great Recession, which officially ended less than a year before the Census Bureau took its read on poverty in 2010. But that’s not the whole story.

An earlier Urban Institute study traced the growing diversity of the area’s poor population — and more to the point, where poor blacks, whites and Latinos lived in 1990 and during what was then the most recent five-year period the American Community Survey covered.

The Institute’s maps show how poor blacks had remained heavily concentrated east of the Anacostia River. Poor Latinos, who were once clustered in the now-gentrified Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, had been displaced. Both they and poor whites were widely scattered throughout the region.

As a result, only one high-poverty census tract was outside the city limits during 2005-9, even though far more poor people lived in the suburbs than in the District. What we see here, the researchers say, is “how stubborn” the legacy of official segregation, persistent race discrimination and public housing policies are.

Still another evolving Institute study focuses solely on changes in the District itself. We see how the population has rebounded, mainly because whites are moving in faster than blacks are moving out.

We see, as if we didn’t already know, how housing costs are soaring, sending the number of units affordable for the lowest-income residents plummeting.

Somewhere around 46,500 households lived in subsidized housing in 2013, according to Institute estimates. As many as 28,000 were in “assisted” housing that’s privately owned. Local funds presumably supplied the assistance, since the Institute accounts for public housing and federally-funded vouchers separately.

It warns that affordable housing owners and developers in fast-growing, gentrifying neighborhoods “may decide it is more lucrative to switch to … providing luxury apartments or condominiums.”

Some already have. Between 2000 and mid-2007, the city lost nearly 2,000 affordable units because owners decided not to renew the time-limited contracts they’d agree to in exchange for federal vouchers that subsidized below-market rents.

Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper warns of more affordable unit losses when obligations based on another financing source expire. But some owners may keep their apartments affordable, he says, especially those in the poor neighborhoods east of the river.

Not a good sign for achieving less concentrated poverty there, though one wouldn’t wish for even less affordable housing, of course.

“DC has a challenge ahead,” the Urban Institute observes. “Once-neglected neighborhoods … are now recovering and even thriving — but revitalization can drive out long-time residents. How can we make sure they have the opportunity to stay and benefit from the city’s new prosperity?”

And how can we ensure they’re not packed into high-poverty neighborhoods, with all the disadvantages those entail?

We have a new mayor now. She’s said that affordable housing is a high priority for her. And the people she’s chosen to head both the Department of Housing and Community Development and Human Services seem to back that up.

Over in the DC Council, Chairman Mendelson has restructured committee responsibilities, in part to sharpen the Council’s focus on housing and homelessness.

The new chair of the Housing and Community Development sponsored a bill that would have accelerated the loss of affordable housing. But we’ll have to wait and see how she addresses her part of the challenge.

To say it’s a big challenge for all concerned would be an understatement, even if everyone were on the same page. Doubtful, if past is prologue. But again, we’ll have to wait and see.


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