We often hear stories of economic inequality brewing in cities like New York and San Francisco, where mortgages are high and rents are even higher. While these pricy locations seem impossible to live in, the U.S. is home to another city whose inequality has them beat: Washington D.C. Currently, the District of Columbia—our nation’s capital—boasts the highest income inequality in the country. According to an article published by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, households in D.C. with incomes in the top 20% have 56% of the wealth, while families in the bottom 20% have only 2% (Naveed). D.C.’s inequality is harshly divided on racial lines. The D.C. Office of Racial Equity reports that the average Black household makes less than a third of the annual income of a White household (“D.C. Racial Equity Profile”). Income inequality also extends into homeownership rates, where only 20% of homeowners in D.C. are people of color, making these residents far more likely to be rent-burdened (Busette et al.). This trend makes communities of color in D.C. especially vulnerable to increasing rent costs, which have risen by more than 9% in the past year alone (Schweitzer). Of course, some neighborhoods like Anacostia have been hit harder by inequality and rising rents than other parts of the city.
Established in 1854, Anacostia is one of the oldest and most culturally rich neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. When Anacostia was founded, the neighborhood was primarily home to wealthy, White families working for the federal government. According to the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, 1950s desegregation programs at local schools caused White families to flee to D.C.’s suburbs, turning Anacostia into a predominately African American neighborhood. Since then, Anacostia has become a haven for Black culture, with 90% of current residents identifying as Black (“Ward 8, D.C.”). Unfortunately, due to economic inequality issues referenced above, Anacostia also has one of the highest poverty rates in D.C., with over 30% of residents living below the poverty line (“Ward 8, D.C.”). Rising costs of living in the area have exacerbated high existing poverty rates, which has caused many long-term residents to leave in search of more affordable places. A recent National Community Reinvestment Coalition report shows that over 20,000 Black D.C. residents were displaced from 2000 to 2013 from Wards 7 and 8, right where Anacostia sits. These rising costs have consequences for Anacostia’s historic Black community and culture. But why are prices rising in the first place?
The root of this problem is gentrification, but different from the traditional ways we would expect. Gentrification is the movement of the wealthy into historically low-income communities, often resulting in rising property values and rent costs, more wealth, and upscale coffee houses. While many agree that Anacostia is beginning to turn down this path, Anacostia is a unique example of gentrification due to its unusual causes. First, unlike many other gentrifying cities, the environment—and more specifically, the addition of parks and green spaces—has played a vital role in the gentrification of Anacostia. Second, in other cities, gentrification typically happens at the expense of people of color, but in Anacostia, wealthy young Black professionals sometimes perpetuate cycles of gentrification. Finally, in many other areas, gentrification stems from the actions of local governments. However, in Anacostia, we can blame the federal government for gentrification.
Until recently, the Anacostia River was rated one of the dirtiest rivers in the United States due to improper trash disposal, industrial waste dumping, and combined sewage overflow systems. What unifies all these factors is environmental racism. According to the World Economic Forum, “environmental racism [is] a form of systemic racism whereby communities of color are disproportionately burdened with health hazards” caused by proximity to “sources of toxic waste.” According to an article by the Princeton Student Climate Initiative, “African Americans are 75% more likely than White people to live in ‘fence-line’ communities” near commercial or industrial facilities. From its origins as a predominantly Black community, Anacostia bears the brunt of issues in systemic environmental discrimination. Some residents speculate that the river has been “intentionally neglected due to the area’s socioeconomic condition” (Sabol). This discriminatory trend has allowed the river’s condition to worsen with time, reaching peak pollution levels in the early 2000s (Knoblauch). In response to peak pollution and heightened criticism about environmental racism, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and D.C. Clean Rivers Project finally began collaborating in the late 2000s.
The Anacostia River’s condition has significantly improved thanks to combined efforts from the EPA and Clean Rivers Project. The 3 billion dollar project has already reduced the number of combined sewage overflow systems (which cause untreated sewage to go directly into the river during storms) along the Anacostia by 98% (Knoblauch). Further, the initiative has bought almost 92 acres of previously impervious surfaces and converted them to green spaces along the river (Knoblauch). Other investors have also jumped on the bandwagon, including Redbrick’s Poplar Point development, featuring a 70-acre park, and the Office For Metropolitan Architecture’s $50 million 11th Street Bridge Park (Anguelovski). Parks like these catch trash and filter runoff while also beautifying the river. Efforts paid off in 2018 when the Anacostia River passed its national river report card evaluation for the first time (“2021 State of the Anacostia”). Of course, these improvements in river quality and nearby green space have contributed to the problem of gentrification.
When choosing where to live, many people will look for areas with nearby green spaces. According to psychologist Marc Berman, green spaces are “not an amenity, they’re a necessity.” Nearby green spaces make people feel healthier and wealthier, two significant factors in life satisfaction. One study by environmental psychologist Omid Kardan finds that “having [ten] more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 […] or being [seven] years younger.” Green space is essential, and it shows. According to the National Recreation and Parks Association, 85% of all Americans look for nearby high-quality parks when choosing where to live. Thus, green space and river quality improvements in Anacostia have increased neighborhood marketability.
Since green improvements have started in Anacostia, home values and rent costs in the area have skyrocketed due to the neighborhood’s increasing ecological appeal to outsiders. In 2000, the average home value in Ward Eight was $97,837 (“Ward 8, Profile”). Now, the average property value is $329,300, more than three times what it was 20 years ago (“Ward 8, D.C.”). In the past five years alone, home values along the Anacostia have increased by an average of 12%, even amidst an ongoing pandemic that decreased home values across the country (“The Anacostia Housing Market”). These increased home values lead to higher rent costs. The average Anacostia renter pays $1,235 per month (“Ward 8, D.C.”), more than double the cost to rent in 2000, which was $497 per month (“Ward 8, Profile”). While some may argue that these changes are due to natural inflation, the reality is that costs outpace natural inflation by over $600. Increasing rents are especially dangerous in Anacostia, where less than 25% of the population owns their homes (“Ward 8, D.C.”). Moreover, these discrepancies disproportionately affect Black low-income residents. In Anacostia, the average income for a Black household was $37,335 compared to the average income of $108,199 for a White household (Dwyer). Home values—and the correlated rents—are rising rapidly, indicating increased area marketability. At the same time, Black low-income families are disadvantaged by rising costs, which means they are more likely to be displaced by the high cost of living. This gentrification is all due to the increasing environmental marketability of the Anacostia River region.
Of course, many argue that environmental changes that lead to gentrification are still necessary in a world impacted by climate change. After all, we must act now, and urban green spaces are essential to reducing carbon emissions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report in 2013 stating that green spaces in cities capture approximately 708 billion tons of carbon per year, reducing the U.S.’s total carbon emissions by more than 12.6%. Adding more green spaces, such as parks on the Anacostia River, would help boost this number further, thus reducing total carbon emissions and helping with the ongoing climate crisis. However, this viewpoint is limited because gentrification can harm the environment. According to a 2022 study done by sustainable engineering professor Benjamin Goldstein, “wealthier Americans have per capita [carbon] footprints ~25% higher than those of lower-income residents” (Goldstein qtd. in Erickson). Some of this carbon footprint takes the form of trash, which cities must transport to waste facilities. The problem here is that, for large cities like New York and D.C., waste is often exported far out of the city, sometimes up to 7,000 miles away (Galka). Compare this to suburban neighborhoods, which rely more on private waste disposal and private landfills (Ergen). In that case, it is in the company’s best economic interest to operate landfills close to the generation site, likely making the transportation distance for suburban waste less than that in cities. Simply, it takes more gas and emissions to transport city waste than suburban waste; thus, when populations that produce significantly more waste than original residents settle in cities, emissions increase, thus counterbalancing the addition of green space. Moreover, according to urban geographer Jennifer Rice, “When low income people are pushed further and further [away from their jobs], it increases their emissions for traveling by cars” (Rice qtd. in Kiesel). Frankly, gentrification can increase emissions due to waste disposal of the wealthy and increased travel time of the displaced. Thus, gentrification may cause even more significant environmental harm than initial greening efforts can solve.
The people moving into these newly greened areas in Anacostia are Black newcomers, another unique aspect of Anacostia’s gentrification. In most cities, residents of color are most at risk from gentrification. For example, in New York City’s Harlem, the “gentry” of gentrification is predominately White. Between 2010 and 2020, Harlem lost 12,000 Black and Latinx residents and gained 18,000 White residents (Garber). This caused a 9% drop in the Black and Latinx population of Harlem, coinciding with a 5% increase in the White population over the short span of 10 years. Trends like this are common in gentrification, but Anacostia tells a different story. While many of the area’s displaced residents are Black, so are the newcomers gentrifying the area.
Unlike other areas, Anacostia has maintained a relatively stable Black population. In the 2020 census, the area had a Black and Latinx population of 90% (“Ward 8, D.C.”) compared to a Black and Latinx population of 93% in 2000 (“Ward 8, Profile”). This time frame is double what we see with the Harlem example, yet Anacostia lost only 3% of its Black population compared to Harlem’s 9% drop (Garber). In the same time frame, Anacostia has grown by about 15,000 people, an increase of 20%. This, in combination with a sustained, high Black population, indicates that White incomers are not the only ones gentrifying the area; Black movers are also playing a part in gentrification. Charles Wilson, a 35-year-old Black lawyer living in Anacostia, explains this sentiment further. In an interview in The Washington Post, he says that “[he] used to think it was about race—when white people moved into a black neighborhood,” but after looking up the word, Wilson realized that “[he was] a gentrifier” and “[he] couldn’t believe it.” Wilson, like other upper-class Black residents mentioned in the article, “prefer to live east of the river […] because they feel at home in the [B]lack community” (Wax). Thus, gentrification in Anacostia is partially due to wealthy, educated Black incomers who are likely seeking to live in the Black cultural hub of Washington, D.C. In this way, Anacostia flips the typical narrative of displacement. While gentrification is pushing Black and Latinx residents out of the area, this is happening at far lower rates than comparable examples of gentrification elsewhere. This indicates that Black people must also be moving into the area to compensate for displacement.
Here, it is essential to acknowledge that while young Black professionals are moving into Anacostia and contributing to rising prices, they are not necessarily destroying the culture of Anacostia. Many assume there are significant differences in the values of original Anacostia residents and those moving into the area due to differences in wealth. The reality is that many newcomers stay involved with the Anacostia community and culture. In Charles Wilson’s case, this meant running for local office and starting the Historic Anacostia Block Association (Wax). Dr. Courtney Davis, another young Black newcomer, wrote the children’s book “A is for Anacostia” to change local kids’ perceptions about the area (Wax). From these examples, some Black newcomers are involved in cultural preservation and revitalization in Anacostia, despite indirectly raising prices. Still, while the historically Black culture of Anacostia may continue to thrive, other long-term residents may be threatened with displacement. This could, in turn, outweigh the efforts of incomers trying to preserve local culture. Furthermore, while the percentage of White incomers to Anacostia is small, it is real. In coming years, the White population will likely continue to increase in Anacostia, as in other areas like Harlem, which could further damage the town’s cultural heritage.
One part of this increasing White population in Anacostia is federal involvement, yet another factor that sets Anacostia’s gentrification apart. In areas like New York City, gentrification is related to local offices; many New Yorkers are keenly aware of historic power brokers like Robert Moses and Michael Bloomberg, who both used controversial housing politics to increase city wealth. With Bloomberg, this took the form of land use rezoning and so-called revitalization. According to the NYC Budget Office, Bloomberg’s rezoning caused a 250% increase in average rent between 1996 and 2006 (Penner). Bloomberg’s housing politics (along with Robert Moses’s infamous urban planning) ushered in an era of gentrification. However, after Bloomberg’s term ended in 2013, Bill de Blasio took power and worked to undo Bloomberg’s policies (Pitofsky). Yes, mayoral politics are volatile, but they are also localized and temporary. These shifts in the local politics of other cities contrast sharply with the scene in Anacostia, which the federal government shapes.
Federal involvement in D.C. is exemplified by current federal defense funding. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal dollars have been pouring into D.C. According to Jeannette Chapman, director of George Mason University’s Fuller Institute, federal procurement more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 (Chapman qtd. in Gathright). These increasing contracts were signed largely in the D.C. area. According to an article by Jenny Gathright, an economic reporter in Washington, the “Department of Homeland Security spent more than $37 billion on contracts in the D.C. region,” ten times more than the same department spends in any other city (Gathright). Despite plentiful job opportunities through the federal government, D.C. remains one of the most inequitable cities in the United States. Government contractors—77% of whom are White—typically make an income double the average household income of a Black family in D.C. (“Government Contractor Demographics”). Thus, increased federal defense spending in D.C. is directly related to local wage gaps, contributing to gentrification.
Of course, these funding increases relate to the broader city of D.C., but the federal government has also involved itself in local Anacostia affairs. For example, the U.S. government plans to build a $600 million office center in the middle of Anacostia, a development that could drastically change the area’s demographics. This office center will serve as the nation’s Department of General Services (DGS) headquarters. Despite its potential to bolster the local economy, this development will likely hurt residents. Instead of providing new jobs to the area, the DGS is planning to “bring approximately 700 [government] employees into the neighborhood,” thus relocating existing jobs instead of employing new people from Anacostia (Moncrief). A change like this would affect the area’s demographic because DGS employees make an average of $82 thousand per year, double the salary of those living there (“Average Salary”). Moving government jobs like this to Anacostia may incentivize high-wage workers to move there. Moreover, even if federal employees choose not to move to the area, they may buy lunch or go shopping near their workplace, unintentionally raising the cost of living there due to market demand. Thus, Anacostia’s gentrification is unique in its inseparable ties to the federal government.
Of course, some will argue that D.C. was created for this exact purpose. While other cities are residential, Washington, D.C., is a government city. Thus, these results, such as federal defense funding or offices, are only natural. However, we must recognize that D.C. has always been a hub for Black culture. Since 1900, D.C. has been home to the most significant percentage of African Americans in any city in the nation (McQuirter). This was partially due to more accessible and less discriminatory educational opportunities such as Howard University and the city’s first public high school, the “Preparatory School for Colored Youth.” These systems allowed D.C.’s Black community to grow in size and power, using educational leverage to get government jobs. However, this culture of persistence in education may fade away with gentrification. For the first time in 2015, Black residents did not produce most of D.C.’s population (Hudson). Yes, D.C. is a government city but it is also a historical symbol of the Black struggle, culture, and power. Federally-endorsed gentrification is culturally diluting Washington, D.C.
As D.C. continues to develop, the vibrant cultural hub of Anacostia may fall into the hands of gentrification, furthering the destruction of Black culture rather than preserving a valuable location of Black history. To combat these rising stakes, we must first recognize the unique characteristics causing gentrification in Anacostia. When looking at environmental policy in D.C., this investigation has shown how green development and river cleanup have increased the cost of living in Anacostia. While the ecological benefits of such policies seem nice initially, we must recognize the danger they pose to low-income residents fearing displacement and the fact that total pollution may increase due to green development. Second, we evaluated the significance of young, Black professionals moving into Anacostia. While many remain involved in Anacostia’s neighborhood community, these incomers are still indirectly raising prices in the area, thus ushering in the potential displacement of low-income residents. Finally, we discussed how gentrification in Anacostia and D.C. relates to federal action rather than the typical local politics shaping land use. With this, it is crucial to recognize that while D.C. is our nation’s capital, it is also a Black cultural and historical hub that we must protect from extreme federal involvement causing gentrification. To tackle these unique causes of gentrification, the city of D.C. will need to find unique and dynamic solutions that protect the historic district of Anacostia from rising costs, rents, and potential displacement.
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About the Author
Rhianna (Reese) Dains is a rising sophomore with plans to major in Computer Science and Creative Writing. Reese enjoys performing standup comedy in her spare time and hopes to direct a show for Fordham’s Experimental Theater Club. Thanks for reading, and that’s a wrap!