If the District of Columbia were interested in solely moving people more efficiently across the city, a program of robust bus service would suffice. In fact, Metro’s X2 bus line already serves H Street NE, soon to be the home of the first 2.5 miles of a planned 37-mile streetcar network crisscrossing the District.
The fixed rail transit system expected to open service later this year is designed to accelerate the growth of mixed-use development (office, retail, and housing) along the H Street and Benning Road corridor, spurring billions in economic benefits.
But who will benefit the most? The people who reside along H Street now, or newcomers able to afford the rising real estate prices in another of D.C.’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods? And is the D.C. streetcar program an answer to urban poverty, or will it simply push out those who cannot afford to live in the new H Street corridor to another neighborhood that has yet to gentrify?
One Sign Says It All
Take a walk down the bustling commercial corridor and you will see the gentrification happening right before your eyes. At H and 11th streets, construction workers are putting up condominiums, a project that was on the books for about two years before the building started.
A sign posted above the construction site advertises the condo sale prices: $300,000 and up.
“I think that is sticker shock for a lot of people,” said Don Edwards, the head of Justice and Sustainability Associates, who was hired by the District to serve as a liaison and mediator between the largely African-American community along H Street and Benning Road and the D.C. government.
“But the people who can pay that kind of mortgage here, they will also spend that kind of money on services,” he added.
Therein lies the reason why gentrification, in the words of George Washington University real estate expert Chris Leinberger, is “either the most beloved or the most hated word in the English language.”
If the coming streetcar system accelerates H Street’s transformation as District planners envision, new grocery stores, retail outlets, restaurants and high-rent apartment complexes will rise. Quality of life will improve — for those who can afford to stay. Those who cannot will lose out on the positive changes.
When Edwards began working on the project, he encountered long-time residents who did not believe the streetcar was meant for them. They viewed the status of their neighborhood and personal living conditions as “directly related to their skin color.”
“There is resentment that you hear expressed in different ways and using different code words that says, now there are going to be better services and better options because white folks are moving into the neighborhood,” Edwards said.
“They feel in many ways the conditions in which they’ve lived for a long time are because they weren’t considered worthy of better services and attention.”
Edwards said it took time to convince people the streetcar would serve everyone, not just the gentrifiers.
“Seeing is believing. When you haven’t seen anything, when you haven’t seen cranes and you haven’t seen new development, how do you begin to believe?” Edwards said. “So here years ago you could make the legitimate statement this can’t be for us, it can’t be for me. But millions of dollars are being invested and it is for you.”
Not Everyone is Convinced
Eric Bowe has been living off Benning Road for decades. For the past several years the 51-year-old African-American resident has gotten used to seeing streetcar tracks embedded in the asphalt, wondering when the actual streetcars would start running. He is not excited about their pending arrival.
“They are going to push everybody out of D.C. They can’t afford to live in D.C. I don’t know where they are going to send us.”
Bowe spends $600 per month on rent. He does not anticipate many of the new apartments and condominiums will be as affordable. “They are going to be closing a lot of [the existing buildings] down, especially those apartments further down. They are going to knock them down and put up new development, and just push everybody out. It is really not fair,” Bowe said in an interview along H Street.
Inside Taste of Jamaica, a restaurant at the corner H and Sixth streets, manager Marcia Anderson is not quite sure whether the newcomers will be interested in her cuisine.
“You hear some people talk about it. They say, ‘I moved out into Maryland because I can’t afford to pay my rent anymore,’” Anderson said. “So we have customers that used to come here on a daily basis. We don’t even see them anymore because most of them have moved out of the area.”
Are these fears justified? Edwards, the social justice activist, believes they are, but a negative outcome is not inevitable.
“A lot of people have grown up with residential segregation in every American city. The District is no different. Now… people are having to deal with living next door to people who don’t look like us. That is more than just a thought change. That’s a reality change,” he said.
“Let’s face it. We are all human beings. We all put our pants on one leg at a time. I think most people in this corridor and most people in these neighborhoods are going to step up to this challenge of adapting to this change,” Edwards added.
Streetcars = Rising Rents
A study by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University determined that neighborhoods with new rail transit systems experience a significant increase in housing prices. In some places, renters and low-income households were priced out of the market.
D.C. economic policy officials have tools to ensure adequate affordable units are built among the pricier rental apartments along H Street NE, according to Peter Tatian, a researcher at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.
“They do need to be concerned about people who have limited means and are relying on housing that is affordable to them, continuing to be there for years to come,” he said. “The city really needs to be proactive in terms of taking steps to try to preserve as much affordability along these routes as possible.”
Tatian points to a report authored by the National Housing Trust and other groups that analyzed case studies in Washington, Atlanta, Denver and Seattle. In D.C. a mandatory inclusionary zoning law passed in 2009, requiring residential development near transit to include affordable units, is listed among the tools the District has as its disposal to limit the negative consequences of gentrification.
The report notes the example of the Columbia Heights Metro station, where “land disposition agreements required a minimum of 20 percent affordable housing on all seven subject parcels.”
“It’s a very important issue,” said Tatian. “We do have a divided city in a lot of ways, divided economically and divided racially.”
Better to Own in a Gentrifying Neighborhood
While renters have reason to fear rising rents, homeowners may welcome gentrification. The median price of a single family home in the neighborhoods around the streetcar corridor is $500,000, Tatian said. That figure may increase if the streetcar has its desired effect.
“Research shows that poor people will benefit, too, from new economic opportunities, better schools and safer streets, but all of that is contingent on them being able to stay there. That is why the housing piece is so critical here,” he added.
George Washington University’s Leinberger, who once was an active real estate developer, also points to studies that show gentrification can benefit more people than it displaces.
“The academic studies are counterintuitive to the common perception of the effects of gentrification. There is less mobility in gentrified neighborhoods than in non-gentrified neighborhoods. People stay. Obviously it tends to be the homeowners that stay,” Leinberger said.
“They stay because the quality of life has gone up. Their home values are going up. And they want to live in a place that has a grocery store that is within walking distance. They have more retail opportunities.”
“There are definitely winners and losers,” Leinberger added. “It is incumbent upon the city and their affordable housing strategy that they have just adopted to implement a strategy along H Street to deal with the unaffordable or increasingly unaffordable rental stock.”
Change is Coming
For residents like Eric Bowe and restaurant managers like Marcia Anderson, the streetcar tracks signal an unsettling future.
“They are going to have to do something to raise the minimum wage or something, to get people more money so they can afford this stuff,” Bowe said. “If they are going to go up on the rent, let people be able to afford to pay it.”
For Don Edwards, the District foresees the challenges in preserving an economically diverse neighborhood. It is a question of priorities.
“It is not as if it is sneaking up on us and it is not as if we have a government that is clueless about this,” he said. “What will keep the diversity is a suite of policies to make it possible for people to be helped to succeed. That is where the game is going to be won.”
“Residents will discover that people may look different, talk different, whatever, but they just want the same good schools they want for their children," he said. "They want to keep their property, just like yours. They want to be able to walk to the grocery store or the barber shop, just like you do. They just want the same things.”