COMM-ORG Papers 2013, Volume 19

Equitable Development Comes to DC

By Dominic T. Moulden and Gregory D. Squires

 Republished with permission from the Fall 2012 issue of Social Policy

Equitable development has become a buzzword in urban revitalization debates as community organizations across the U.S. are pursuing alternatives to traditional market-oriented, developer-driven projects.  Rather than focusing on profit maximization and returns to investors, these initiatives target a "triple bottom line": 1) the interests of the business community including the needs of local employers, 2) fairness in the treatment of employees, and 3) sustainability to protect and enhance the resources (human and others) in responding to an array of social and environmental needs of cities.

With the assistance of progressive advocacy research organizations like PolicyLink in Oakland, Demos in New York City, and Good Jobs First in Washington, D.C, these urban redevelopment activities address the mutual concerns of employers, employees, and the environment.  ONE DC (Organizing Neighborhood Equity DC), serving the District's Shaw neighborhood, has become one of the most concrete manifestations of the burgeoning equitable development movement in the U.S.protest sign:  Fight for Our Right To Housing

Shaw has become a very hot real estate market in Northwest D.C. in recent years.  Located north of M Street and south of Florida Avenue between North Capital and 7th, Shaw was a center of D.C.'s Black Renaissance from the 1920s through the 1940s where Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and other notable African Americans lived.  The violence and civil disobedience of the 1960s cost the community many of its businesses and residents, and few chose to move into the area for decades.  But in the nineties, Shaw, like many other neighborhoods close to downtown central business districts in cities across the country, began to see an influx of new residents, many of whom did not look like most current or former residents.

Since 1990 the black population of Shaw dropped from eighty-nine to fifty-four percent of neighborhood residents as the share of whites grew from six to twenty- eight percent.  Hispanics increased their share from three to eight percent while the Asian population grew from two to seven percent.  Not only is the population paler, it is becoming richer.  Median family income grew from $21,212 to $65,162.  Such gentrification many with ONE DC prefer the term "displacement" is not unique to this community.  The District generally, including several longtime distressed neighborhoods, has become whiter and wealthier.  But Shaw is one where local residents have organized in efforts to ensure that they benefit from and are not displaced by development activities.

By engaging in what ONE DC refers to as "participatory democracy," this membership-led organization is confronting several powerful private and public entities to protect residents' interests.  Its strategy, as stated on the organization's web page, is one where "people within movements for social change, those directly affected by the issues, make the decisions related to the campaign or movement; minimize hierarchy within their organization to maximize shared power and equity of voice; and utilize direct action as an effective means to compel decision- makers to implement decisions made by the community."

The overarching goal is not simply reform but institutional change and social transformation.  This is not some vague call to arms.  There are specific objectives including, again from the web page, "human rights to affordable housing, living wage jobs, and equitable development." Four recent campaigns are illustrative.

As a precursor of things to come, eight years ago ONE DC organized Kelsey Gardens, tenants in fifty-four units (at 7th and P) who were about to be displaced by a church planning to redevelop the property it owned, usurping the residents' first right to purchase their property.  Tenants were educated about their rights to purchase their homes and, with legal assistance from Bread for the City and the law firm of Hogan & Hartson, won the rights to affordable housing at the same location for the next fifty years, a $250,000 cash settlement distributed among the tenants, and $10,000 each for relocation costs.protest sign:  Property of the Shaw Community

Foreshadowing the Occupy Wall Street movement, in 2010 ONE DC and other supportive civic groups built a tent city and occupied a development site (Parcel 42, 7th and Rhode Island Avenue) in protest of the District's refusal to implement an affordable housing plan to which it had previously agreed.  For two months more than 200 residents camped out in the tents.  In response, Councilmember Michael Brown who serves as the Chair of the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, where he is keenly focused on job readiness and housing opportunities for DC residents, visited the encampment at tent city.  Mr. Brown met with ONE DC and then proposed the "Increase in Housing Affordability Act of 2011." The legislation would set up a funding structure bringing government supported  affordable- housing projects more in line with the District's needs by setting goals based on median income levels of District residents ($60,902 in 2010) rather than the much higher median for the metropolitan area ($106,100) which has been used previously.  The end result would be more affordable housing for more low-income residents of Washington DC.

Specifically the bill requires that for all funds the District allocates for affordable housing development:

This will not solve the District's affordable housing problem, but it would be an important step in the right direction.

In conjunction with the labor organization  UNITE HERE, the transgender rights group DC Trans Coalition, and other supporters, ONE DC is recruiting and training neighborhood residents for 500 jobs with the Marriott Marquis Hotel project, currently under construction on the site of the former Convention Center at 9th and Massachusetts Avenue.  As required by the New Convention Center Hotel Omnibus Financing and Development Act of 2006, qualified D.C. residents will be given first consideration for these jobs.  ONE DC is working with many area residents who are seeking jobs, several of whom are often difficult  to place including ex- offenders and former substance abusers, in efforts  to bring jobs and economic opportunities to communities most in need.

Perhaps its most significant victory was the community benefits agreement ONE DC signed with two local developers, Ellis Enterprises and Four Points, for the redevelopment of Progression Place at 7th and S.  In return for the community group's support for the project with the D.C. government, the developers made several commitments. They agreed to set aside 2,000 square feet of retail space to be made available at below market rates for five years. Hiring goals call for fifty-one percent of new hires to be D.C. residents. So far sixty-two jobs have been created, with forty-five going to D.C. residents including seventeen to residents of D.C. public-housing complexes.  And a $750,000 community benefits fund was created for investments to be made for services to be determined by area residents.  Initially these funds are earmarked for a range of community-based initiatives that include Shaw youth after school programs and support for Shaw-based tenant organizations.

Community advocacy groups in several cities across the country -  including New Haven, Pittsburgh, Denver, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and many others - are using the community benefits model to negotiate developments that facilitate meeting the triple bottom line. ONE DC and Washington, D.C, are hardly alone.

None of this comes easy.  Housing affordability persists as a major impediment for working families who would like to live in the District, even with the set-asides ONE  DC has negotiated.  ONE DC faces challenges in recruiting and training workers for the jobs at the Marriott.  And the absence of legally binding requirements in the community benefits agreement has made it more difficult to achieve all the objectives.  But ONE DC and its supporters are beginning to change the way developers, city officials, and residents understand and practice community development in the nation's capital.

Equitable development principles hardly dominate urban and metropolitan economic revitalization today. But these ideas are increasingly creeping into development policy and practice.  "Smart growth," "sustainable development," and other innovative approaches incorporate equitable development ideas. Whether ONE DC becomes a transformative agency for institutional change in D.C. remains to be seen.  But it certainly bears watching.

About the Authors

Dominic  T. Moulden is the resource organizer of  ONE DC.  Gregory D.  Squires is a professor of sociology at George Washington  University.