Black family with two children moving into a new house and carrying labeled cardboard boxes.
Image credit: Ridofranz on

This is the fifth article in NPQ’s series, The Vision for Black Lives: An Economic Justice Agenda. Co-produced with the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), this series will examine the many ways that M4BL and its allies are seeking to address the economic policy challenges that lie at the intersection of the struggle for racial and economic justice.

Sitting at the local offices of ONE DC, a grassroots organization located in Washington, DC’s Shaw neighborhood—ONE stands for “Organizing Neighborhood Equity”—a resident and leader of the local housing organization shared her concerns about residents being “paid off” to vacate their homes to make way for a real estate developer’s project. “It’s so hard trying to convince them not to take the money that’s offered,” she said.

Knowing that residents are, in many cases, struggling to stay afloat and take care of their immediate needs, it’s not far-fetched that some would make that decision in the context of the harsh economic realities that they face.

The nation’s capital, as has been noted in NPQ, is a leading node in the struggle against gentrification. And it is to the efforts of ONE DC in this context to which I turn now.

The Scope of the Housing Crisis

Black people and people of color are the most vulnerable to the housing crisis.

Housing markets may be local, but the crisis in housing affordability extends far beyond Washington, DC. Throughout the United States, the housing crisis is more evident than ever, indicated by record homelessness numbers and the sky-high cost of rent.

Rising housing costs are driven by many factors, including the plethora of private-equity-backed firms buying up existing housing stock, the proliferation of short-term rentals (which reduces the supply of long-term housing, raising its cost), and the “algorithmic cruelty” embodied in companies using software algorithms to determine the highest possible rent and discouraging landlords from negotiating rents with tenants.

Since the onset of the pandemic, and particularly over the last two years, housing affordability and the skyrocketing rates of people who are unhoused has loomed front and center in many of the struggles of grassroots organizations. Housing affordability is the lowest the National Association of Home Builders has seen since it began tracking the numbers over a decade ago. Home prices rose 20.6 percent from March 2021 to March 2022, and the nationwide median price of a new single-family home was a record $416,000 at the end of the second quarter of 2023. According to the National Association of Realtors, middle-income buyers can only afford 23 percent of available listings.

In 2020, 30 percent of all households had “unaffordable” rent or mortgage payments, defined as exceeding 30 percent of monthly household income. This is up 1.5 percent from 2019. More than one in seven households paid over half of their income on housing. Cost burdens rose most for those earning between $30,000 and $45,000: an increase of 4.2 percent, and for Black households, 2.4 percent.

In March 2022, 10.4 million adult renters reported that they were not caught up on rent. Emergency Rental Assistance funding provided through pandemic relief legislation helped at least 5.7 million households pay rental and other utilities debt accumulated during the pandemic, but this support has begun to run out.

Overall, Black people and people of color are the most vulnerable to the housing crisis. Nearly 40 percent of those who experienced homelessness in 2020 were Black, and 23 percent were Latinx, far above these groups’ shares of the US population (13 and 18 percent, respectively).

As noted above, algorithmic cruelty is making this situation worse. Last year, ProPublica published a story that exposed Texas-based company RealPage’s software called YieldStar—a proprietary program many believe has contributed to high rent costs. According to ProPublica’s investigation, the YieldStar software collects lease transaction data from its clients for more than 13 million units across the country. Every day the software recommends a new price for every available unit by drawing from competitor data on the actual rent tenants pay. RealPage is also alleged to host convenings of competitors to talk about this data, indicating potential industry collusion.

Fighting Back

YieldStar is just the latest example of technology touted as “innovative,” but that creates cruel outcomes—particularly for low-income people. In the housing context, the consequences include eviction and homelessness. Organizations like ONE DC have been at the frontlines of this fight for years. Using popular education, promotion of sustainable employment, and the incubation of community-owned businesses as critical tools, they have seen both the pain of the housing crisis and the power of direct organizing to challenge and halt displacement.

When local company MidCity Financial planned to tear down and redevelop four buildings in the Shaw community known as Heritage, ONE DC exposed the fact that MidCity had used shady tactics to forcibly move 32 families out of the buildings. ONE DC then launched a campaign that included testifying at Zoning Commission hearings and obtaining official status with the commission, which meant they’d be notified of any updates to the property, and the commission would be required to address their concerns in writing. They built new relationships with tenants and laid the groundwork to secure right of return for tenants at the property. All of this has made it more difficult for MidCity to attempt to use the same tactics at other properties they are looking to obtain. This is the level of organizing and action that has become essential to beat back not only diminishing affordable housing but predatory developers looking to displace residents.

Dr. Rosemary Ndubuizu, assistant professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University, is an interdisciplinary scholar who studies how housing policies are shaped by race, gender, political economy, and ideology. She also serves as part of the Shared Leadership Team at ONE DC.

Ndubuizu shared some challenges that Black organizers face in the fight against displacement, especially as they seek to meet the material needs of Black populations through mutual aid and other means to provide needed services to unhoused people. As workaround mutual aid and cooperatives have progressed, the landscape has shifted, but not enough: “There is a progressive veneer but then very little substance in terms of infrastructure and actual investment in that progressive Black movement,” Ndubuizu said.

One of the biggest challenges going forward is the possibility of residents being seduced by the logic of capital….Housing is core to that.

“DC has a long history of tenant activism but so many of the victories of tenant activism—rent control, limited equity co-ops—are now being controlled by a lot of White professionals,” Ndubuizu continued. “What that does is that effectively neutralizes political strength because you make Black people into clients for the most part and you’re not thinking in terms of movement building.”

As a result, Ndubuizu said, many of the “professional class” working in these spaces become gatekeepers and even present barriers to radical and innovative interventions developed by the people who are directly impacted by the housing crisis.

“You almost have to push them [the professionals] sometimes. Your job is to realize the vision of the tenants and if the tenants are saying something that isn’t in alignment, your job is to unpack and advocate [to change conditions in their favor].” Ndubuizu said.

Fortunately, Ndubuizu added that other groups like Right to the City, a national coalition of about 90 community-based organizations building grassroots power to halt gentrification and displacement, focus on building movement as a core value. “They’re focused on a movement vision, and not just a ‘what’s possible’ vision. Because ‘what’s possible’ is really limited by the commodification of housing.”

Moving Away from a Capitalist Housing Mentality

Getting behind tenant organizations—for example, backing a tenant group willing to do direct action—is what’s needed right now, says Ndubuizu. Much of the organizing now is trying to figure out how to resist within that contradiction of property values rising and the tenant’s desire to derive value from their home. Sometimes, residents will look forward to being bought out, but Ndubuizu contends that the buyout amount is rarely sufficient.

Popularizing the notion that housing is a right for all will require mass political education.

One of the biggest challenges is the possibility of residents being seduced by the logic of capital, which gives money pride of place above all other community values. Housing is core to that. It’s the backbone of how wealth is created for the US working class. That ideological shift, Ndubuizu says, will be huge, especially now.

“Black people have historically been disproportionately represented as renters, but we’ve been socialized to aspire to be homeowners, so we constantly invest in the logic of trying to figure out how to turn our homes into some form of value or capital,” Ndubuizu notes. She contends that this approach, where the preservation of property value is paramount, could lead to a disconnect from the issue of homelessness. And while many may think they are safe from being denied housing, she shares that often landlords will go to great lengths—even using a tenant’s medical debt—to deny them housing.

The good news is that amid the fights against gentrification, predatory developers, powerful software tools, and exploitative landlords, there’s also a chance to change the framing of what it means to be housed and the nature of housing as a fundamental right for all.

Popularizing the notion that housing is a right for all will require mass political education. It will also require increased pressure on elected officials to advance policies that protects tenants, such as legislation at the local or state level that codifies a tenants’ bill of rights or provisions for rent control.

It also requires housing advocates to expose developers who use predatory and dishonest tactics to swindle tenants out of their homes. This requires engagement with municipal zoning boards, attendance at city council meetings, and campaigns to shame these companies when they are found to be engaged in any nefarious activity.

A Movement Vision

Ultimately, centering the needs of tenants and backing tenants’ rights organizations is the way to ensure that progress is driven by and beneficial for a community-based housing justice movement—not just for individuals or a professional service class. This work requires constant engagement, organizing, and advocacy that centers the needs of directly impacted people, and celebrates wins—no matter how small they may seem.

Black-led organizations are demonstrating these organizing strategies as a national election cycle looms in which issues of housing justice and homelessness are front and center. One organizer from Washington, DC, shared with me both frustration and determination as she continues to organize tenants. She acknowledged that developers will continue to buy up land in ways that could displace tenants, but she and other organizers remain undeterred.

For example, organizers are setting forth critical interventions such as pushing to expand rental assistance programs, which are a direct way to benefit individuals and families needing housing support. A 2019 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that expanding rental assistance could drastically reduce racial disparity in housing-related poverty rates. Organizers also are demanding that developers increase multifamily developments and guarantee that developments include affordable units for families with low and extremely low incomes. This has resulted in more participation in zoning commissions and meetings where development decisions are made.

Advocates are also fighting to preserve public housing and land allocated to public housing, establishing community land trusts and housing cooperatives, pushing to expand the Housing Trust Fund, and pushing to expand the capacity of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

They’ll track the tools and tactics used by corporations, real estate developers, and landlords designed to exacerbate displacement. At the same time, these activists are keeping their eye on the prize, transforming not just housing policy but how people think about housing: not as a luxury, but as a fundamental human right.