May 31, 2017; Washington CityPaper
A lack of affordable housing is a pervasive problem in urban areas. Last month, NPQ examined efforts to find the right policies that would effectively lead to developers building new affordable housing stock in our cities. Expanding the base is one part of the answer, but it must be matched with making sure that existing affordable housing is not lost. Recent events in Washington, D.C. illustrate the struggle to protect low-income tenants from losing their housing to the forces of gentrification.
Property owners can see low-income tenants as a barrier to the greater profitability that can come from gentrifying their property. There are legal barriers to just evicting current tenants, but creating vacancies by making a property unlivable or by refusing to accept rental vouchers from tenants needing government help can accomplish that goal. American University professor Derek S. Hyra, who spent six years researching the life cycle of Washington, D.C.’s affordable housing complexes for his book, Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, described this process earlier this year in an interview with Washington CityPaper: “The price for the asset is higher when there are fewer tenants in there…When there becomes more of a population demand for the area, the landlords and the owners are going to look to get out the low-income population that are living in these buildings.”
Recent events in D.C. illustrate how these strategies are employed against the housing interests of low-income tenants and the efforts of nonprofit organizations and local government to restrict profit-seeking by private owners.
For those moving from shelters and other forms of temporary housing into more permanent accommodations, a variety of government-funded programs are available to help with making the difficult transition. In the nation’s capital, a city with rising rent rates, creeping gentrification, and a shortage of affordable housing, organizations like the Equal Rights Center have been aggressively working to ensure that low-income tenants’ rights are respected by property owners. According to the Washington CityPaper, the ERC has recently went to court demanding that a large property management firm accept housing vouchers as they are legally required to do. Their suit claims:
Defendants’ employees and/or agents told an ERC tester and a Housing Counseling Services case manager who called the property that they do not accept any temporary subsidies, including [Supportive Services for Veteran Families Rapid Rehousing Assistance]. [This] policy or practice…therefore constitutes unlawful source of income discrimination….
In a statement issued by ERC explaining its legal strategy, the organization’s executive director, Melvina Ford, wrote, “By filing this action, we hope to put more housing providers on notice that this type of discrimination is illegal and will not be tolerated…many voucher holders are at significant risk of becoming homeless.”
Earlier this year, the Equal Rights Center and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs sued another landlord for similar practices. WLC Executive Director Jonathan Smith issued a statement when that suit was filed, stating, “Source of income discrimination in the District is a pernicious and persistent problem that creates unnecessary and unlawful barriers to meaningful housing choice for Voucher holders and which perpetuates racial and economic segregation. For too long, landlords have refused to rent to Voucher holders, which contravenes the Voucher Program’s goals and makes our communities less integrated and less equitable.”
Keeping vacant units vacant by rejecting possible tenants because of how they will pay their rent may be one strategy for emptying a property. Another is to allow buildings to fall into such disrepair that tenants “voluntarily” choose to leave their homes. The same property owner just sued by ERC for not accepting vouchers is also in battle with District officials over numerous building code violations.
In one housing complex, city inspectors are currently contending with the owner over more numerous building code violations. According to a Washington CityPaper story, “In mid-March, D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs inspected almost 60 units at the property, following an order by Mayor Muriel Bowser to inspect all Sanford properties, and found more than 160 violations of the District’s housing code at Belmont Crossing alone. This amounted to thousands of dollars in possible civil fines. Sanford Capital has appealed all 1,083 housing code violations DCRA found at its properties this year—the equivalent of roughly $540,000 in potential fines.” Issues ran from minor issues with door locks to serious problems like raw sewage and gas leaks.
Efforts to protect existing affordable housing stock are important. ERC is motivated by a vision that recognizes how important stable housing is.
Where you live impacts you and your family’s access to good jobs, high quality education, reliable transportation, healthy food, government services, healthcare and even personal safety. Further, you should be able to seek refuge in your home free from harassment. Housing discrimination interferes with your ability to find a home that meets your needs in a neighborhood that offers opportunity to you and your family. It also reinforces longstanding patterns of segregation that are at the core of American inequality.