DC Displacement of the Poor: They Do What They Can Get Away With

Cross-Posted from Sociology in My Neighborhood: DC Ward Six
Written by Johanna Bockman

As many of you know, there is much discussion about the future of the DC General homeless shelter. This morning, the Post’s Petula Dvorak stated, “Developers are salivating over D.C. General. It’s a huge property with plenty of potential. So there’s no question that it will be shut down and sold. That part of the plan no one is worried about.” Mayor Gray is rightly calling to rehouse those at the DC General shelter before closing it, but his plan is based on an unfounded belief that private apartment owners will now come forward and house the hundreds of families at DC General at rents far below market rates. Thus, in the interests of “salivating” developers, hundreds of homeless people are going to be displaced again? DC General is District property and could be renovated, maybe even employing homeless or near-homeless workers, if the District wanted to do so. However, developers and homeowners in the area are working hard for the “revitalization” of the DC General area, which they see as requiring the removal of their homeless neighbors. The deterioration of DC General is required as proof of the need for “revitalization.”

Photo by Empower DC

A few weeks ago, I went to a great panel discussion, “Racism in the New DC,” organized by Empower DC, which spoke to these issues from a very refreshing perspective. The speakers were three public housing residents working to maintain public housing and public schools in DC (Marlece Turner, D. Bell, and Shannon Smith), as well as Dr. Sabiyha Prince (the author of African Americans and Gentrification in Washington, DC), Ron Hampton (a former police officer and activist against police abuse), and Post columnist Courtland Milloy.

The main takeaway from the panel discussion was that institutional racism (not individual racist people but a racist system) works based on the idea that brown and black people do not deserve as good things as white people do. Improvements in the city are made for white people both because they often have more money and also because they are seen as deserving better things, like better schools and better services.

I asked the panel about a recent Post article that had said that, “Almost 10 years after the District vowed to assure low-income residents in four areas that they wouldn’t be displaced if their neighborhoods were revitalized,” the District decided that this was “overly optimistic.” The District was considering a policy change to “no longer guarantee that residents have a right to stay in their neighborhoods, and the promise that existing public housing won’t be demolished until a new building is constructed to replace it would be abandoned.” Empower DC and others have been warning people about these false promises for some time.

So, I asked the panel, is this a new policy? or is this a statement of what the District was already doing? Courtland Milloy immediately said, “They do what they can get away with.” He explained that, when District officials made these promises, they had to to make their redevelopment plans and the destruction of public housing palatable. Earlier, Milloy had stated that we need to acknowledge institutional racism and that these “revitalization” policies are in the interest of property owners and not in the interests of the homeless and other poor DC residents.

How can we change the situation in which “They do what they can get away with”? As a start, we might recognize that the journalist’s statement “So there’s no question that it [DC General] will be shut down and sold. That part of the plan no one is worried about” is not a statement of fact but rather a statement supported by those who are interested in this outcome and “can get away with” it. It is a political statement in the battle over space in the District. The next step would be to support a range of policies, including permanent public housing and permanent affordable housing in the District.

The Fight For Ivy City

Cross-Posted From Street Sense
Written by Eric Falquero

Ivy CityThree children race through the intersection of Providence and Capitol streets NE. Two kids ride scooters and one is on a bike. An oncoming taxi stops short.

Danger seen, crisis averted.

But traffic pollution poses a more insidious threat to neighborhood health, local activists say. And it is proving harder to stop than a hurrying cab.

In  the low-income community where many residents already suffer from respiratory ailments, the Ivy City Civic Association (ICCA) is fighting to keep the city from opening a  new tour bus parking lot. The neighborhood is hemmed in by busy New York Ave.NE as well as  train yards, warehouses and city vehicle lots. And advocates worry the increased fumes from the charter buses will only make health problems worse.

“We can’t just let you come in and kill us,” says ICCA president Alicia Swanson-Canty, 40, who has spent her whole life in Ivy City. She worries that current pollution levels in the neighborhood are taking a particularly heavy toll on elders, including her mother.

On December 10, 2012, Superior Court Judge Judith Macaluso buoyed the advocates in their fight against city hall.  She ruled that city officials violated the law when they moved forward with plans for the bus depot  without getting the required input from the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) or doing a mandated environmental review.

But now, the Ivy City activists are bracing for the next round of their battle.

City Mayor Vincent Gray is appealing the ruling and his day in court is is scheduled for Sept. 17. The office of the mayor would offer no comment for this story, except to say the city is pursuing the requirements specified in the injunction.

Advocates hope the December ruling will stand. And they hope for more.  Their ultimate goal is seeing the former Alexander Crummell School, where the bus lot is proposed, transformed into a community or recreation center that could offer resources that are now in short supply such as a safe play area for kids and adult education classes.

Historic Photo of Crummell School - courtesy of Empower DC

“If they’re trying to make this a community, we need a rec,” said Ivy City resident Juice Williams, age 39. “We don’t need buses, we nee

d something productive: job training, GED classes…”

His fellow resident Nate Wales and David Hayes agreed that a community center would be a haven for children like the ones they had just watched cross the street in front of the taxi.dents Nat

“They’re not doing anything but chasing each other in the same circles,” Wales says of the kids.

Hayes could not help but compare the lack of services in Ivy City to the resources in other neighborhoods. “Brentwood has a work program, Rosedale has a rec, Edgewood has a rec…”

Wales added that the presence of a juvenile detention center does not send a hopeful message to young people. “There’s nothing to do, but they’re ready for you when you get destructive.”

Swanson-Canty said she believes that workforce development programs could help both longtime residents and men staying at the New York Avenue Shelter, which is also located in the neighborhood. She pointed out that the city has been promising a community center to Ivy City for years.

“Just give us what you said you would,” said Swanson-Canty. Most recently the city’s 2006 comprehensive economic development plan called for a community center and additional green space in Ivy City.

To Read The Entire Article CLICK HERE

In Fight For Deals, Developers Make Well-Timed Campaign Contributions

Cross-post from WAMU
by Julie Patel and Patrick Maden

No. 3 in the series:  Deals for Developers, Cash for Campaigns


Construction on the Marriott Marquis Convention Center Hotel on June 6, 2012. (Flickr photo by thisisbossi)

Seven years ago, during D.C.’s real estate boom, the District asked developers to submit proposals to build on public land in the Southwest waterfront area.

Dozens of developers lined up for a shot, forming 17 development teams in early 2006. They could potentially score the land and receive other subsidies but they’d have to provide affordable housing and meet other criteria.

That’s why controversy emerged when the winning team later wanted to relax affordable housing requirements.

What most people didn’t know is that months before the city’s economic development committee approved scaling back the affordable housing, five of the companies on the development team made nine campaign contributions, on the same day, to the chairman of the committee, then-Council Member Kwame Brown. The council approved the plan shortly after the committee vote.

A WAMU investigation found a dozen developers donated the most the year their subsidy was approved. In addition, the investigation identified ten cases in which campaign contributions were recorded as being made on the same day, to a single candidate, by three or more developers working jointly on subsidized projects. In some cases, the subsidies were proposed or approved around the same time.

Two of the 110 projects examined that received the largest subsidies — the Wharf and the convention center hotel — are among those with developers contributing on the same day and around the time legislation was proposed or approved.

“The timing of a contribution is important,” said Sheila Krumholz, with the Center for Responsive Politics. “There have been times when contributions have come in right around a vote, before a vote. That might be a kind of carrot. There might also be an element of reward if a vote is taken that favors a special interest or donor.”

The investigation also found 133 groups donated more than $2.5 million in campaign cash and received $1.7 billion in subsidies over the past decade

“Trust is undermined if money is being exchanged with patterns like the ones [WAMU has] discovered. It gives rise to reasonable suspicions,” said Dennis Thompson, a political philosophy professor at Harvard and director of the university’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. “Is the subsidy going to the right person?”

CLICK HERE to read the whole story and listen to the podcast.

Million-Dollar Properties, $1 Deals

Cross-posted from WAMU
by Patrick Madden

No. 2 in the series:  Deals for Developers, Cash for Campaignsone dollar development deals pic

Few developers were better at winning D.C.’s taxpayer-owned real estate than Blue Skye Construction and Donatelli Development. The two firms have won or partnered on a quarter of the land deals since 2008, a total of five projects that span the city.

The appraised value of all this public land, according to city records: $17.5 million.

The price paid by the developers to the city, a little more than a parking ticket: $88.

one dollar development deals

* Blue Skye’s owner Scottie Irving said his firm Blue Skye Construction was contracted for the project but is no longer involved.

The District government has given away more than $200 million of taxpayer-owned land to private developers over the past five years. The city sold or leased these surplus properties at deeply discounted prices. The firms winning these deals are required to build affordable housing and hire local businesses.

A WAMU investigation found that these properties often ended up in the hands of politically connected developers who donated handsomely to local campaigns, and the jobs promised by developers sometimes went to individuals with political ties to city officials.

CLICK HERE to read the whole story and listen to the podcast.


Major Campaign Donors Score Hefty City Subsidies

Cross-posted from WAMU
by Julie Patel and Patrick Madden

Tax-related subsidies increased 24-fold. Data from D.C.’s Office of Revenue Analysis.

Tax-related subsidies increased 24-fold. Data from D.C.’s Office of Revenue Analysis.

No. 1 in the series:  Deals for Developers, Cash for Campaigns

CLICK HERE to Listen to the podcast.

A historic mansion in Georgetown, a downtown office building flipped for a record profit and luxury apartments with a car elevator, a block from the White House.

These are among the developments in D.C. receiving tax breaks and discounted public land.

A WAMU investigation found the city awarded $1.7 billion in subsidies to 133 groups in the past decade — and more than a third of the subsidies went to ten developers that donated the most campaign cash over that time. Meanwhile, a fraction of the subsidies went to the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“By a lot of metrics the District is … the hottest real estate market” in the country, said Tommy Cafcas of Good Jobs First, an economic subsidies watchdog. “So why does the city need to be giving out all of these tax breaks to these major developers?”

On paper, the District has low campaign finance limits: From $500 for most council races to $2,000 for mayoral campaigns. In practice, developers can “bundle” donations through employees, family members and by writing multiple checks to a single candidate through limited liabilities and other affiliates.

Some of the developers said they donate to be civically engaged — not to win favors.

Likewise, city officials said they approve projects not to boost their campaign coffers but because developers pledge affordable housing, jobs and other benefits for taxpayers. But the promises often aren’t enforced, or the subsidies simply weren’t needed.

And what began as a targeted economic development tool, now looks to some like government handouts run amok.

WAMU’s investigation involved examining thousands of pages of city documents on 110 developments receiving city subsidies in the past decade, 133 groups benefiting from the subsidies and campaign contributions for council, mayoral and other local races over that time. It found:

* Groups receiving subsidies donated more than $2.5 million in campaign cash.
* The ten developers that donated the most were on development teams that benefit from $641 million – or more than a third of all the subsidies examined.
* Nearly half of the donors had multiple affiliates donating and 19 had at least 10.
* Less than 5 percent of the subsidies were for projects in wards 7 and 8 — the city’s poorest areas with a fourth of the population.
* A dozen developers spent the most campaign cash the year their subsidy was approved and there were 10 dates in which three or more companies developing a project together donated to a single candidate on the same day.

“This is, of course, pay to play politics in gory detail,” Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University, said after reviewing WAMU’s findings. “I doubt that anyone was so stupid as to be explicit about what was being traded…More likely [the trading] is done with quiet understanding about what is expected of people who want a subsidy.”

Cain added that most D.C. residents “lack both the means and the motive” to donate hefty sums of campaign cash: “This is about a system that forces elected officials to raise private money and the people with the most motivation to give are the people who get direct benefits from the system such as subsidies.”

CLICK HERE to read the rest of the article at WAMU.