Monday, March 22, 2021

Gentrification in Capitol East

On April 3, 1975, Gilda Warnick, Rosetta Byrd, and Marianne Josem of the Capitol East Housing Coalition testified in front of the DC Council about how housing speculation was affecting them and the Capitol East area (here pp. 584-598). They and others had formed the Capitol East Housing Coalition a year earlier to stop the displacement of long-time low and moderate income residents. This displacement was caused by real estate speculation. In Capitol East, tenants were having their homes bought from under them and received eviction notices. Here are some excerpts I found most eye-opening:

Ms. Warnick:...We have found that the number of persons speculating in Capitol East is alarming. Last year, we found that over 60 investment groups, individuals, partnerships, and corporations operate in Capitol East, and since then, the list has grown dramatically

...speculators also benefit from more concealed and hidden real estate practices, such as flipping. Flipping is a process of buying and selling contracts before the property goes to settlement, and in this way, properties are artificially inflated before they enter the real estate market. Several real estate operators have told us about this practice, but it is extremely difficult to document, because the transaction does not appear in official records. 

Another practice is use of straw parties and dummy corporations, which gives speculators anonymity, while assembling real estate and ways of evading taxes. It also makes it difficult to get at the root of the speculation problem, which is the financing...

Those residents I am talking about are people who have literally already bought their homes. They have lived in there 12 or 15 years paying rent. They never had enough money to save up for a down payment or settlement costs. Then when the house is sold, they are given a month's notice to move, having had no time at all to try to purchase a home...

Linden Place NE

Ms. Byrd: My name is Rosetta Byrd, and I am the block captain of Linden Place, Northeast [between 12th and 13th St, south of H St NE]. I came here to tell you today about a housing problem myself and my friends are having because of real estate speculation on our block....Most of us have lived here for many years. We are regarded as low and moderate incomes, and many of us rent. All of a sudden last year, Linden Place became a speculator's market. Sixteen homes were bought up by them west of the park, from Virginia and Maryland. Six of them were bought by Capitol Hill real estate agents...Because of these problems, we on Linden Place decided to organize a block club to help each other to stay in our homes... 

To stop this displacement and "the cancer spreading all over the city," they asked the DC Council to:

  • Give tenants the first opportunity to buy the properties. 
    • With the assistance of "a citywide revolving loan fund, which could be financed from the sale of bonds, and the revenue from the sale of bonds, and the revenue from the passage of taxes on tangible property and professional services."
  • Implement a speculation tax.

The DC Council realized their request with a speculation tax in 1978 and Tenant Opportunity to Purchase (TOPA) in 1980. We know from Katie Wells' work that the the speculation tax was quickly overturned. In the meantime, Rosetta Byrd appeared on a 1978 news segment "Disappearing People," in which "Rosetta Byrd describes her experiences after being evicted and moving from place to place looking for low-income housing she could afford." 

How might we use policies like these (as well as protecting public housing) to help low and moderate income residents stay in DC?

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The world-building of Ms. Comey's granddaughter

 Yesterday, I read a very interesting book review by Petal Samuel in Public Books, one of my favorite sites for reviews of academic books. Professor Samuel is a brilliant scholar in the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She reviewed two books that explore speculative fiction and fugitive science. Her discussion of one of the books -- Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction -- particularly resonated with some recent, local events:

[In Phyllis Alesia Perry’s Stigmata, a novel Schalk analyzes], Perry’s black woman protagonist, Lizzie, is misdiagnosed, institutionalized, and inappropriately medicated because she shares her consciousness with her ancestors. Mental instability is attributed to those who resist white supremacist order and deployed as a way to discredit marginalized perspectives. Put simply, Schalk writes, “race and gender are important factors in who gets labeled mentally disabled and how a person is treated as a result of such a label.”

On Saturday, my partner and I were talking with a neighbor, when I heard someone nearby sobbing. It was the granddaughter of Ms. Melissa Comey [sp?], who had owned the house and Comey Hair Salon near 10th and C Streets, SE. Ms. Comey's granddaughter was reliving her life at that house and the loss of the Comey family home, the dispersal of her family members and community, which were, in her words, "all gone." The sobbing woman's grandmother had sold the house several years ago and her family was forced to leave, but her granddaughter had not abandoned her connections with the neighborhood that gentrification had forced her to leave. She explained that sometimes she forgets that she isn't living anymore in that time or this place. She shared stories with us about playing hopscotch on the sidewalk and parts of the life she lived here. Then she turned the corner and disappeared. To me, her arrival was a gift or maybe a very important message from the past about a different potential future.

A few minutes later, some people involved with helping the homeless approached us to ask where they could find Ms. Comey's granddaughter. They had their own perspective on the situation. They could only see Ms. Comey's granddaughter's sharing of "her consciousness with her ancestors" as mental illness. They wanted to arrange a quick intervention by mental health professionals. They deployed mental illness, in a way Schalk described: "as a way to discredit marginalized perspectives" like hers. 

Whatever mental illness she suffered, Ms. Melissa Comey's granddaughter also showed what Samuel called, "modes of black innovation, creativity, and improvisation in the face of ongoing social, economic, and intellectual oppression" and white supremacist order. She was able to envision and live within another world in which she or her family and neighbors still lived at 10th and C Streets, SE, a world in which she still had a home that her neighbors recognized, a world in which she was not classified as "homeless" and as "mentally ill." Ms. Comey's granddaughter and the many people like her, including the authors of speculative fiction that Samuel discuses, demonstrate "the capacity of black speculation and experimentation to generate world-building visions that are inclusive and sustainable for multiply marginalized black subjects." How many worlds and futures exist or are emerging around us? Are we hearing them or silencing them? Could we step into these worlds we are invited to view and take off into another future?

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Shared Inequalities of DC and Puerto Rico

Back in 2011, I visited Brazil, which was so wonderful and interesting. In a blog post at that time, I looked at its notoriously high Gini index (a conventional measure of income inequality) and compared it with the Gini index of DC and Puerto Rico. According to the Census, “The Gini index varies from 0 to 1, with a 0 indicating perfect equality, where there is a proportional distribution of income. A Gini index of 1 indicates perfect inequality, where one household has all the income.” According to the latest data in 2011 (2009 Census data), DC and Puerto Rico have long had the highest Gini indexes of the entire United States and had similar levels to Brazil.
Last weekend, I visited Puerto Rico, which was so wonderful and interesting. Today I decided to revisit my comparison:

DC Gini



Puerto Rico Gini

Brazil Gini



(I need to fix this table. The years go from 1960 to 2018.) As before, DC and Puerto Rico share exactly the same Gini index, which was .532 (2009 data) and most recently is .542 (2016 data), and which is now above Brazil’s Gini index. You can see that these numbers are very high in the World Bank’s listing of Gini indexes for countries worldwide here. Of course, there are issues with comparing countries, states, and cities, as well as the problems with using measures of income inequality in place of other kinds of inequality. Leaving those aside, what could explain these similar Gini indexes?

Back in 2011, I hypothesized that these high levels of inequality may be due to the fact that both DC and Puerto Rico lack representation in Congress and lack democratic control over parts of their governments. Furthermore, in 1995-2001, DC was subject to Financial Control Board (see its 1995 law here). During this time, there was a large jump in DC’s Gini index from .492 to .549. In 2016, Puerto Rico is now subject to its own financial control board (see its 2016 law here) and may experience similar increases in inequality.

In 1989, when Brazil had reached its highest Gini coefficient level, the Brazilian people freely elected their first president after decades of military dictatorship. After 1989, Brazil’s Gini coefficient declined significantly through the reduction of poverty. According to a 2017 IMF working paper, Brazil’s “Inequality reduction was achieved thanks to a decade-long period of economic growth and deliberate income and social inclusion policies, such as minimum wage increases and targeted social programs.” Could lack of full democratic representation have an impact on inequality?

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Review of Huron’s wonderful commons book

Today Washington, D.C., seems like a terrain of hyper-gentrification and widespread displacement. Yet D.C. has also been and continues to be at the forefront of grassroots experiments combating these destructive trends and creating new, democratic worlds. Amanda Huron, an assistant professor of interdisciplinary social sciences at the University of the District of Columbia, brings us into this on-going history in her new book, Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. Read the full book review published in Washington History (Fall 2019, volume 31 (1-2), pp. 100-101) here: Huron review.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Memorials to Socialism in Washington, DC

I was invited to Warsaw to give a talk on memorials to socialism in Washington, DC: "The Other Washington Consensus: Remembering Socialism in Washington, DC."

More great videos here on the conference on memories of the 1989 economic transformations.

Washington, DC, is known as the major center and exporter of neoliberal capitalism and as the center of the Washington Consensus. In 1990, economist John Williamson invented the term the “Washington Consensus” because he understood that Washington had agreed on a set of economic policies that it “urges on the rest of the world.” This set of 10 policies reflected a free-market capitalism with an export orientation. By “Washington,” Williamson meant “both the political Washington of Congress and senior members of the administration and the technocratic Washington of the international financial institutions, the economic agencies of the US government, the Federal Reserve Board, and the think tanks.” According to this view, Washington, DC, has been the force that has successfully spread free markets, free trade, and capitalism around the world. This is an Americanization story.

Many people, including myself, have questioned such Americanization stories, and we have been inspired by post-socialist studies. In this talk, I wish to apply post-socialist studies to the center of neoliberal capitalism, Washington, DC. How might Washington, DC, itself be post-socialist? Post-socialism may seem irrelevant to DC, which is after all a major center of capitalism. However, Zsuzsa Gille (2010) has argued that everyone, and especially major actors in the Cold War, have experienced “the global post-socialist condition” in some form or other. Furthermore, there are many DCs, some of which are, or were, socialist. For example, in the late 1970s, the city of Black Power forged DC into a democratic socialist space, connecting many parts of the city to the socialist and Third Worlds. After 1989, within DC, the city of the IMF and the World Bank implemented the same shock of post-socialist neoliberalism that Black Power fought against.

How might memorials help us to understand this post-socialism? Are there, in fact, memorials to socialism in DC? I am not a scholar of memorials, but rather I conduct research on Eastern European socialisms, multiple globalizations, and the history of DC. I am venturing into a new area, for myself, of memory studies. To answer these questions, I informally asked many DC residents: where are the memorials to socialism in DC? I also walked around town, searching for memorials to socialism. Today, I want to report on what I have found. I argue that these memorials to socialism in DC capture the history of battles between socialism and capitalism in DC itself, a history that is often hidden or forgotten. Thus, attention to the memorials to socialism reveals this battlefield that continues today.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Ridiculous and Absurd in 1920s DC

It was a great treat to watch a talk by UCLA History Professor Robin Kelley, in which he explains his term "racial capitalism." Among many fascinating things, Kelley said, "The purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people"; guns and tanks are used to control the behavior of People of Color. The benefits of whiteness -- jobs, wealth, education, etc -- are unevenly distributed. So, even for those who will benefit minimally from whiteness, they will behave in ways that restrict themselves as human beings and even in ways that greatly hurt themselves. While this seems natural or normal to white people, Kelley goes on to say, it sure doesn't seem natural or normal to People of Color. This seems ridiculous and absurd.

This reminded me of a fascinating survey I read on Tuesday at the Library of Congress. In 1929, former Howard Sociology Professor William Henry Jones finished a study titled The Housing of Negroes in Washington, DC for the Interracial Committee of the Washington Federation of Churches. Jones wondered why white people did not want to live near African Americans. So, like any sociologist would, he asked them why. 

Jones systematically asked 200 white families why they did not want to live near African Americans. He found:
The basis of many of the objections to living with Negroes lies so deeply embedded in the realms of social psychology and human nature that few of the persons who were consulted could formulate any clear and lucid statements of their attitudes and feelings regarding Negroes coming into their neighborhoods. (p. 74)
Basically, to Jones, their reasons seemed ridiculous and absurd. As African Americans moved into their neighborhood, these people would immediately sell their houses at any price, leave behind neighbors and cherished community, and shun their fellow human beings.

As a great sociologist, Jones figured out the social forces pressuring these people to act this way: 
  1. "the fear of public opinion and the attitudes of the other members of white society" will affect their standing (pp. 74-75). 
  2. due to cultural differences (p. 76).
  3. "rather general belief among white people that Negroes are highly gregarious, with inclinations to have too many around their homes -- with a special tendency to congregate on the front porches. This tendency was generally referred to as looking "bad for the community." 
  4. "power of tradition" -- "not proper for Negroes and white people to live on a basis of equality in the same communities."
  5. "the genuine fear of some whites that social intimacies, encouraged by residential association, may lead ultimately to a further breakdown of racial integrity and to intermarriage." (p. 77)
So, here we have racism performing its primary role: controlling the behavior of white people. To everyone else, this situation seems ridiculous and absurd. 

And some white people chose to remain, including "Foreigners" -- like Italians and Russians -- who "seek refuge among other peoples who are also victims of the white man's prejudice" (p. 78). 

This behavior of white people had and has real consequences, often violence and traumatic consequences, on the lives of People of Color.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Opportunity hoarding on H St NE

In preparation for my urban class today, I was looking at Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis and saw this quotation that rang true to me here in DC:
Sociologist Charles Tilly describes "opportunity hoarding" as one of the major contributors to historical inequalities -- and the story of American metropolitan areas, like Detroit, is a history of the ways that whites, through the combined advantages of race and residence, were able to hoard political and economic resources -- jobs, public services, education, and other goods -- to their own advantage at the expense of the urban poor. (p. xxxvi)
This made me think of the amazing photos of H St NE by Joseph Young and his commentary about disinvestment, today's forms of white segregation (and opportunity hoarding), displacement, and anti-gentrification protests. His photo essay is worth going through slowly and reading carefully.