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Living for the City

By Gregg Sangillo

D.C. neighborhoods have undergone rapid transformation in recent years.

D.C. neighborhoods have undergone rapid transformation in recent years.

Most big-city residents have opinions about gentrification, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a unique issue where race, class, urban identity, and societal change all intersect. Gentrification involves where we live, and the way we live.

Yet there are also relevant policy details lost on most people. Unless your landlord has directly notified you, you’re probably unfamiliar with Washington, D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA). “No one hears about TOPA until they live in a building in D.C. that gets sold,” says Carolyn Gallaher, an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service.

Gallaher did a deep dive on the TOPA law in her new book, The Politics of Staying Put: Condo Conversion and Tenant Right-to-Buy in Washington, DC. It illuminates the complicated tenant purchasing process, but it also takes a broader look at the cultural impact of gentrification in the nation’s capital.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. And Gallaher skillfully examines abstruse housing practices to shed light on the city’s complex past and uncertain future.

How TOPA Works

TOPA generally pertains to tenants in apartment complexes and condos. If a landlord decides to sell a property occupied by renters, TOPA requires the landlord to notify the current occupants of the building. Through this law, tenants’ associations can refuse a contracted sale and purchase the building instead for the original selling price.

“Normally, if you’re in a residential property that you’re renting a unit in, or an apartment in, and the landlord decides to sell it, the tenant has no sway over that. In most cities, you have no recourse and people are forced to move out,” says Gallaher.

The tenants’ associations need financing to buy. Poor and working class citizens sometimes partner with non-profits, while middle-income residents tend to do business with for-profit developers. Through a bargaining process, the tenants’ association often requests lower prices. In exchange, the developer wants the option to offer buyouts to other units in the building in order to sell them at higher rates.

“You sign legal paperwork that says you relinquish your TOPA rights in exchange for X thousands of dollars,” she says. “So if you’re a tenant who’s got a lot of debt, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But what happens then is those units that are bought out will be brought to market rate.”

In other words, the newly compensated tenants still move out, and the cost of the property goes up for future buyers.

“Voluntary Agreements” and High Rent

Even if some tenants stay put as renters under new ownership, they’ll often enter into “voluntary agreements” that inflate housing prices in the long run. Under a voluntary agreement, a new owner might cap the tenants’ rental rates or make improvements to the building. Yet in exchange for this, those new landlords can raise rental rates on vacant or bought-out units in the same complex. And when the tenants with a capped rate eventually move out—which D.C. residents frequently do, for a variety of work-life reasons—the owners can raise the rental rates again. It’s a clever way for building owners to circumvent D.C. rent control policies.

“TOPA is great for tenants, because it gives them market power and a right to stay put,” she says. “What it doesn’t do is stop gentrification. In fact, it can contribute to it because of the buyouts and the voluntary agreements. Buyouts are going to allow you to raise the prices of those units, whether it’s condos or co-ops or rentals, to market rates. And D.C. market rates right now are completely unaffordable.”

As a result, people can’t even consider buying or renting in many D.C. neighborhoods.

“When we think about displacement, the image in your head is usually a landlord who’s threatening tenants, turning off their water, turning off their heat, not treating vermin, not making repairs,” she says. “But exclusionary displacement is a better measure for displacement in a city like D.C. that’s undergoing rapid gentrification. What exclusionary displacement looks at is not an individual tenant being forced out of a unit, but what happens to a unit that would make it unsuitable, or unaffordable, for a similar tenant to move in afterwards.”

Though homelessness traditionally afflicts veterans, the mentally ill, and substance abusers, Gallaher notes that high housing costs have ensnared new populations and left working families on the street.

The Whitening of Washington

Post-World War II redlining and discrimination in the surrounding suburbs helped make D.C. the province of many low-income and working class African Americans. With a largely black racial composition in the 1970s and 1980s, many people affectionately referred to D.C. as “chocolate city,” from the funk band Parliament’s 1975 album and title track. It was in 1979, after a mini-condo boom displaced residents, when city officials introduced the TOPA bill.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry embraced the chocolate city label, and in the face of dwindling private investment, he helped build a city bureaucracy to employ thousands of people. “The city became a place that allowed black people to get good professional jobs, and it created a black middle class,” explains Gallaher.

Yet with economic strains and an overburdened tax base, the system became unsustainable. “By the early 1990s, you’ve got all of this creative bookkeeping. Things are kind of falling apart. And then D.C. is sort of forced into austerity by the Control Board,” she says.

However, even during hard times, D.C. was a place that black residents could call home. “It was something African Americans could be proud of—controlling your own space and having your culture dominant,” she explains.

White millennials have shown a preference for living in walkable cities, and D.C. demographics have shifted rapidly in recent years. Gentrification has created palpable resentment among the city’s black population, Gallaher adds.

Cultural gentrification has taken on a negative connotation nationally. The “white hipster coffee shop supplanting a black-owned restaurant” is an image mocked by hipsters themselves. In a recent episode of CNN’s United Shades of America, comedian Kamau Bell cracked that even white people are getting worked up over gentrification.

In her book, Gallaher examines “swagger jacking,” in which white people try to coopt and replicate black styles. The historic U Street Corridor, where jazz great Duke Ellington lived and later performed, makes references to those musical traditions even as it becomes a trendy, mostly white hot spot.

“There are all of these bars and restaurants that are referencing the history, but it’s basically a marketing gimmick for the white millennials who are moving in. And so it’s this notion of, ‘Not only are you kicking us out, but you’re stealing our history and trying to make it some selling point,'” she says.

A Better Way

Despite problems wrought by white gentrifiers, Gallaher says they’re only responding to market forces. And the alternative—whites clinging to all-white neighborhoods—just means more segregation.

Instead, she puts the onus on the D.C. city government to provide more affordable housing. Some policies have been implemented, but Gallaher argues that the city should do a lot more to help low-income residents. During those complicated tenant-landlord negotiations, she opines, the D.C. government could step in to buy a select number of property units and rent them at a discount rate.

But she believes that recent D.C. mayors—Anthony Williams, Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray, and now Muriel Bowser—have been jaded by their experiences working or living in D.C. during the bleak years of economic dysfunction.

“They all remember how bad it was. So for them it’s like, ‘Uh, I’m afraid of going back there.’ I think we have well surpassed the point where interventions in the housing market are going to lead to that. That’s not going to happen,” she says.

There’s a happy medium, she says, between the proud old city and the new Washington.