Washington, D.C. – A Case Study of Affordable Rental Housing Preservation and Tenant Ownership in the Face of Large-Scale Displacement Pressures
Columbia Heights is a historically African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C., located near Howard University. The neighborhood suffered heavy damage during the 1968 riots following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and experienced disinvestment and population loss that lasted into the 1990s. In 1996, the District of Columbia began to implement a series of economic development projects to transform Columbia Heights, including a new subway stop. While the public investment strategies were a successful catalyst for bringing in new development and residents, the changes led to intense displacement pressures for longtime residents. In 2012, Columbia Heights was named one of the fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in the country, and today, the bulk of housing in the neighborhood is well beyond the means of low-income residents of color.
Despite the transformation of Columbia Heights, today approximately 22 percent of the housing units in the neighborhood are restricted for low-income renters, as a result of a heavy concentration of subsidized housing that was built before the neighborhood’s gentrification, along with several key strategies and tools. Since 2001, hundreds of affordable homes in Columbia Heights have been created and preserved and many buildings are owned by former tenants, thanks to D.C.’s tenant protection laws; robust funding; and a high-capacity network of tenant organizing groups, nonprofit developers, technical assistance providers, and other stakeholders. While displacement pressures are still a threat in the neighborhood, the level of affordable housing preserved–in the face of such rapidly-rising housing costs–is significant.
Key Strategies & Tools
- The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.
D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) gives tenants a right to purchase when their landlord attempts to sell their property. TOPA has been a critical legal backstop for the city’s preservation efforts, coupled with the strategies below. Many buildings purchased under TOPA have become limited equity cooperatives owned by the former tenants.
- Major dedicated funding. D.C. dedicates large levels of funding for affordable housing preservation and production.
The district’s current mayor has committed $100 million per year to the D.C. Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF)–the largest such commitment by a city in the United States.
- Coordinated tenant organizing & support network.
A proactive, fast-acting housing preservation network has evolved in D.C. since the 1970s, providing robust technical and legal assistance, tenant organizing, and coordination to preserve affordable apartments. The D.C. Preservation Network (DCPN) has become a critical forum for preservation groups to share information and resources, track at-risk buildings, and coordinate preservation efforts.
- Preserving affordable housing for Columbia Heights’ lowest-income residents has been an on-going challenge, requiring deep acquisition and operational subsidies.
- Opponents of TOPA have argued that the law contains loopholes enabling tenants to drag out the TOPA process and extract payments from landlords in exchange for waiving their purchase rights.
- African-American residents with historical ties to the neighborhood have voiced concerns about feeling like strangers in their own neighborhood as a result of the type of redevelopment occurring and the changing neighborhood demographics.
- Close to 3,000 affordable units restricted in Columbia Heights for low-income households (22% of all housing units) as of 2017.
- 318 affordable rental units in 12 multifamily buildings created or preserved in the neighborhood from 2001 to 2016 through D.C.’s Housing Preservation Trust Fund.
- At least 398 housing units in the neighborhood are limited equity cooperatives, allowing low-income tenants to own their units.
- Average trust fund investment per unit in Columbia Heights (2001-2016): $145,000.
1. Incorporate residential displacement mitigation strategies into initial redevelopment plans. In Columbia Heights, the shift from “needing to revitalize” the neighborhood to “needing to preserve affordable housing” happened very quickly. Once gentrification picks up steam, preservation efforts become much more difficult.
2. Develop a network of high capacity preservation actors. A coordinated infrastructure of high- capacity preservation groups that can move with agility and speed is essential to preserving existing affordable rental housing.
3. Invest in tenant organizing. Organizing and linking tenants with a committed network of support is also crucial. Tenant voice and power is critical to well-targeted policies.
4. Provide a legal mechanism that supports tenants’ ability to purchase their apartment complexes, including adequate notice and time to complete the purchase. D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), by providing tenants with a right to purchase their units when sold and adequate time to complete the purchase, shifts power to tenants and provides a critical legal backstop for preventing displacement of current renters and disincentivizing inequitable redevelopment.
5. City council and municipal leadership is critical. Elected officials committed to affordability and mitigating displacement are critical for successful preservation of affordable housing. D.C.’s progressive early councils were deeply committed to affordable housing preservation, which led to TOPA, creation of funding streams, and a large roster of tenant support organizations.
6. Substantial, dedicated funding is necessary. Preservation at a scale large enough to be meaningful requires large levels of dedicated funding.