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Why Gentrifiers Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

Carolyn Gallaher's new book "The Politics of Staying Put."

The Politics of Staying Put, a new book by American University associate professor Carolyn Gallaher, is an academic tome assessing a powerful DC real-estate law called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which allows tenants to fight off developers’ condo conversions by buying their building themselves. Staying Put is also a gritty, concise history of the District’s gentrification, complete with a reckoning of “swagger jacking”—white interlopers’ coopting of African-American cool. Washingtonian’s Paul O’Donnell talked to Gallaher about the upscaling of DC.

Why start with a cultural history?

When I went to Mary Washington College in the 1980s, DC was poor, mostly black, and governed by Marion Barry. When I came back in 1998, I watched it change before my eyes. You can’t tell the story without that. In school, they teach gentrification as a class-based phenomenon. That’s not how it’s interpreted in DC. So you need the script to understand the interpretation.

Why are condos such a potent symbol of gentrification?

In a city without much empty land, developers who want to take advantage of new money have to build up.

Yet gentrifiers argue that their condos mostly filled empty lots.

That’s not incorrect. The population has not only shifted by race—there are more people. If it was just filling up empty space, though, no one would have a problem. But new buildings put pressure on those who live nearby.

What kind of pressure?

For one thing, other landlords stop taking care of their buildings to attract developers, who don’t have to pay conversion fees if a building’s empty. And even if you stay put, your neighborhood is gone.

So newcomers are to blame?

I don’t think gentrifiers need to feel guilty. If you buy a house in Petworth, you’re responding to market forces. It’s the city that hasn’t protected people who want to stay.

What can the city do?

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You don’t have to un-gentrify DC. It’s a lot of little things. When people fell behind on their property taxes, their tax liens were sold to a collection agency. A law was passed to rein that in, but only very recently. DC could have worked on payment plans and tax rebates based on income. Things like that impact who lives in the city.

Hasn’t the mayor been extracting affordable housing from new luxury projects?

It’s a drop in the bucket. And how do we know they’re staying below market? [Eligibility] is often set at 60 to 80 percent of median income, or about $75,000. That’s not a food-service worker—it’s a kid working at an NGO.

You suggest that DC chose to appeal to high-income adults.

One way to fix a housing crunch is to build a lot of one-bedrooms—and now micro-units. A middle-class family is not going to live in a micro-unit.

So has TOPA, which was meant to slow the effect of condos, worked at all?

TOPA has not slowed the changing demographics. But you can’t expect a miracle. No one has found a way to step outside the market. TOPA at least allows tenants to step in.

This article appears in our May 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

Paul O'Donnell

Freelance writer Paul O’Donnell is @paulwodonnell on Twitter.