Priced out in Columbia Heights

Longtime residents are faced with rising rent in neighborhoods that bear little resemblance to their beleaguered past.

By Jeremiah Patterson

The corner where 14th and Irving streets cross in Northwest D.C. is more than an intersection of two roads. Here, in the Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant area, it’s also an intersection of two places and two times.

Residents describe the area in past and present.

The first scene is of the neighborhood from a little over decade ago: An area still suffering from the ’68 riots, with dilapidated houses and many vacant storefronts.

The second scene is from today: A retail complex — featuring a Target, Best Buy and more — anchors the intersection, serving as a gateway to well-lit, well-trafficked roads lined by fresh condos.

Affordable property is all but swallowed by the change.

These are the scenes some former residents describe.  Residents who, when looking to settle with their families, had to move beyond Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights for homes.  In short, living there, they say, is just too expensive.

Hear from three voices, all former residents of the same apartment building in Mount Pleasant.

Lila Santos, now a resident of Chillum neighborhood, says all the development in Mount Pleasant has transformed the area into a “Georgetown.”

Nick Pimentel, who now lives in Petworth, says he’s noticed group houses in Mount Pleasant being replaced by single families, who face increased rent.

Lizzy Evelyn, married to Pimentel, says she knew that as retail stores moved into the Mount Pleasant area, many residents would have to move out.

There could be a third scene for the intersection of 14th and Irving — that of tomorrow.  But it’s certain to reflect the current changes.  The most recent indication: Walmart has plans for a store at the corner of Georgia and Missouri avenues.

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17 Responses to Priced out in Columbia Heights

  1. Ace in DC says:

    “It looks like Georgetown” (no not really, but ok) …. “There’s a Giant! I hate that Giant” (ok, i guess Safeway is better?) …. “Before I never walked to that metro (Columbia Heights) because it wasn’t safe” …. “Young families moving in and replacing group homes” …. I find it strange that virtually all had looks of disgust on their faces while describing improvements to the area. Accessible grocery store, families moving in and replacing rock bands, safer. The area is not perfect but higher rents is an acceptable downside to lots of good things happening in Columbia Heights. Gentrification is not easy, but it could be worse … like a devastating riot throwing the whole city into decades of despair … oh wait, we already tried that.

    • Ben says:

      Ha! Not to mention that her interview is being conducted next to a menu board with some pretty expensive bobo items listed on it.

  2. Ace in DC says:

    p.s. 2 of the interviewees went from “renters” to “home owners” – how is that possibly a bad thing?!?!? That is great for them!

    • Los Politico says:

      Actually all 3 bought houses!

      So they went from being young people ok with small, crowded space, who were willing to pay for location, to “families” that wanted more space and didn’t care as much about bars. How is this a story? My parents did the same thing 35 years ago.

      And how is 14th and Irving’s “third scene” related to Georgia and Missouri? You realize that’s a world away– it’s where the first woman moved to!

  3. Kevin says:

    The suburbs are dead, and people are beginning to wake up from their “American Dream” of overleveraged mortgages and zombie commutes. Also, the federal government’s growth over the past decade has attracted tons of people to DC and we see housing demand here go up. Those who can’t afford it are going to get pushed out. It’ll soon be the very rich and the very poor living side by side. You sorta see that already in Columbia Heights, with a homeless shelter being located right next to condo complex with $2000 1 bedrooms. You can blame the Federal Reserve for all this, and international corporations for sending American jobs overseas for an easy buck off the backs of brown people.

    • Los Politico says:

      Homeless shelter is being redeveloped

      and what international corps in dc have participated in offshoring? what international corps are/were in dc proper to begin with?

      take another bong hit and watch ron paul on youtube, kevin.

      • Marlina says:

        “take another bong hit…”

        Classy, real classy. Now that that’s out of the way I invite the grown-ups to participate/comment.

  4. Some few years ago, I published a novel, “Afraid of the Darks: The Gentrification of Shaw” and received considerable notice among a few primarily gay readers in Shaw, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan. I’m a native Washingtonian, African-American, and observed pre-gentrification activities from my office at the old Washington Afro-American Newspaper headquarters at 11th and U Streets NW, where I worked as a reporter covering City Hall and the city in general (1980 – 85). The depths of gentrification and its impact on “historic” Washingtonians can scarcely be understood by some who’ve arrive in NW in the past 10 – 20 years. I invite any who are interested to address me and my works, and perhaps get an insight into just WHY a lot of young blacks who scarcely knew the “old” U street still seem to have inbred vehemence when they encounter the new gentry in Shaw and Columbia Heights. And will continue to do so expressively as the economy and the evidence of the economic divide becomes clearer and clearer.

  5. Patrick says:

    In these videos and with almost any discussion of gentrification you hear people claim that the long-time residents are being forced out of their neighborhood because of increasing rents, but that conclusion completely ignores the fact that we have rent stabilization laws in the District of Columbia. There are a handful of situations where a landlord can claim an exemption from the rent stabilization requirements, but any building with more than 4 apartments in it that was constructed prior to 1975 is rent stabilized (which applies to many of the buildings in Columbia Heights). That means that the rent can only increase by CPI+2% (with a maximum increase of 10%) in any given year. This law protects long-term renters from being priced out of the market. Additionally, tenants effectively have life-tenancies in DC, which is to say that a landlord cannot decide to refuse to renew a lease for a tenant (it defaults to month-to-month after the intial term under DC law) and can only evict the tenant for a breach of the lease. One notable exception is where a person purchases a house or apartment building the owner gives notice that it is going to use the house or the apartment unit as its primary residence. Sure, if long-term renters decide they want to purchase a home in the neighborhood where they rent they might see that sales prices have increased to such an extent that they can’t afford it, but it is disingenuous to say they are being forced out of the neighborhood completely.

    • Tres says:

      This is absolutely true. DC’s regulation of rent stop just short of effectively prohibiting any rent increases at all (after adjusting for inflation). Someone who rented a 3 bedroom home in Shaw in 1990, would at most be paying 50% more today in inflation adjusted dollars. That’s not a zero increase, but we should keep in mind that the government isn’t in the business having all the private landlords in DC subsidize the rents of DC’s tenants. That would force landlords out of business (if there’s almost no way to profit off a rental, people withdraw from the rental business). Fewer landlords would mean higher rents, less housing for all — critically, less affordable housing.

      Only people who assume the risk of homeownership deserve the reward of limited housing expense increase. 20 years ago — even 10 years ago — there was plenty of affordable housing in Shaw. Someone who bought in Shaw 20 years ago is in a great financial position, despite property tax increase. If that person were to retire in 10 years, their monthly housing bill will be $300 – $400/month tops (taxes + insurance) — extremely affordable.

      I don’t buy the argument that increased property taxes drive people out, because the numbers tell a different story. If your income rises at 3% per year along with inflation, and you never receive a raise for anything other than cost of living throughout the course of your working life, the amount of your raises over time will still eclipse any imaginable property tax increase. Assume that your mortgage is 33% of your income to start. Over 20 years, your income will rise 80% due to cost of living wage increases. Of your overall housing expense, about 15% is allocated for property taxes. That means about 5% of your income services property taxes each year. So your property taxes would have to increase by 16 times (80% / 5%) over 20 years for your property tax bill to exceed the raises your employer will give you even if you never have a promotion. Now, if your home value ever did go up more than 16x, you’d sell the home and move to a mansion in Florida somewhere.

      What does it take to stay in a gentrifying neighborhood? A bit of foresight — planning out your retirement by age 35 – 40 at the latest. That’s something everyone can do with only a little financial education. No one has a right to live wherever they want to for whatever length of time they want to, but someone can preserve the option to live where they want with a little planning. It’s on you to be an advocate for your own future. In the end, all you have to be able to do is tolerate the changing composition of your neighborhood, Targets and all.

  6. DShank says:

    To a long-time resident of Mt. Pleasant (nearly 40 years), this is a very inaccurate story. Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights are two very different neighborhoods, yet this story and the videos portray them as one “Mt. Pleasant/Columbia Heights.” 14th and Irving, the Giant supermarket, the retail development with the Target, etc. being talked about are all in Columbia Heights, not Mt. Pleasant. The reality on the west side of 16th St is different than on the east side.

  7. simon says:

    Agree with DShank, there absolutely should be distinctions made between Mt Pleasant and Columbia Heights. Both neighborhoods are facing changes right now, but they are two different neighborhoods facing different types of change. In Columbia Heights, there’s more of a traditional DC gentrification tale where whites are taking over a historically black neighborhood. It’s harder to say what influence the Target complex is having on trends in Mt Pleasant. Most of the stores in that complex, i.e. Payless, Radio Shack, now IHOP, aren’t necessarily going to attract the type of well-to-do white residents, mostly families, that are moving into houses in Mt Pleasant.

    I’ve lived in Mt Pleasant for the past 7 years, starting at age 27 in a group house. During my time here Hispanics have always predominated in the main business area and the apartment buildings along 16th Street, but the back part of the neighborhood with the rowhouses has changed a lot. It’s always been mostly white back there but that figure has increased a lot, and it’s hard to see any ethnic diversity at all now. But also like Nick says in the video above, this neighborhood used to be more of a place where different age groups and different income levels lived together, a lot of group houses, a lot of artists and bands and stuff like that, but that type of vibe is simply gone. There’s not a lot of rentals anymore, homes mostly go for sale, and they go to single families, who are more often than not yuppies with Range Rovers. Again this is speaking of the neighborhood’s most recent changes during the past 5 years or so when I’ve lived here.

    • Dee says:

      Listening to the videos and reading the comments I have to agree that it cannot be a bad thing to go from renting to being a homeowner. In fact I am a recent homeowner in SEDC. Prior to that I lived in Clarendon. I loved living there but I felt no need to continue renting at higher rates for the luxury of living in the area and after spending years in school for a medical degree I wanted my american dream of being a homeowner. We chose our house for a number of reasons: we didn’t want to buy a condo, we wanted a detached home in the city with a bit more of a backyard and something within our budget. Hillcrest and Penn Branch met those criteria for us. I did not want to work in the district and commute an hour or more per day. That was a lifestyle choice. People in the suburbs are interested in the free time gained by working and living in the city. Columbia Heights is just another area that had the demand like other recently “gentrified” neighborhoods and is nothing like Georgetown. I welcome the change and hope it continues East of the River. As you drive down Pennsylvania now you see a liquor store, sub soul food whatever shop and no grocery stores, sit down dining (which I miss the most from the Clarendon scene) or shops that would bring the area revenue. There is a Yes market but something in the middle would be attractive and even that in my opinion a step in the right direction. I am disappointed that this is such a divide in the city and that people feel that it is racial. I am a black professional, my husband is white. When I grew up in the midwest our neighborhood was devastated by what whites “the flight” (whites moving out because a middle class black family moved in.) These DC neighborhoods have gotten better. I used to dream about people moving back into my hometown neigbhood and rejuvenating it. So I feel that when the dust settles things will be better but either way change is coming.

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