Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
How a decades-old tenant battle in Washington, D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood is still shaping the city today.
The Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C., gets pretty crowded on weekends. If you walk down 18th Street at night, you have to dodge hordes of drunken 20-somethings between their second and third bar of the night. My friends from grad school lived on Calvert Street last year, in the top floor apartment of a beautiful row house—that is, until their landlord raised the rent and they couldn't afford it.
That wasn't a surprise. While pockets of Adams Morgan used to be known for crime, the area is now a fairly well-heeled part of town, with a median income of more than $61,000—too high even to be "eligible for gentrification," according to a recent Census tract analysis. The rents, as my grad school friends sadly know, reflect the changing times.
But there was a time when Adams Morgan battled the most unjust aspects of displacement with strong community activism—and, briefly, won. One chapter from its storied past shows how some of its residents fought to keep and stay in their homes in the 1970s. Their ultimately fleeting victory nevertheless had long-term ramifications in the changing urban landscape in D.C., and offers lessons for taming rising rents all over the country.
There Goes the Neighborhood
Adams Morgan got its name, and arguably its original identity, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, when the white Adams school merged with the black Morgan school. In the decades that followed, the area saw disinvestment. The average value of single-family homes fell through the 1960s, while crime rose, explains James M. Lloyd, who documented this piece of D.C.'s urban history while a researcher at Ohio University and the Pratt Institute. "There goes the neighborhood"-esque grumbles led to the area being slotted for urban renewal.
John Lawrence "Larry" Hargove lived there from 1963 to 1992. His late wife Ann was a community activist who fought against problematic zoning, and for tenants' rights. Hargrove remembers concerns that the renewal plans were more about race than economics.
"The presence of a large black population was regarded as making it impossible for the neighborhood to redevelop, economically," he tells CityLab. "There was always the fear that the black population would expand and move into the principally white areas—that the whites would all go to the suburbs and the so-called 'blight' would expand all over the place."
By the early 1970s, developers were buying up large chunks of land in Adams Morgan—in some cases whole streets—and flipping them. Little by little, these efforts squeezed out African American families. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the area's black share of the population shrank from 52 percent to 26 percent.
Locals Fight Back
Some black families stayed put, but parts of the community believed they were being "redlined"—denied home loans because their place of the neighborhood wasn't "desirable" (read: white) enough. In 1972, in the midst of the struggle, a community group called the Adams Morgan Organization launched with a mission to help local renters purchase their homes. Frank Smith, a civil rights activist who had moved to the neighborhood, led the organization (and later became a D.C. Council member).
"Black people—poor people should not have to move every time somebody decides they don't want to live in the suburbs anymore," Smith told the Washington Post in 1976.
Smith used a then-recent but still somewhat obscure "right to first refusal" clause from D.C.'s 1974 rent control law to his group's advantage. Under the legislation, if a landlord decided to sell a house, tenants had the right to match the offer for the property and purchase it. The Adams Morgan Organization filed two lawsuits against the developer companies in 1976, on behalf of 23 families that were not offered this right.
As a result of these lawsuits, the D.C. government conducted investigations that revealed hundreds of violations on the part of local developers. Several developer-landlord transactions in progress were frozen as a result. Tenants who had been living and renting in Adams Morgan finally had the opportunity to match the offers for their homes.
Finding the Money to Stay
Despite the legal outcome, the Adams Morgan Organization still needed to prove that local tenants had enough money to purchase their own homes. Though activists helped raise funds for down payments and closing costs, primary mortgages remained a challenge—especially since local banks weren't lending to local residents. Smith accused a bank called the Perpetual Building Association of doing just that when it tried to open up a branch in the neighborhood.
"They would take in money but they had no intentions of lending any money in the community," Smith told Lloyd.
Smith wrote numerous letters to and testified at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, but the board ruled in favor of Perpetual. That didn't stop the protests, which eventually led to a settlement. By 1977, Perpetual and a number of neighborhood organizations agreed that the bank would provide home loans, among other community benefits.
By that time, most of the original local families had been bought out. Only nine families in the 1976 lawsuits ended up taking advantage of the agreement and financed their purchases with Perpetual.
Lessons for Today
If back then the problem was lack of access to loans, what are the lessons from this bit of history today? Here's what Smith, who is now the director of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, told Lloyd:
I would say that the middle-class and low-income African American and Hispanic community that’s left over there now, primarily, and white community too—low-income white community—is a result of the anti-redlining campaign, the co-op movement that was financed by the anti-redlining campaign, and some of the subsidized housing ... So if it weren’t for that, Adams Morgan would really be completely gentrified.
Since the 1970s, as many as 20,000 home sales have taken place citywide using D.C.’s tenant right-to-purchase legislation. But the fight also led to funding pipelines for other projects, like low-income housing, and policies that helped the poor—and that's key. "At the end of the day, poor people are poor and cannot afford housing," says Lloyd. He argues that, ultimately, the struggle in Adams Morgan in the 1970s highlights the importance of creative funding strategies so that capital is funneled into the right projects that help the right people.