While in Washington, I stayed just in my old neighborhood, Adams Morgan. Just blocks away, a new Metro station opened just before I moved out, and the eight years since have seen enormous investment by developers in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Usually, the corporate media is there to celebrate moments like this, producing headlines like this one in the Washington Post: “A Rapid Renaissance in Columbia Heights: Retail-Based Renewal A Contrast to ’60s Strife.” Gray Brechin’s phenomenal history of San Francisco, , makes the point that this is rarely a coincidence, and that major newspapers have long had a financial interest and close family ties to real estate developers.
This left me walking through the box-stores, remaining affordable apartments, and new luxury condos with a friend who spent time organizing, and occupying abandoned buildings, with Homes Not Jails in the District. We were left to talk about the horrible fact that new, shiny buildings force one to cringe about who got pushed out. Now, some local organizing has meant that tenants in some buildings have gotten upgraded housing, but that’s not the whole story.
As it turned out, the very next morning the Post redeemed itself a bit and started publishing a series on how landlords have pushed out their lower middle class tenants to sell buildings as condos. Called Forced Out, it’s good reading for what displacement looks at the level of a neighborhood. In this case, the one I used to live in.
Dozens of landlords refused to make repairs, forcing families to live in filth — at times without heat, hot water or electricity. Other landlords delivered urgent letters or mass notices demanding that tenants leave.
In the past four years, landlords emptied more than 200 buildings from Columbia Heights to Southeast, most of them rent-controlled, thwarting the intent of one of the nation’s toughest tenant rights laws with the approval of the city government, a Washington Post investigation found.
It was the hidden toll of a frenzied condominium boom that turned aging neighborhoods into coveted urban communities.
In one building, what D.C. Council member Jim Graham, called an “aggressive, relentless” campaign to empty the building, was followed by a fire:
Within hours of the November 2006 fire in Adams Morgan, investigators declared arson: Inside the apartment building, they found a charred plastic container that had been filled with a mixture of gasoline and alcohol, stuffed in a plastic shopping bag. The liquid was poured in the basement near 12 electrical boxes and on the second floor, just below Begum’s apartment. Flames quickly choked the building, searing walls and melting lights.
Net result, everyone had to move. The landlords sold the property for $4 million.
On the South Side of Chicago, this was the story of the 1960s and 70s, when absentee landlords bailed out of responsibility and took the insurance money and ran. The vacant lots weren’t always vacant. In the District, the fires seem to still be burning today.