This past Sunday, the 2019 BET Awards recognized the best in entertainment and culture. One of the most noteworthy celebrations of Black culture came from host Regina Hall who – through a parody of Beyoncé‘s Homecoming and then later a slide show– paid tribute to Go-go music and the Washington, D.C. she remembers from her youth.
At one point, the hashtag #DontMuteDC was displayed on the screen. The hashtag was created in response to a resident of a luxury apartment building issuing a complaint against a local store long known for playing go-go music on the street and has come to symbolize a growing movement to preserve and protect DC’s culture
This dynamic became the backdrop of our most recent ESSENCE-PolicyLink Mayors Roundtable discussion, which focused on gentrification and displacement. “[Hall] gave what I thought was a really interesting presentation on gentrification in Washington, DC,” said Brentin Mock, staff writer for CityLab and one of the roundtable presenters. “She spotlighted 14th Street and the wharf as two places in DC that at least culturally had been gentrified away from African Americans, or at least the way African Americans had been accustomed to.” In fact, DC has the highest percentage of gentrifying census tracts in the U.S. Due to a national affordable housing crisis, communities across the country are increasingly concerned about the threat of gentrification and displacement.
Today, a full-time minimum-wage worker cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment in 99 percent of U.S. counties and nearly half of all renters are behind on rent, utilities, medical bills, or experience other material hardships. In addition, roughly 6,300 people are evicted each day – a disproportionate number of whom are Black women. As a result, low-income communities of color are increasingly facing displacement from their communities.
“You’re never just losing the house,” Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at The New School, said in an interview with CityLab. “You’re losing the culture of the place, the political power you had, the neighborhood, the social connections. You cannot just put those things in a box and take them with you. The losses are extraordinarily high.” This is also true for the long-term residents who remain in a community amidst the change.
When neighborhoods begin to gentrify, the influx of higher-income residents and businesses catering to them often changes the cultural identity of the neighborhood. Longtime low-income and working-class residents can feel a sense of “psychological displacement” and disconnection from neighborhoods where they’ve lived for years or even decades. In addition, a growing number of reports and viral news stories reveal Black residents are increasingly criminalized for simply existing in their neighborhoods while being Black.
The Don’t Mute DC movement underscores the need to invest in the cultural expressions of long-term residents to protect and stabilize changing communities. During the roundtable, Nefertitti Jackmon, Executive Director of Six Square: Austin’s Black Cultural District, discussed the work her organization is doing to preserve historic landmarks in East Austin, including a site of one of the earliest Juneteenth celebrations. In addition, Six Square has hosted exhibits and festivals in East Austin to ensure Black history and culture is not excluded from Austin’s broader narrative.She explained that as a result, “the Black families still feel welcome and there is still a dynamic presence, even in the face of the growing transition of Black people out of this community.”
At the same time, there are a number of policies local leaders can champion to protect tenants, increase access to affordable housing, and fight displacement. For example, rent control protects tenants from excessive rent increases and stabilizes communities. And providing legal representation to tenants facing evictions significantly drops the likelihood they will be evicted. Some communities are reimaging the housing market altogether. “You should give land to the people because it’s the right thing to do and everything doesn’t have to be for profit. Sometimes you can just do things because it is the right thing to do,” explained India Walton, Executive Director of the FB Community Land Trust in Buffalo, New Yok. Community land trusts are a model for permanently affordable housing where a community-run organization retains ownership of land while selling or renting the housing on that land to lower-income households.
After decades of decline, cities have been lauded as a comeback story, attracting new residents and business alike, but we must ask who are cities coming back for? Too many low-income people, especially Black residents, who lived in cities through their long decline face displacement as rents rise and wages stagnate. Local leaders must ensure that Black people are able to benefit from the revitalization of cities while protecting the cultural assets that make our communities special.