How Healthy Is Gentrification? In Search of Solutions

by January 14, 2019

In the District of Columbia, a shortage of affordable housing, a hyper-expensive rental market and aging and vanishing housing stock ​has​​have​tenants battling spiraling rents and housing costs, and​have left them at​​increased risk of ​getting​​​displaced.

When Detrice Belt walks around what’s left of her neighborhood and community, she is saddened because of the destruction of the place she calls home. She is deeply frustrated by the struggle she and the remaining residents at Barry Farm have been wrapped in for the past six years and is apprehensive about the health effects this facet of gentrification has had on her and her daughter.

Belt, 33, president of the Barry Farm Tenants’ Association, is one of 80 families left out of a total of 434 who lived in the historic Southeast DC community. She has been one of the sparks of resistance for a group of residents who are committed to staying put as DC city officials demolish and rebuild the 432-unit community into 1,400 residential units of mixed-income housing and retail stores. Officials have promised to set aside 300 affordable units with the remaining units available at market rate.

Apart from the stress and anxiety of possibly losing her home, Belt, a dental hygienist and owner of two pit bulls and a turtle, said she worries about what lasting health effects this entire experience will have on her daughter​​and herself.

“They just found lead in some units on Stevens Road. They called people and were coming to paint over the areas with lead,” she explained. “I understand that a test hasn’t been done in 20 years. They snuck in​to​my house to paint the banisters, but someone can chip it and it’s (the lead’s) still there.”

Belt said she is aware of the health dangers to her caused by the dust and debris coming from the demolition of nearby houses, then there’s the noise of construction and the long-term and irreversible effects of lead paint exposure on residents. Belt and residents fighting against gentrification and potential health problems are intent on reducing the forced move and lowering the stress that comes with sudden change, including noise, dust and adjusting to a new cultural environment.

DC housing officials usually move public housing residents from their homes until renovations or rebuilding is completed. Despite promises that residents can return once renovations are done, Belt said she’s aware that only a small percentage of residents have the ability or means to do so​, ​which is why she’s so adamant about staying in place while Barry Farm is rebuilt.

“I’m anxious. They’re using fear tactics trying to force us out, but we told them that we want to stay in place,” said Belt. “We’re willing to occupy Barry Farms. People are ready. I’m definitely still fighting.”

Belt’s solutions include ensuring that if residents have to move off the property, housing authority staff should​​move them into some place new faster; residents should get priority when it’s time to be resettled; and wherever possible, residents should be allowed to stay on the property while builders and developers build, and then move into newly constructed homes.

Belt is not alone in worrying about her health and quality of life.

Across town, in Northeast DC, Donta Waters, Leon Lightfoot, their families and other residents at Dahlgreen Courts Apartments, are fighting their own battles against gentrification and its impact on their health. After laboratory tests they agreed to, residents recently discovered that 40 of 42 of them ​​have elevated levels of lead, mold and bio-toxins.

The resulting health implications for his wife and son alarmed longtime DC resident Leon Lightfoot. Lightfoot, a 55-year-old truck driver, husband and father of a son who is a Howard University student, said it makes him very angry when he contemplates how he and others have been treated.

“For a whole year, this is how we lived,” said Lightfoot, who has lived in the complex since 1999. “After the renovations in 2012, we moved back in and then six months later we saw water damage in the living room. The walls, carpet and floors had mold. We dealt with these problems from August 2016 to July 2017. They put us up in a hotel for three days. I thought it was termites, but it was mold. Specialists came in, cut out the wall and put a white coating on it to stop the water.”

“We still have problems with water and mold. I’m very concerned for my wife and my son. I have headaches, respiratory problems and now I have to use an inhaler. My wife and son have asthma. I’m so pissed off that my wife and son have to endure this.”

Despite the buildings being renovated in 2011-2012, tenants described ​being exposed​​to lead ​(which appeared during renovations); rodent infestation; damage to the units because of water leaking ​into apartments ​through the walls and ceilings; homes overrun with mold; and residents coming down with a variety of illnesses caused by lead, mold and contamination from bio-toxins and other chemical agents.

Lightfoot said he and fellow tenants have sought solutions to their myriad problems through advocacy, putting pressure on ​DC ​Mayor Muriel Bowser and other public officials by​​showing ​​​up in their offices, flooding city council meetings and putting the issues they’re dealing with ​directly in front of these officials.

​​Meanwhile, the tenants association, in an effort to seek redress, filed a $5 million lawsuit ​​in DC Superior Court earlier this year. The tenants are seeking financial compensation for the disruption to their lives and possible health impacts.

In the District of Columbia, a shortage of affordable housing, a hyper-expensive rental market and aging and vanishing housing stock ​has​​have​tenants battling spiraling rents and housing costs, and​have left them at​​increased risk of ​getting​​​displaced.

In 2017, according the US Census Bureau, the median household income of white residents, who make up 36 percent of the ​District’s population​​, rose $2,568 to $127,369​,​while the median income of black residents, ​who make up​​​or​​​​46 percent, fell $3,631,​to $37,891. Meanwhile, 46 percent of​​these black​​residents in the Washington Metropolitan Area spent more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing costs. Those middle- and lower-income residents left in Washington, DC have limited options to move or relocate, and little money left to take care of​​​​food, medicine, utilities, transportation and other needs.

Some DC government programs do offer solutions and buffer residents from the health-related ill-effects of gentrification. However, it’s sometimes hard to make a direct link between gentrification and disparate health effects, and housing advocates, members of the medical community and other experts understand that if work is done to stabilize neighborhoods and larger communities, residents — and tenants, by extension — will be healthier.

It’s only in recent years that researchers, physicians, pediatricians, academics and others have begun to drill down to ascertain what, ​if any, ​health​effects might befall displaced residents as a result of ​gentrification​. These studies have been able to move anecdotal information into empirical data and quantify the potential health impacts of gentrification.

A recent New York study, for example, illustrates the link between gentrification and mental health. The study​had found that hospitalization rates for mental illness – including schizophrenia and mood disorders – are two times as high in displaced persons​​versus those who remain in their neighborhood.

This is one of the first US studies to quantify the hidden mental health consequences of gentrification.

Housing advocates, policy makers and those in search of solutions understand that they have to go beyond treating symptoms, like asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes and get a handle on the very process of controlling gentrification.

In Oakland, California, housing rights advocates and residents have been ​protesting, engaging in civil disobedience ​and​​​trying​​to get city and county officials to listen and enact policies designed to stem and change the effects of gentrification on low-income, middle-class and long-time residents.

They are driven by studies that have revealed any number of negative health-related consequences among vulnerable populations wrought by gentrification, including a higher incidence of asthma, diabetes, ​and​​cardiovascular disease ​and​​shorter life expectancy; higher cancer rates; more birth defects; and greater instances of infant mortality.

Just as critical are other health effects experts say ​are​​caused by “limited access to or availability of healthy food choices, affordable healthy housing; quality schools, transportation choices​​(including ​​bicycle and walking paths), exercise facilities [and] social networks.”

A 2014 report, produced by the Alameda Public Health Department and Just Cause (Causa ​Justa, CJJC) which provides free tenant counseling and case management for low-income residents of Oakland and San Francisco – focused on gentrification in ​Oakland, California.

It​​was in response to a growing concern and a recognition of the connections between deepening health problems and disparities in health among children in Oakland and the conditions created by dilapidated housing, especially given the Bay Area’s high rents and extreme housing shortage. Community organizers, non-profits and residents have used advocacy, political pressure and civil disobedience to bring public officials to first understand and then be willing to act on political and policy solutions to the deleterious effects of gentrification.

The report offers solutions, which, though not specifically health-related, are designed to lessen or eliminate the health impacts of gentrification. These include: developing a proactive or healthy housing inspection program; tenant protections to counter dramatic increases in housing costs, lowering the risk of instability, eviction and harassment from landlords; overcrowded housing;​​living in poor housing and neighborhood conditions; preserving housing at all affordability level​s​​,prioritizing funding for rehabilitation and repair of existing housing stock; creating greater alignment and coordination between local government, health providers, and community-based organizations to address gaps in data.

Shelterforce, an independent nonprofit publication ​that​​and sometimes challenges those in the community development field, offers a number of ​solutions​aimed at preventing gentrification. In ​a story​​​titled, ‘7 Policies that Could Prevent Gentrification,’ solutions include: aggressively building middle-income housing; reducing or freezing property taxes to protect long-time residents; and prohibiting large-scale luxury development in at-risk neighborhoods.

Other solutions are enacting and strengthening rent control laws and developing Community Land Trusts. Those involved with or tracking gentrification​assert that community land trusts (CLTs) are a critical element in the palette of options available for cities seeking neighborhood stability through affordable housing. They​​​say​​obtaining public land for a land trust​is a way to address issues of environmental justice and displacement by creating open spaces, community gardens and much-needed affordable housing.

“I think community land trusts have to be the wave of the future, said Dominic Moulden, resource organizer of the housing advocacy organization, One DC (Organizing Neighborhood Equity). “Rent spikes are making it so that regular people can’t live in or afford them. With community land trusts, people living in certain areas control public and private land. You can get grants from the government to pay the taxes and local residents control the land.”

“People are doing this around the world – Burlington, Portland, Maine, the United Workers in Baltimore, Boston, and the New Columbia Land Trust and the 11​th​Street Land Trust here in DC.”

While Moulden and David Bowers, a longtime housing advocate, said CLTs are viable and necessary solutions to counter gentrification. Bowers, who has been working with government officials, foundations, developers and others for more than a decade said, he has seen some promising projects from philanthropic organizations but he still doesn’t see the political will needed by elected officials to confront and significantly address the myriad problems gentrification has wrought.

In his many conversations and interactions with government officials, Bowers said, the type of movement to effect real change has been absent.

“We need to stop having million-dollar conversations about billion-dollar problems,” he said. “I haven’t seen a fundamental shift over the last few years. On the government side there is a commitment to hold the line budget-wise. The policy and investment are not there. What we have seen is no sense of urgency by elected officials to solve problems within a defined amount of time and no intentionality.”

But Bowers said there is a significant movement, where people who had not been involved before have stepped up. He cited the case of Kaiser Permanente whose officials recently announced plans to invest $200 million to develop affordable housing nationwide.

“They are not a housing group or lender, but they recognize the connection between health and housing,” said Bowers, vice president and Washington impact market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. “It’s not just a government thing. Foundations who care about the racial equity gap in terms of health and wellness have an opportunity to have a significant impact on providing affordable housing at a time when housing stocks continue to dwindle.”

This article was produced as a project for the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship.


 

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