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Developers Are Using Constructive Eviction to Make Affordable Housing Unbearable, But These ‘Organized’ and ‘Savvy’ D.C. Residents Fought Back and Won

Affordable housing advocates score a rare win against gentrification in one of Washington, D.C.’s longstanding predominantly Black neighborhoods. A settlement was reached on Jan. 7 in a D.C. Superior Court case that was ten years in the making, sparing Congress Heights Apartments, an affordable housing property on the city’s southeast side.

Gentrification has had a sweeping impact on Washington since the year 2000, according to the Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota.

The institute says the nation’s capital is the hardest-hit city in the country by gentrification and displacement. Typically, the biggest losers have been the city’s low-income Black and brown communities who are forced out of their communities in favor of new development.

Eugene Puryear is the field director for Justice First, an organization that helped tenants of Congress Heights apartments organize and form a tenant association by educating them on their rights to fight off money-driven developers targeting their community.

Puryear says he once lived in Congress Heights and noted it is prime real estate near a Metro station, hospital, and other amenities. Congress Heights was on the verge of becoming another casualty to gentrification where residents are pushed out and the property is renovated for bigger profit, but in a rare move, its tenants not only stopped the takeover, but they also reclaimed the property.

Congress Heights was previously owned by Sanford Capital in 2010. Since then the 47-unit property fell into a state of despair. “There’s heating issues, there’s air issues, the washing machines may be broken on a regular basis and it’s hard to fix them, if you have a water issue it takes people a long time to deal with that, a rodent issue so pretty much all these things were coming up in regard to Congress Heights,” Puryear said.

Puryear says this practice otherwise known as constructive eviction is common among property owners in Washington, targeting low-income housing residents.

According to Cornell School of Law, constructive eviction, “occurs when a landlord does not physically or legally evict a tenant but takes actions that interfere with the tenant’s use and enjoyment of the premises significantly,” or in the case of Congress Heights, allow the property to deteriorate with minimal effort to address reported problems.

Puryear says the lack of upkeep motivated the roughly two dozen tenants to move out of the property over the ten-year period. Sanford Capital was looking to sell the property to other developers for a profit, but before that could happen, Washington’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) requires existing tenants dibs at acquiring the property.

“This is something very good about D.C.,” Puryear said. “Tenants have a thing called right of first refusal, which means if you’re going to sell a building, you have to go to tenants and tell them you’re going to sell the building and you have the right to buy it at a certain amount of money.

“The challenge that [Sanford Capital] had was, these tenants were organized and were very savvy. They understood 100 percent not only the value of the property but having seen what happened in D.C. around the city and what it would mean to leave the property,” Puryear said of the Congress Heights tenants exercising their TOPA rights.

Puryear says many displaced low-income residents in the city that become victims of gentrification often found refuge in Washington’s 7th and 8th Wards, which are more than 90 percent Black, or left the city altogether.

Congress Heights tenants were able to sell their ownership rights to new developers that were approved by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, who took on the case to protect the tenants. The new developers plan to develop the property into mixed-use with 179 affordable housing units as part of the final construction, according to the Washington Post.

Congress Heights is an exception and not the rule, because as Derek Hyra, director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University in Washington, explains, having the right support and a bit of patience made all the difference.

“When you’re trying to fight to stay in place, you often don’t just need political power, you need legal power and you need to have the political, the people and the legal power all lined up and ready to fight over a long period of time to fight against capitalism,” Hyra said.

Hyra expects high-price developers to target low-income communities of color across the more aggressively as the country emerges from the pandemic due to rising property values. “It’s just scratching the surface of what’s happening on the ground in a lot of low-income communities of color,” Hyra said of the looming problem facing Black and brown communities.


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