Chocolate City’s gentrification and the trail of tears

August 5, 2012 

Gentrification is destroying whole communities leaving lower income residents homeless and hopeless seemed to be Saturday’s message from the special screening of Chocolate City sponsored by Maximize Good at the Watha T. Daniel Public Library.  A discussion with filmmaker Ellie Walton and DC residents followed. While the film was shot in 2003 almost a decade later the message is resonating with greater urgency.  The documentary covers the displacement of over 400 families who lost their battle against forced displacement from the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public housing project in Washington, DC.  Filmmaker Ellie Walton views Chocolate City as a call to action against nationwide gentrification and redevelopment programs. The film explores the impact of rapid gentrification in the area through the work of a local group of women working for justice in their neighborhood.

In 2001, DC received a $34.9 million Hope VI grant to redevelop the 23-acre Capper/Carrollsburg public housing project as a mixed-income community, with the 700 public housing units to be replaced one-for-one, along with 1,000-plus market-rate and workforce-rate rental and ownership units and 50 Section 8 ownership units. The project is scheduled to be completed this year.

The 400 displaced families were promised a one-to-one replacement of all demolished public housing units.  That is, for every one family displaced they would be replaced with a unit in the new housing project.  However residents later discovered lower income residents did not qualify.  Income qualifications based on regional median income standard disqualified a majority of renters with few qualifying to buy.  The average median household income inside the beltway is $90.

Hope VI requires mixed income residents meet an income threshold of 60% of the regional average median income.   Many of the former residents were minimum wage earners and financially barred from returning.  The reality is that mixed income does not include low income. The former residents soon found additional barriers to reentry including a vague rule that only residents in “good standing” would be allowed to return those without past felony convictions.

As the discussion progressed many spoke with concern about the unfairness of current policies with some telling of their own displacement.  In the film examples were sited on how the loss of community and its support resulted in the death of older displaced residents.  In the discussion a participant identified as Daniel born and raised in DC told of his being homeless and currently having wait listed 8 years for housing.  Community activist Louise Thundercloud shared her personal fights with DC Council members characterizing the situation as “cultural genocide” and efforts by the moneyed establishment to destroy communities of color specifically Black and Latino.

One participant likened the situation to the West Bank Israeli settlements with the Palestinians being pushed off their homelands. The issue of affordable housing is not likely to go away.  According to the Urban Institute the federal government provides housing assistance through rent subsidies, tax credits for building affordable housing, and block grants for affordable housing initiatives. But only about one of every four eligible households gets such aid. And subsidized housing is found disproportionately in distressed neighborhoods characterized by crime, poorly performing schools, and a lack of jobs.

Low-income families are being forced out of their communities similar to the forced displacement of Native Americans in the 1830s.   The history lesson remains the same.  Misguided government policies are doing more harm than good and by inadequately addressing the problem only perpetuates the cycle and generations of inescapable poverty and disadvantage.  Chocolate City as the filmmaker declares does indeed stand as a call to action.




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