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A banner hangs on the side of the former Lincoln Westmoreland apartment complex on 8th Street. It reads “Heritage at Shaw Station. Now leasing luxury apartment homes.” The banner is new — the apartments have only been on the market for a couple months. But the building — a four-story, brown brick, garden-style apartment block — is not.
“Lincoln Westmoreland is, or was, a building that was subsidized through what we call a project-based Section 8 program,” explains Rebecca Lindhurst, a housing attorney at Bread for the City, a nonprofit serving the city’s low-income community. “It was a public-private partnership to provide subsidized housing to low-income individuals.”
What she means when she says “public-private” partnership is that Lincoln Westmoreland was owned by a private company — Mid-City Financial Corporation. But the development was part of the Section 8 program. Low-income residents paid 30 percent of their pay to rent and the federal government covered the rest.
But now that’s changed. The Lincoln Westmoreland landlords recently opted out of the Section 8 program. Now new tenants who don’t have a Section 8 housing voucher have to make a minimum of $49,500 in order to rent a one-bedroom apartment.
Rebounding housing prices sparks change
To better understand this, a history lesson is in order.
“The opting out of HUD project-based financing happened with a great deal of frequency in the mid-2000s,” says Misty Thomas, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “When the market was booming, people saw the prospect for turning their private rental building into a bigger investment than the value and stability of that HUD subsidized money and the assured money that comes in.”
But then the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2008. Suddenly, taking a chance on the market didn’t seem like such a great idea. Landlords whose buildings were part of the HUD program stuck with it. It was a safe bet.
Now in 2013, the housing market seems like it’s rebounding. Property owners like Mid-City Financial Corporation are ready to take a risk by putting their units on the open market.
“I think Lincoln Westmoreland is one of the only ones we’ve heard of on that scale and size of building that’s happened lately,” Thomas says. “I’m sad to say I think we’ll see more of it.”
In a statement to Metro Connection, Mid-City Financial Corporation said it planned to keep Heritage at Shaw Station affordable. Though the company declined to speak more specifically about changes it’s making to the apartments and the impacts on current residents.
Gentrification causing systemic problems
At first, you might say, “Who cares?” The Section 8 housing subsidy is becoming a moveable voucher that residents can take anywhere. The current tenants can stay in their homes if they want. And the development gets a sprucing up. So what’s the big issue?
But Thomas says the changes at Lincoln Westmoreland actually represent a much bigger set of challenges.
“The problem is that it is a loss of what we call ‘hard stock’ affordable housing units,” she says. “And the reason we here at the legal clinic think there’s a really strong value to having hard stock affordable housing rather than just vouchers everywhere in the footprints in communities.”
For housing advocates like Thomas and Lindhurst, retaining the character of a community like Shaw in the face of gentrification is really important. New condos and fancy restaurants are nice — But so are mom-and-pop corner stores and the neighborhood hair salon.
“It’s a changing neighborhood and we sometimes grapple with traditional discussions about gentrification,” Lindhurst says. “Is there a way to create a neighborhood that continues to provide services to people who have lived there a long time while bringing in some new services without pushing poor people out?”
It’s a question that gets harder to answer when one-bedroom apartments at Heritage at Shaw Station go for $1,650 a month and sleek condos go up where more modest affordable housing once stood.
“I think lots of folks in this neighborhood are sort of holding their breath when they’re seeing the building with the dog park on top, an oyster bar coming, a beer garden just opened up the street. So all of these things that are sort of markers of a changing neighborhood have started to creep in,” Lindhurst says.
Priced out of their own neighborhood
One of the people most concerned about the changes coming to Shaw and the former Lincoln Westmoreland apartments is Nadia Johnson. She’s president of the complex’s tenants’ association and has lived there with her mother since 2001.
“I look around and I see that this is becoming an extension of Georgetown,” she says. “It’s for the rich and upper class. And the lower class to working middle class are being phased out.”
Johnson and her fellow tenants still call their apartment complex Lincoln Westmoreland. The changes that have come with the new name like brand new hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops don’t impact them. Their apartments weren’t the ones renovated. That’s causing some hard feelings, explains Kimberly Butts, who has lived in the complex her whole life.
“Being as though we’re tenants and have been there for 10, 20 years, I feel that we should be first priority. I feel like we can have the same exact amenities as the new luxury apartments do,” she says.
But that’s not the case.
“One of the tenants who moved in and lives above me, they said, 'Oh, I thought all the apartments looked like that,'” Johnson says. “I’m like, 'No, your apartment looks like that because they renovated your apartment. Everybody else in this building’s apartments look like crap because it’s the same stuff we’ve had since they put this up. And we want what you guys have.'”
But it’s more than just wanting the same amenities as the tenants who are paying market rent. The Lincoln Westmoreland residents who have been there for years worry that the changes are a harbinger of a complete demographic shift, one in which they are priced out of the city entirely.
“I’m just scared of them trying to push us out where we’ve been for such a long time,” says resident Laquisha Hardin.
Housing advocates say many of the changes coming to Shaw can’t be stopped. But they argue that redevelopment can be done in a way that maintains the essential character of a neighborhood and values those residents who helped build the community. That might mean fewer dog parks and beer gardens, and more of a priority placed on housing that working people can actually afford.
[Music: "A Hunk of Funk" by Gene Dozier & The Brotherhood from The Minit Records Story]