In this series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries, our writers are focusing on “trends” that are meaningful to them, and sharing insights on urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Gentrification.
Washington, DC’s recent approval of a “living wage bill” that will require big-box employers to pay their employees a higher-than-minimum wage has garnered praise from labor activists nationwide. But it may be cause for celebration among many urbanists as well. Those bemoaning the rampant gentrification of America’s capital, or, indeed, other major cities, may have just witnessed one of the bolder forays into alternative-gentrification/affordable-housing policies of our time—perhaps without even really realizing it.
On hearing the news of DC’s living-wage bill decision, I was reminded of a conversation I had last year with Tom Slater, the University of Edinburgh human geography researcher and lecturer who wrote the first textbook on gentrification (Gentrification, Routledge, 2008). In talking about solutions to gentrification problems, Slater pointed me toward living-wage campaigns as an example of an alternative approach to the issue. “You have a huge amount of people living in cities who are struggling to make ends meet, they’re struggling every day to make rent, and this is something that’s not just because rents are high, it’s because their wages are low,” he told me. “If you think about it, a city’s housing market is an incredibly competitive thing. People who have the least means to compete, their plight would be improved if they were paid higher wages.”
Slater could easily have been describing the housing scenario in DC. Over the past decade, the District has emerged as a poster child of American gentrification, with the dubious distinction of being one of America’s least affordable cities. Large numbers of poorer families from the city center have left and have been replaced by younger, higher-earning singles. A recent report on DC’s 18 gentrifying, or “transitioning,” neighborhoods found that some neighborhoods have lost more than 15,000 people under the age of 14 or over the age of 65, of whom 88.7 percent originated from one of those areas. The more than 20,000 mostly young, mostly single newcomers that those neighborhoods have gained in turn earn so much more than the original inhabitants that the District has reported a $76.6 million increase in tax collection “due to the demographic and economic trends that have occurred in the city’s transitioning neighborhoods.”
Unlike some other cities, the ultimate crux of DC’s affordability woes lies less in average income than it does in income distribution. Boasting a large number of information-sector and government jobs, DC has one of the country’s highest, and ever-widening, income gaps, with the top fifth of the city’s wage earners netting a whopping 29 times that of the bottom fifth, according to the most recent census data. With that top layer driving the housing prices, those further down the ladder don’t stand much of a chance to affect or take advantage of the local housing market.
For these reasons, DC’s new bill could be a notable step toward rebalancing the city’s housing market, though it is, indeed, just that: only a step. As DC’s bill applies solely to major big-box retailers (the bill requires retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating in spaces 75,000 square feet or larger to bump wages up to $12.50, from the current minimum of $8.25) it is not necessarily enough to make an enormous impact on the city’s housing struggles overall. But as a prototype, it is an important and potentially exciting foray into alternative gentrification solutions that could shift some of the affordable housing burden off the government’s shoulders and give more freedom and flexibility in housing choice to those who need it the most. How, when, and if it will begin to be replicated elsewhere remains to be seen.