Congress Heights Court Hearing: The Future for Affordable Housing in D.C.

Currently the D.C. Attorney General is prosecuting a case that represents the future for affordable housing in D.C. In Congress Heights, just 5 miles from the Capitol, tenants are battling slum-like conditions. Now, if the Attorney General is successful, these tenants could gain ownership of their homes, converting them into a tenant-owned housing development.

With a scenic river view of the Capitol, the Southeastern quadrant of D.C. represents the next frontier for gentrification. And here, in the majority Black neighborhood of Congress Heights, the disparities are brutally evident: a landlord (responsible for a year-long bedbug infestation and collapsed roof) is attempting to expel a community of longtime residents to make room for a new, richer clientele.

Many groups in D.C. identify tenant-owned housing as the most effective response to rising housing prices and displacement in D.C. Home ownership has been linked to higher educational outcomes for children, wealth accumulation for families, and lower demonstrated levels of stress. However, the speculative nature of the D.C. housing market makes it difficult for long-time renters to buy into the market and benefit from the growth.

These advantages are recognized in the Agenda to Build Black Futures, a recent report by Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100). This flagship document of the national Black youth movement highlights tenant-owned housing as a key factor in stabilizing and strengthening Black communities.

This is reinforced by the People’s Platform, a citywide campaign offering a comprehensive plane to secure affordable housing and quality jobs for longtime D.C. residents. They identify the tools already available to the City to enable longtime renters to transition into homeownership.

One tool is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), legislation intended to empower renters to purchase their homes. However, as recognized by council member Elissa Silverman at the Thursday night court hearing, this instrument is unwieldy and underutilized. Using available funds from the Housing Production Trust Fund, the City should facilitate the use of TOPA and enable tenants to buy their homes.

This hearing represents a pivotal moment for the city. Black homeownership rates in D.C. are dropping dramatically, currently at levels lower than that of 1990. And, speculation is driving up housing costs at astonishing rates creating even larger barriers to homeownership.

If the Attorney General is successful, this community can claim ownership of its home and participate in the growth and development of D.C. If not, this is another sad example of D.C. residents losing their homes and the City losing control of the housing market.