Days before appearing on The AllEyesOnDC Show to explain how zoning laws spur gentrification, Ari Theresa, an attorney who advocates on behalf of D.C. residents facing displacement, filed a lawsuit against the Bowser Administration, its predecessors, and a bevy of D.C. government agencies, for what he described as the deliberate elimination of tight-knit D.C. communities to accommodate D.C.’s creative class: single, college-educated transients with deep pockets and little to no connection to the District of yesteryear.
This scheme, Theresa told the AllEyesOnDC audience on the night of April 20th, spans at least 12 years, starting around the time Major League Baseball came back to D.C. While the District’s bank account has exploded from the excess tax revenue brought by newcomers, significant demographic changes and rampant homelessness reflect an unprecedented housing crisis, spurred by the city’s rising cost of living in the midst of rapid development.
Mass gentrification took place throughout the Obama era, not only in D.C., but other major U.S. cities, many of which were once dubbed “Chocolate Cities.” During the show, Theresa credited transit-oriented development — the construction of lavish, one-bedroom apartments near modes of transportation for people seeking convenient commutes to and from work — as a means of destroying once culturally vibrant communities. As prices of those condos skyrocketed, working-class, Black Washingtonians, had to travel long distances for affordable accommodations, usually in the outskirts of the city that lacked commerce and a public transportation infrastructure.
With the D.C. Council deliberating on the D.C. Comprehensive Plan, a document that guides the development and placement of amenities within the District, for decades to come, Theresa predicts more trouble to come for D.C. residents. After a nearly 13-hour wait, Theresa testified before the D.C. Council in the early morning hours of March 31st. He asked D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) why not hold the D.C. Zoning Commission accountable to following the Comprehensive Plan, an inquiry to which he said he received no suitable response.
Theresa told members of the AllEyesOnDC audience on Friday night that The D.C. Comprehensive Plan as it stands, would’ve been sufficient enough had the D.C. Zoning Commission, a body selected by the D.C. Mayor, not opt for exemptions that allow them to ignore rules that maintain the character of neighborhoods. If the D.C. Council, with the help of duplicitous ANC commissioners and other parties, have their way, the D.C. Comprehensive Plan could become more ambiguous, thus allowing for more manipulation of current laws and further breakdown of historic D.C. neighborhoods. That means that every D.C. neighborhood could experience changes like that seen in Shaw, the H Street corridor, and, to a certain degree, Petworth.
For the time being, one community — Barry Farm in Southeast — wouldn’t have to fend off developers. The week following Theresa’s appearance on The AllEyesOnDC Show, the highest court in D.C. halted plans to raze the apartment buildings that have housed low-income residents. This news culminates efforts made by Theresa and other on-the-ground actors to prevent displacement of people living in that area.