Urban Wire Learning from Urban Redevelopment’s Failures to Build a More Inclusive DC
Nicholas Laughlin
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photo of construction in Washington, DC

The Housing Act of 1949, part of Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, sought to ensure a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family. But 50 years later, as we face a housing affordability crisis and crumbling infrastructure, can urban redevelopment achieve better outcomes for residents?

Lizabeth Cohen, author of the recent book Saving America's Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age, raised this question at an Urban Institute event last month.

Cohen outlined the history of urban redevelopment after World War II to explain how we got to where we are today. Urban redevelopment efforts brought major changes to communities from the late 1940s into the 1970s. Demolition and new developments displaced residents, new highways slashed through viable neighborhoods, and suburban-oriented schemes like shopping centers contributed to a massive exodus of people and capital to the suburbs.

“I was motivated to write this book by what I was seeing around me: deteriorating urban infrastructure, a worsening affordable housing crisis, and a growing divide between flourishing and failing cities,” Cohen explained.

Cohen joined a panel of experts in housing and urban redevelopment in the Washington, DC, area to describe how the DC region is learning from and applying the lessons of failed urban renewal projects.

DC needs more housing for more opportunity

Urban Institute senior director Gustavo Velasquez described how the DC region needs to add hundreds of thousands of new housing units to accommodate people from all incomes over the next decade.

Although urban redevelopment projects have already created a lot of new development in the region, including the creation of low-income housing, they have also reinforced patterns of segregation and excluded communities, predominately African American communities, from economic opportunities.

“Housing is that anchor in our lives that, in so many ways, defines access to or lack of opportunity for economic mobility,” said Velasquez. “The times of that grand development are long gone, but the need for production, especially the need for preservation and protection, is tremendous.”

Urban recently released a comprehensive housing framework to help business, government, and civic leaders united around a vision to solve the DC region’s housing crisis.

As Velasquez explained, technological advancement will be critical to build the amount of housing that the DC region needs. “Innovation is needed to continue to grow a city in an inclusive way,” Velasquez said.

Lance Loethen, the Opportunity Finance Network’s vice president for research, discussed some of these innovations the DC region could implement to create more affordable housing. “We now need to look at higher density [projects] in conjunction with traditional neighborhood design,” he said.

In the 1960s and ’70s, DC had many high-rise affordable housing developments but started to move away from that model to a more traditional neighborhood design. Although Loethen noted that low-density design has benefits and is one of the primary factors that drives people to area, now is the time for the region to consider more high-density projects.

Velasquez noted that the DC region is well positioned because it’s already home to a wide range of innovators, including investors, affordable housing developers, and community organizations, that are working to grow a more inclusive city. Most importantly, these stakeholders are listening to community aspirations and applying values of equitable and shared prosperity.

The central role of community engagement

Kimberly Driggins, executive director of the Washington Housing Conservancy, discussed the importance of having an honest dialogue with communities when planning an urban redevelopment project, which must include an acknowledgement of the failures of urban redevelopment.

Driggins noted that it can be difficult for government entities to spend time and resources on community engagement, but it’s still vital to avoid repeating the history of failed urban redevelopment projects.

“[A developer] can’t swoop in to a community whenever there is a new project,” Driggins explained. “Residents live through urban renewal. Community engagement is having an honest dialogue. It takes time to develop that,” Driggins said.

Building on this idea, Tom Nida, City First Bank’s executive vice president, said he wants developers to consider the challenges that new projects can bring to a community. Regarding projects that risk displacing or relocating residents, he said, “The problem is [residents] can’t afford to come back in a lot of cases, and that’s the challenge.”

Driggins also noted that urban planners should view their work as “cocreation” with the community. “The industry has to pay more attention the lived experience of residents. You want consensus and agreement on what you are cocreating,” Driggins said. “The lived experience of residents is on equal footing of the developer.”

Executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation DC, Ramon Jacobson, pointed to the 11th Street Bridge Park redevelopment project in Anacostia as an example of strong community engagement in the DC region. “There is this trend of real, strong pride and engagement in DC,” Jacobson said. “People are making the effort to engage with their neighbors.”


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