Residents Sue Washington D.C. For Racist Gentrification Practices
Washington, D.C. is being sued for gentrification.
The 82-page class action lawsuit, filed by Aristotle Theresa, brought grievances against the city for its alleged discriminatory policies favoring creatives and millennials at the expense of the city’s historically African American, low-income residents.
Theresa, a civil rights lawyer from nearby neighborhood Anacostia, is representing three individuals from Washington and over 20 members of the community group CARE. The lawsuit, filed on April 14, said that lawmakers and bureaus, including former mayors Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray, have championed discriminatory practices such as the Creative Action Agenda and the Creative Economy Strategy.
“These policy documents say outright, we are planning to alter land use in order to attract people who are of a certain age range, in order to attract people who are a certain profession,” Theresa said.
According to the DC Office of Planning website, the Creative Action Agenda was primarily a study that “examined ways to support creative employment and business opportunities” in D.C., while the Creative Economy Strategy under Gray sought to generate 100,000 additional jobs and $1 billion in new tax revenues by 2018.
However, Theresa’s lawsuit alleges that these policies are discriminatory on the basis of age, income and race, which goes against the DC Human Rights Act. Business necessity exemption does not justify unlawful discrimination, according to the act.
“We had to go to court to get [gentrification and displacement] acknowledged as something that should be considered, despite it being in statutes,” Theresa said. “And even when we did, there was still funny business.”
Theresa’s clients worry that rising housing costs and gentrification will drive them out of their neighborhoods, as new luxury apartment buildings are being built in the city to attract the creative class, along with upscale developments such as the $2.5 billion construction of The Wharf. The lawsuit stated that around 39,000 black residents had been forced out of the city from 2000 to 2010, while the area gained 50,000 white residents.
In response, the District filed a motion to dismiss on June 25, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked a standing to sue and failed to raise a claim because they did not plausibly allege intentional discrimination.
The complaint “raised political questions more appropriate for elected officials rather than courts to address,” Robert Marus, Director of Communications of the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, said in an email.
In April, low-income black residents won a case against the DC Housing Authority, temporarily stopping the $400 million planned raze and redevelopment of Barry Farm, one of the city’s largest public housing complexes.
The DC Court of Appeals ruled that the DC Zoning Commission “did not fully address all contested issues as required by the zoning and redevelopment regulatory scheme,” including how gentrification would hurt the current residents of Barry Farm, and sent the plan back to square one.
For Theresa, the city’s history with discriminatory zoning and housing practices has been a chronic problem he observed up close, having represented previous clients who opposed the city’s redevelopment projects.
“What I saw were patterns and practices of arbitrary decisions made by the zoning commission,” Theresa said. “I didn’t understand why none of the governmental systems were working like how they should.”
He identified the root causes of gentrification as racial discrimination and civil rights violations, arguing that the lawsuit was better described as a pattern and practices complaint.
“I would like some acknowledgement from the city that they have preferences for groups of people,” Theresa said. “All of these things represent thefts. They were taking from one community and giving to another.”