There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
For the last eight years, Will Merrifield has fought on the front lines of D.C.’s gentrification wars. As an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, he represented the tenant associations at two large, affordable complexes in Congress Heights and Brentwood, both slated for redevelopment into denser, mixed-use projects on valuable land. Fed up with feeling like an expendable part of their landlords’ redevelopment plans, the tenants, with help from Merrifield, organized to stay put. They resolved to prevent their feared displacement from their homes, taking their demands to their landlords, District officials, and, ultimately, court.
Now, Merrifield must make the case for himself and the kind of movement he hopes to marshal with community activists and working-class residents: He’s running for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council in the November general election, he tells City Paper. Specifically, he’s targeting the non-majority-party seat currently held by David Grosso, whose choice not to seek re-election has sparked the city’s most competitive race of 2020, at least in terms of the number of candidates.
Merrifield, 41, is running as an independent and has left the Legal Clinic to focus on his first-ever campaign. He joins a dozen declared candidates in the at-large race, and, like most of them so far, intends to use D.C.’s new public financing program, which provides start-up and matching funds to those who meet certain thresholds for small-dollar donations. Having advocated for his clients at multiple Council hearings and in lawmakers’ offices, he’s also a known quantity at the Wilson Building.
But unique to Merrifield is the experience of going toe-to-toe with powerful real estate developers and their lawyers—one that leads him to promote a vision for economic development in D.C. other than what he says is the “socialism for the very rich, stark austerity for the middle class, and victim-blaming [for] the people working two jobs who can’t keep a roof over their heads” that defines the current system.
For Merrifield, housing is a human right, and a necessary step for guaranteeing this right is deconstructing the myth that a rising tide automatically lifts all boats. “What we should know from the Reagan era is that wealth does not trickle down,” he says. “You have to build it from the bottom up. You have to invest in people.”
Given the District’s $15.5 billion budget and two-months worth of savings to run the government in case of an emergency or economic downturn, that shouldn’t seem fanciful or outrageous. But according to Merrifield, too much of the public’s money is entering the hands of developers who have used it to subsidize luxury housing stock that exacerbates the city’s affordability crisis. “Make absolutely no mistake about this,” says Merrifield. “In Washington, D.C., developers are in complete control of housing policy. Politicians … do as they’re told by developers,” because developers donate in huge sums to incumbents’ campaigns.
Merrifield is anchoring his platform around a New Deal-style jobs and infrastructure program that would train un- and underemployed residents to build “housing that eliminates the profit motive” for land-banking real estate. Known as “social housing,” this model exists popularly in European countries like Sweden and Austria. The city would own such developments, which would house people of various incomes, and the residents would spend only a quarter or so of their incomes on rent. Anybody could apply for a unit, and any excess profits at the end of the year would be recycled back into public programs.
“It would operate like a co-op operates now,” says Merrifield, who adds that with social housing, the income mix lowers the need for the sort of operating subsidies required by traditional public housing. Upfront capital costs would likely be significant, but after that point, it’s a virtuous cycle.
Merrifield hails from just outside Youngstown, Ohio, and lives in Deanwood with his wife. (They recently married.) After working for a legal services organization in Ohio, where he defended people facing evictions and medical debt, he came to D.C. in 2011 to join the Legal Clinic. He cuts a svelte figure, has a distinct gravelly voice, and is a major college basketball and football fan. He seems just as at ease wielding a megaphone at a protest as he is laying out a case in court.
As a trained attorney, he knows how to make a convincing argument, citing evidence and data like someone who’s done their homework but isn’t pedantic about it. (A sampling from City Paper’s recent interview with him: “You have to make almost $133,000 a year to live here comfortably in a two-bedroom apartment.” “We have one of the highest unemployment rates for African Americans.” “Washington, D.C., is the most intensely gentrifying city in the United States.”) Still, Merrifield says the reason he’s running for office is that he’s learned, by working closely with low-income people of color across the District, that land decisions—and the processes governing them—are inherently political.
Says Merrifield: “We tried through the legal process to make sure that people can control land in their own community and avoid displacement.” But their efforts were repeatedly frustrated by the interests of the “developer class” he says dominates official zoning reviews for projects requiring relief from land-use rules, such as height restrictions and prohibitions on building types.
In the case of Congress Heights, dozens of tenants were living in a group of neglected buildings owned by a Bethesda-based company called Sanford Capital, which—along with a development partner—had plans to redevelop the site into new apartments, retail, and offices.
Merrifield says that when he first visited the complex, located directly above the neighborhood’s Metro station, he was “pissed off that people were in those conditions,” which included roach and rat infestations, plus “raw feces” in the basement. “The owners of Sanford Capital were looking at those buildings just as warehouses,” he explains. “They were sitting on those warehouses, and at some point in the near future they knew they were going to demolish those buildings and that they were going to push the people who lived there out.
“They weren’t looking at the people currently living there as human beings,” Merrifield continues. “To them, [the tenants] were just numbers in those buildings,” there to generate revenue—partly thanks to government rental subsidies for people exiting city shelters—while the redevelopment plans moved forward. When the proposal made it to the D.C. Zoning Commission for review, the tenants went to the public hearing on the project and raised their concerns. But their complaints “fell on deaf ears,” Merrifield says, and the commission later approved the plans.
“There was nothing we could have said that wouldn’t have allowed that process to go through,” he adds. “It is a completely rigged process.”
The tenants did eventually receive help from D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, who sued Sanford Capital for allowing the complex to fall into disrepair out of “willful neglect.” In 2018, they scored a key victory, when, after a multiyear saga and persistent news coverage, the company formally agreed to stop doing business in the District. (The future of the site is still being worked out.)
Ruth Barnwell, the president of the tenant association for the buildings, describes Merrifield both as honest and encouraging. “He’s going to get the job done,” she says of his campaign. “Will is not doing it for profit, he’s doing it for the people.” Chuckling, she says they’ve grown close over the years: “That’s my son, you know … We have become friend and family.”
Merrifield insists that his Council bid isn’t so much a campaign as an organizing fulcrum for working-class priorities and people doing on-the-ground activism around housing, jobs, and education. He talks about getting to the “root causes” of the city’s social ills—homelessness among them—by proposing solutions that are outside of “existing power structures” and not what voters will probably hear from other candidates in the race.
“It’s a battle of ideas,” he says. “There’s a real duty with people to continue to work, to continue to organize, to use the public resources to benefit the common good. And if we’re not doing that, then what are we doing?”
Merrifield also supports repairing D.C.’s public housing to green standards, in conjunction with would-be federal funding from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a “Green New Deal for Public Housing.” This need is urgent, he contends, “because there’s a bunch of children living in unsafe public housing units right now, and that is not acceptable.”
If his ideas sound extreme, Merrifield argues they shouldn’t: It’s not just low-income residents who are exploited by the city’s scarcity-driven rental market, or failed by its inequitably funded schools. “I’m not afraid of making political enemies, because I think the system is so irrational,” he says. “To fight back against it, you have to speak out against it.”