Credit: Photo by flickr user m01229

South Capitol Street creates a stark divide before you hit the Anacostia River. Navy Yard is on the east side, with towering apartments and condos, some of which rent studios for $2,000 a month. These high rises loom over the modest homes and apartments on the west side of Capitol Street. The area is a lower income, largely Black community.

Near this border is a D.C. fire truck maintenance shop. The city plans to move the Half Street SW shop within the next three years and is putting the land up for sale for development. Local advocates are eyeing this land to test a novel concept for housing affordability.

“Southwest has been bombarded with a lot of development and a lot of that development has been majority market rate,” Coy McKinney says, referring to the neighboring high rises. 

McKinney is a local high school teacher who joined SW DC Action, an advocacy organization that pushes for an “environmentally sustainable neighborhood.” The site says it’s built on two pillars. One is equity, which is suffering. Numbers this week from Apartment List show rent in D.C. has risen 11 percent since January and the city’s vacancy rate sits at only 5 percent. It’s hard to find a place to live. The other pillar is combating racism which, McKinney says, is prevalent in Southwest’s housing fight.

“We’ve seen the price of homes increase 55 percent. We’ve seen the Black population go down almost 40 percentage points,” he says. Demographics show D.C.’s Black population has been declining since 1970—going from 71.1 percent in 1970 to 45.4 percent in 2019.

He adds: “That to me is not exemplary of equity or inclusion—especially when we have an affordable housing crisis that has disproportionately affected Black people.”

That’s why McKinney and other Southwest advocates are pushing for the fire truck maintenance shop to be purchased in a novel way. McKinney sits on the board of the Douglass Community Land Trust. The CLT would operate as a non-profit and buy up the land and construct residential, commercial, or mixed-used land space. Members of the Trust would determine what the land is used for and be kept at an “affordable” price. McKinney says the people who would oversee the property would include “low-income Black folks” who have been left out of D.C.’s development boom and resulting wealth.

“We’re trying to get their interest put front and center because we’ve seen that that hasn’t happened in previous developments,” he says. “In my understanding of justice is that those who have been historically and intentionally underserved, their interests, their needs should be put first. That’s justice. It’s not ‘build a bunch of expensive units then hopefully, sometime in the future, it becomes affordable.’”

McKinney says this maintenance garage for fire trucks is the first potential property to test this idea, and it’s picking up steam. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a partnership with the Douglass CLT in April and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, in whose ward the property is located, wrote a letter to the Office of the Deputy Mayor asking for it to examine the idea’s feasibility.

In the letter, Allen said the Navy Yard area has created an “enormous increase in economic development” but that “these benefits have not accrued to all.”

“That makes the [Fire and Emergency Medical Services] site a good candidate for a CLT: This is an area where Black residents increasingly cannot afford to stay in the neighborhood that they have called home,” he wrote. “The District should be looking to creative solutions to … preserve permanently affordable housing.”

In a statement from the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, they said: “DMPED recently awarded the redevelopment of the Langston & Slater Schools in Ward 5 to the Douglass Community Land Trust after they competed for the project. We anticipate them to compete again if the property becomes available.”

The burden of expensive housing is not new to Southwest. The Waterfront has become a high-end area filled with experiences many longtime residents cannot afford. The green space surrounding the exit to the Waterfront Metro has had nearly two decades of drama regarding its development. SW DC Action has filed lawsuits to keep it public space. It currently operates as a public park. While units in these locations have been slated to be kept at affordable rates, McKinney says it isn’t enough and plans like the CLT need to be put into place and said it could be a “transformative” model on how to address an affordable housing crisis.

“​​It puts the power back into the community. The community has a voice in it. We have permanently affordable housing. We got permanently affordable retail space,” he lays out. “To me, it makes perfect sense.”

McKinney says the next step is getting both councilmembers and local community members on board. He adds D.C. needs to make addressing the housing crisis a priority and think past selling land to developers who create market-rate units with karaoke machines.

“I think it’s an example for how we can actually address the affordable housing crisis in a way that’s rooted in racial justice,” he says.

“We’re running out of land, we’re running out of space,” he says, “We’ve got to try something else.”

This story has been updated with a statement from DMPED and added context regarding McKinney’s statistic about the demographic changes of D.C.’s Black community. A misquote of McKinney was also corrected. We regret the error.

Bailey Vogt (tips? bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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