Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Even as D.C.’s Black population has declined, the area east of the Anacostia has remained majority Black as gentrification in the District has pushed these communities further out of the center of what was once widely known as “Chocolate City.” But a recent study shows that the Black communities established in the eastern portion of the District are also at risk of being driven out. 

Newly published research from the Urban Institute’s Brett Theodos and Ilina Mitra has found that the demographics of communities east of the Anacostia River, which make up much of wards 7 and 8, are beginning to shift. 

Using data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, Theodos and Mitra’s research shows that “the proportion of home purchase mortgages sold to Black homebuyers in communities east of the Anacostia River is declining, while the proportion of mortgages taken out by non-Black households is increasing.” Additionally, the overall number of Black homeowners in the area is declining as well. While this shift is happening at a slower rate than the rate at which the number of Black home buyers is declining, there was still a significant drop. Eighty-seven percent of homeowners east of the Anacostia River identified as Black between 2017 and 2021, down from 94 percent between 2005 and 2009. 

Anacostia’s African American community can be traced back to the mid-1800s, when newly emancipated slaves migrated to the area along the river where the Union Army had set up several encampments. These communities established permanent residence in Anacostia, and the area has consistently remained home to the District’s largest share of Black residents since reaching its peak at 96 percent in 1990, according to the research report.

Home and rent prices in D.C. have been increasing in recent years, affecting residents across the city. And, as is the case with most socioeconomic issues, those that are hit the hardest are marginalized communities. The Urban Institute report is the latest sign that Black Washingtonians face higher risk of displacement due to today’s fragile economy as well as persistent systemic issues.

Speaking with City Paper, Theodos says he has noticed a renewed effort to support Black homeownership in D.C., especially within his role on the board of the Douglass Community Land Trust, which works to create homeownership opportunities for low-income residents, focusing east of the river. DCLT look for properties, co-op units or community land trust units that will preserve affordability over the long term. They then acquire them and bring them to the market. 

The city itself has demonstrated an awareness of the social and racial inequities preventing Black Washingtonians from owning homes. Mayor Muriel Bowser has pledged to increase Black homeownership by 20,000 homeowners by 2030 and some of her strategies stand to have a real impact. As of October 2022, qualifying residents can now receive down payment assistance of up to $202,000, up from $80,000. The mayor has also made new investments in providing Heirs Property Legal Services to help individuals maintain family property after the original homeowner passes. 

The new rates of Black homeownership east of the Anacostia are not likely to be reversed, the researchers note. The change is coming and high prices are having and will continue to have an impact on the community. There is an additional risk that the reported decline will worsen in coming years as pressure builds from interest rates, making homeownership even harder to attain. 

Theodos says this underlines the need for an extended, significant investment in a pathway to homeownership. If trends continue, housing is likely to get less and less affordable, so the time to “not just create, but preserve ownership opportunities” is now, he tells City Paper. While gentrification does not happen overnight, the research shows that the shift is coming, as it has in other D.C. neighborhoods as well.  

The Urban Institute report notes that there are several tools available to the D.C. government to foster and maintain pathways to homeownership and guarantee affordable housing for residents. 

As outlined in the report, these include using encouraging income-qualified homeownership by constructing new affordable housing on vacant or underused land; investing in “long-term homeownership through co-ops and community land trusts”; and increasing funding for smaller support programs that assist with down payment and closing costs, single-family home rehabilitation, and heirs’ property supports.

Addressing racial disparities in homeownership in the District is a big task. But, according to Theodos, Urban Institute’s analysis shows a rapid change that highlights the severity of the issue. Without significant, dedicated funds and energy to the increasing Black homeownership, “the trajectory is clear,” he warns.