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In nation’s capital, rising gentrification undermines health of African American community

In nation’s capital, rising gentrification undermines health of African American community

Picture of Barrington Salmon
[Photo by lina smith via Flickr.]

My three-part series for the 2017 National Fellowship will take a broad and detailed look at what effects gentrification had or has had on the health, well-being and prospects of displaced residents in the nation’s capital.

It is estimated that between 40,000 and 60,000 longtime Washington, D.C. residents have been forced by the high cost of living to leave the District in the last five to eight years. There are numerous articles from publications like Governing, The Washington Post, academic papers and other research conducted by the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University that show clear, direct connections between the increase of health disparities in residents and the housing moves driven by gentrification.

Such disparities include: differences in life expectancy, the incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and other health conditions.

Two Georgetown researchers, Christopher King and Maurice Jackson, note that gentrification has made a major impact on the health and welfare of the city’s African American population.

According to the U.S. Census, they said, the black population in the District decreased by 36,100 between 2000 and 2010, while the white population increased by 59,341.

“A lot of people think that these were poor African Americans moving out, but they were actually middle-class people, because the poor people had nowhere to go," Jackson says.

He adds that the African American population in Washington, D.C., is less than 50 percent for the first time since 1957. The U.S. Census states that in 2015, the black population was 48.3 percent, compared to 44 percent white. In 1970, the black population was at 71 percent, versus 27 percent for whites.

Christopher King says many African Americans who remain in the city are experiencing increased stress and financial hardships as the cost of living continues to rise.

This form of “survival stress” can increase risks for or exacerbate chronic disease conditions, he says.

Housing and other advocates in Oakland and Alameda County have conducted studies which led them to conclude that gentrification is making people sick. They argue that displacement is financially burdensome and psychologically taxing, particularly on the poor and elderly. Moving at any age reduces social supports and increases stressors, but the longer one has lived in a neighborhood, the more likely one is to experience anxiety or depression after a move. Hence elderly residents are at the greatest risk of social isolation and depression due to displacement.

Displacement disrupts access to education, employment, health care, and healthy neighborhood amenities. Residents forced to move may face longer commutes to work or school, leading to increased stress, loss of income, job loss or greater school dropout rates. Displaced residents may have trouble obtaining medical records, prescriptions, and affordable health care services. Displacement can also mean relocation to neighborhoods with fewer health-promoting resources, such as high quality jobs, healthy food options, accessible public transit, and safe and walkable streets. And displacement fractures the social and economic supports that can save lives.

As in Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” the nation’s capital is a city of two distinctly different and starkly contrasting worlds: A business, digital and technical, government and banking hub and, further away, an almost shadow world inhabited by poor, primarily black residents.

Here, health disparities are stark: Skyrocketing cases of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and infant mortality, a scarcity of jobs, men, and women and children who have dropped out of school.

All this has been exacerbated in recent years by an influx — at one point 1,100 families a month — of new residents, which has caused the displacement of tens of thousands of native Washingtonians, spiraling rents and housing costs, the erection of thousands of new apartment units, new restaurants, bistros, eateries and chic spots, most of which are well out of the range of lower-income residents.

There are rising tensions and lingering resentments among black and white, old residents and new. New residents are calling the cops on families sitting on stoops, or churchgoers double-parking on Sundays. There is a historical context of whites driving blacks out of Georgetown and Southwest D.C., and the construction of I-95 through black neighborhoods downtown.

I will be looking at this issue of gentrification against the backdrop of the lack of access to health care in certain parts of the city and among those in certain income brackets.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to such a vast and intractable issue and I look forward to engaging the public to learn what they see as the important issues and what they see as viable solutions.

I am hoping through the series to add to the already spirited conversations residents are having in the city, and to provide crucial context for housing advocates and others concerned with the deleterious effects of gentrification in the city. I also hope to encourage city officials and advocates to look as closely at ways of improving residents’ health and access to care as they seek ways to address the problem of gentrification.

[Photo by lina smith via Flickr.]

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