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For series on the effects of gentrification on health, a series of unexpected challenges

For series on the effects of gentrification on health, a series of unexpected challenges

Picture of Barrington Salmon
Photo via Black Press USA
(Photo Credit: Black Press USA)

My original premise was to look to see what if any negative effects gentrification had or has had on the lives, health, well-being and prospects of displaced residents in Washington, D.C. I knew from stories I’d read and conversations with residents, community leaders and activists the extent to which gentrification was sweeping through the nation’s capital, and I also read and talked to people affected. But I knew I needed a twist for this project, something that would be pertinent and had some depth and considered the health effects of displaced residents.

This project is important to me because I’ve witnessed and been affected by this phenomenon, which certain people cast as benign. Yet gentrification is driven by politicians, the moneyed class, lobbyists, realtors, and real estate agents, as well as greed, individualism and market forces.   

I knew that an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Washington residents had been forced out of the District of Columbia by the high cost of living. Most of those displaced were black and brown people, like me. These aren’t just raw numbers, these are human beings who in many cases had their lives upended, overturned, changed in sometimes striking and monumental ways. Although my story didn’t deal with the underpinnings of gentrification, race and class factored heavily into the outcomes.

Gentrification is very personal. It has made me a nomad of sorts, moving from D.C. to Virginia and Maryland about a dozen times while chasing affordable and decent places to live. When I came to the nation’s capital in 1996, I was able to get an apartment for less than $600 a month. Later, I grabbed an apartment in Hyattsville (a bustling D.C. suburb near the University of Maryland in College Park) in 2013 for $700. When I left just two years later, the rents were approaching $1,200 a month, a 90 percent increase in 24 short months. Up the street, new fancy apartments were going for $3,200 a month for a one-bedroom, plus a $320 “maintenance” fee.

I wasn’t sure if I’d find any data or stats to substantiate my thesis and initially, this proved to be true. Although I found a numerous articles from different publications, many spoke more generally about gentrification and tangentially about health effects. There are complicated but still discernible links between gentrification and the health of the displaced residents. But they were hard to ferret out.  

I did find a Washington Post story about a study conducted by two Georgetown University researchers, Dr. Christopher J. King, program director of the master’s in health systems administration, and history professor Dr. Maurice Jackson, that showed the correlation between gentrification and health. The professors showed that gentrification has precipitated a pervasive and significant impact on the health and welfare of the city’s African-American population. There is a discernible increase in health disparities in residents after the resultant moves necessitated by gentrification. These include troubling disparities in life expectancy, higher incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, the triggering of mental health issues and other ills.

“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," Dr. Jackson said. Dr. King added that many African-Americans who remain in the city are experiencing increased stress and financial hardship as the cost of living continues to rise. This form of “survival stress” can increase risks for or exacerbate chronic diseases, he said.

My research revealed that cities around the country are battling — and often succumbing — to gentrification: Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Austin, Texas, Chicago, New York City and Oakland.

In 2014, housing and other advocates in Oakland and Alameda County conducted studies which led them to conclude that gentrification is making people sick. Activists said in a report published that year that as “gentrification came into plain view,” those most affected had “discussions of economic inequality, the housing affordability crisis, black displacement, the power of multiracial unity, and the suburbanization of poverty emerged across the political spectrum, from kitchen tables to city council chambers, from the boardroom to the bus stop.”

They argued and showed proof that ddisplacement 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 greatest risk of social isolation and depression due to displacement.

Displacement, experts and activists contend, 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 rate. Displaced residents may have trouble obtaining medical records, prescriptions, and affordable health care services. And 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.

Essentially, displacement fractures the social and economic supports that can save lives.

Perhaps my first and biggest challenge was that since there is no discernable straight line from gentrification to health, finding supporting data in the beginning was deeply challenging. All I kept doing was going online, sometimes several times a day, searching for “health impacts of gentrification.”

I wrote Part I knowing that I would have time to bulk up Parts II and III with data and studies I hoped to find. I had great difficulty finding residents who have noticeable illnesses that could be traced to gentrification. So I wrote a draft laying out what gentrification looked like in D.C. but that didn’t satisfy my editor, so we both started casting a wider net. I contacted Dominic Moulden, activist, housing advocate and resource organizer for Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE DC), an organization that has been fighting gentrification for years. He turned me on to Shirley Williams, who was displaced for eight years and ended up with diabetes. We spoke a couple of times but she seemed to not know who I was the other times I called so I wasn’t able to go as deeply as I wanted to with her story or spend time with one or more of her children. But her story set me on course.

I huddled with my editor frequently in strategy sessions and queried just about everyone I met about how to approach this topic, where to find data and also how to locate displaced and affected residents. There were lots of fits and starts. I contacted individuals I was referred to who worked in social service agencies in D.C. and Maryland but got the bureaucratic runaround. One representative said he had three or four families lined up, but then I had to get clearance from his boss. We went back and forth for months and it was always some excuse. In the end, it was precious time wasted and left me no closer to folks to talk to.

Meanwhile, I read newspapers and checked out social media, looking for meetings or gatherings about gentrification. I went to planning hearings, organizing sessions, public hearings, tenant meetings and rallies, watched city council hearings on affordable housing, gentrification and related issues, walked around with activists to public housing complexes where tenants were being forced out, met residents, worked to let them feel comfortable with a journalist they didn’t know, all the while doing interviews and taking notes. 

I finally met Detrice Belt at Barry Farm. She’s a resident and chair of a tenants association. She invited me to her home, we had two interviews, and I called from time-to-time to catch up on fast-moving events.

A challenge unrelated to the project is the fact that I suffered a mild stroke on April 28, 2017. It left me a limp, weakness on my right side, chronic pain all over my body, an assortment of unfamiliar physical, mental and emotional things to deal with and work through, as well as constant fatigue and the loss of core strength. There were days when what felt like a shroud would descend over me and I would have to just go lay down and sleep.

I think the enormity of the project scared me, too, which produced procrastination, unnecessary delays and the feeling sometimes of being overwhelmed. My wife was very instrumental in taking care of me, helping me monitor my work output and nudging and pushing me to get back in the saddle.

I have a deeper understanding of gentrification now, having gone through this process in the midst of having had a stroke, which quite possibly was caused by the stresses and strains of gentrification and its effects, as well. 

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