Falling into the Crevice – Covid-19 Pandemic Puts Spotlight on Housing Disparities in the U.S. Capital
by Judith Keller and Lauren Rever
“The crisis isn’t just that we need rent cancelled. Just like before the crisis unhoused people and people paying these exorbitant rents and mortgages won’t be able to pay. (…) If you use a visual of a crevice, people are just falling into the crevice, because there’s no dirt of land for them to stand on.”Dominic Moulden, ONE D.C. member and community organizer, March 2, 2021
For social justice advocates like Dominic Moulden, the hope was that in times of the pandemic new actions would be taken to match the discussion of the housing crisis the U.S. has been facing over the past decade. When in March 2020 the pandemic hit and a stay-at-home order was issued in Washington, D.C., it became again visible how many people in the city were unhoused or precariously housed and therefore without shelter. The housing situation in the nation’s capital has been especially grave. The District of Columbia has experienced a surge of newcomers, tourists, and investors for some years now, while at the same time struggling to house a growing homeless population as well as many low-income residents. These factors affect what pandemic “recovery” looks like in Washington, D.C. It is therefore critical to understand how the health emergency is linked to the larger housing crisis – a crisis that local advocates like Dominic Moulden, Maurice Cook, and Ari Theresa have been working to end all along.
Even before the pandemic, the number of Americans struggling with high rent had been increasing. A 2019 study shows that half of all American households are cost burdened; 25 percent report to be severely cost burdened which means that they spend at least half of their income on rent (Salviati 2019). These numbers also hold true for Washington, D.C., where housing prices and rents far exceed the national average. Zillow’s Observed Rent Index (ZORI) lists the average rent of an apartment in the District, regardless of size, at $2.700. This is compared to a national average of $1.730 (Zillow 2021). It is not surprising, then, that many people are burdened by housing costs, even though salaries in D.C. are generally high. In fact, it is due to the high median income and a housing market catering to the needs of people with deep pockets that middle class and low-income families compete for the few affordable housing units that still exist in the nation’s capital. Compounding the issue is that the demand for housing is unbroken, benefiting property owners who already retain the legal power to choose their tenants and evict those who are no longer solvent (Eviction Lab 2018).
In the spring of 2020, housing economists feared a sudden fall of home values and fewer investments due to the national health crisis, but by June homes sales exploded again, prices continued to climb, and home loan applications rebounded (Joint Center for Housing Studies 2021). The housing market proved to be not only surprisingly stable but saw many new investments (Joint Center for Housing Studies 2021). The capital witnessed housing prices grow by 3.4 percent city-wide over the course of 2020; in some neighborhoods, prices rose by as much as 11 percent (Zillow 2021), showing that here the expected growth in property values (rent gap) was and remains especially promising to investors. On the flipside of this increased investment activity, many renters have had difficulty keeping up with rent and the number of cost burdened renters has grown even further: Nationwide, 21 percent of lower income groups report being behind on payments, with the burden being especially heavy for households of color. More drastically, many report that the high housing costs prevent them from meeting other basic needs such as food and health care (Joint Center for Housing Studies 2021).
With a growing number of D.C. residents unable to afford housing and due to a lack of social safety nets, many are facing homelessness. While D.C. did already rank highest in 2019 with 93 out of 10,000 inhabitants living in the streets (National Alliance to End Homelessness 2020), the numbers have reportedly been increasing since the pandemic hit the city. “Tent encampment communities have grown exponentially in the last year”, Maurice Cook states, while “the shelter system is over-burdened and overwhelmed.” Cook is the executive director of Serve Your City, an organization using mutual aid to support people struggling with housing-related issues. While community organizations are trying to provide help, there is a lack of government resources to support those who are unhoused and the city is also doing very little to protect many of its low-income families from eviction and homelessness. In Washington, D.C., a mayor’s order allowed landlords and tenants to establish a rent payment plan during the health emergency (Office of the Tenant Advocate 2020). A payment plan requires tenants to negotiate a new contract with landlords to decrease the monthly amount paid for up to one year after the emergency ends. It does not lower burdensome housing costs for tenants overall. For those with little to no income, this is an opportunity to temporarily forgo rent payments and meet other immediate needs. Fundamentally, however, this order shifts the burden onto tenants to manage precarious housing situations and does little to aid those facing loss of income. On the national level, the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the Covid Relief Bill) provided Emergency Rental Assistance (U.S. Department of the Treasury 2021) and implemented an Eviction Moratorium which prohibits landlords from evicting any tenant during the public health emergency (Federal Register 2020).
Yet, there is no rent forgiveness: not in D.C., one of the most expensive cities in the nation, nor anywhere. The rent moratorium clearly states that it does not relieve renters from their obligation to make payments. So, bills simply pile up. The rent that has not been accounted for needs to be paid back once the moratorium is lifted. Until then, D.C. tenants wait to hear when the deadline for rent back pay will fall (most recently, Mayor Bowser extended the emergency declaration until May 20th, 2021). On March 2, 2021, the U.S. Congress did not extend the eviction ban in the American Rescue Plan Act (the second Covid Relief Bill). Worse, housing civil rights lawyer Ari Theresa tells us that landlords have continued to evict tenants even during Covid and despite laws explicitly prohibiting this practice. He says that it is especially renters that see their livelihood hanging by a thread. “I think homeowners are a lot more protected during the pandemic than renters. Those landlords are just waiting to get those people out and put somebody new in.” Rent payment plans seem like a drop in the ocean as long as there is no rent forgiveness and as long as the city government continues to demolish public housing and affordable housing units, most of all hurting its Black and brown communities. Organizations such as ONE D.C. have started “Cancel Rent” initiatives, organizing protests and educating renters via social media on the state of housing policies and their legal options. Under #cancelrent stories of Washingtonians can be found which put the spotlight on the individual struggles behind the scenes of the housing crisis.
As Moulden points out, what the city is witnessing right now are structural issues, meaning that even if the pandemic were not taking place, homelessness, displacements, demolitions of public housing, as well as the exorbitant rents people are paying would be just as big of a challenge. But the pandemic is a critical moment for people to shine the spotlight on the disparities on the housing market and to trigger some change by fighting for rent forgiveness and forming strong political coalitions. “We have a clear political position about housing and land where it needs to be de-commodified”, Moulden continues. “You will never meet the basic needs of human beings in a market based real estate, capitalized market for housing. It just doesn’t, the two things don’t go together.” For many, this housing reality means that moving south to the Maryland suburbs has been their only option, now framed as the “suburbanization of poverty” (Hochstenbach, Cody, and Sako Musterd 2017). At the same time, since 2005 the District of Columbia, as the core of the greater metropolitan area, has increasingly gained population. This leads to the perception that new housing within District limits is for affluent newcomers and that affordable housing dollars have “been going to new people that are coming to D.C.”, as Moulden laments. His observations are not without basis. The District’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget promises 36,000 new residencies by 2025 (Government of the District of Columbia 2021). Only 1,000 units have been bookmarked as “affordable housing” for the year 2021. In practice, cases studies show that investments go into renovating affordable units which results in people being moved out, mostly with little prospect of moving back in once the units have been upgraded (Gerhard and Keller 2019). The same budget includes $1 million for electric vehicle charging stations in D.C. government office buildings. Bike lanes and other “safe streets” initiative are set to receive $162 million. While those are certainly important investments, the Fiscal Year 2021 budget clearly prioritizes the future success of infrastructure and industry over an immediate need for housing. If 50 percent of D.C. residents can be projected to be cost burdened, why are city investments going elsewhere?
Theresa, too, expresses his concern about how financial priorities are shifting during the pandemic. He is afraid that fewer investments will come to D.C. as investors have now started to focus on second tier and smaller cities which are especially attractive in times of home office and remote work. “And so even if the housing market (…) stays inflated with all the speculation going on, I think cities are gonna suffer because people actually aren’t, like, coming to cities anymore.” However, in his eyes, this would not lead to some relaxation on the housing market in the capital, but rather mean a severe cut to D.C.’s budget as income and sales taxes from people moving to and living in the city would be missing, leading to further disinvestment in those parts of the city which are already worse off. He states that since the beginning of the pandemic, D.C. has seen a lot of vacancies in the luxury segment. It seems a sad irony that the number of vacancies and the number of homeless people are increasing simultaneously. This is the result of actions put in place before the pandemic even started.
It appears like the city did not take the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to rethink their investment and development strategies. In Theresa’s opinion, D.C.’s City Council seems somewhat “delusional”, hoping that things will just go back to normal, and that people will keep coming, but “nobody quite knows what cities are going to be like after Covid.” Theresa’s worry is shared by residents and city governments across the country. The nation’s capital, however, faces specific challenges and “back to normal” does not necessarily mean stability for residents, the majority of which are people of color. Through the fight for Home Rule, the expansion of the federal government, corporate investments, and a boom of newcomers and tourists, District residents have for generations experienced the everchanging nature of the nation’s capital. Throughout January 2021, for example, D.C. residents found their city at the mercy of Trump-supporting tourists who declared their perceived right the city and Capitol Hill through violence. Residents responded by calling for statehood (Flynn and Amenabar 2021) and demanding Airbnb cancel January D.C. reservations; Mayor Bowser turned to federal agencies to revoke city event permits and increase security. The concept of “going to Washington” in general has become such an engrained part of American identity and power that tourism has climbed steadily for 10 years. 24 million visitors went to D.C. in 2019, and 11 million visited in 2020 despite the pandemic (Destination DC). Amazon, too, staked its claim to “go to Washington” in 2018 after announcing a new headquarters in nearby Arlington, Virginia – a move that critics fear will increase gentrification (Amazon 2018). The cultural dynamics of who the nation’s capital is “for” affects not only city planning but a general sense of who has the right to prosper – not just reside – in the city. Looking to the future, finding sustainable solutions now means addressing the pandemic and housing crisis alongside these rapid changes that the nation’s capital endures.
In the Fiscal Year 2021 budget Mayor Bowser wrote of her goal to “work together to make the District whole” while recovering from the pandemic (Government of the District of Columbia 2020). Organizations such as Serve Your City have played a crucial role in their version of “whole” by helping people to stay safe, fed, warm, and healthy. Members have been out in the streets all day every day, responding to the needs of the many people who live in precarious conditions or who have become homeless during the pandemic. Cook and his colleagues practice mutual aid by doing everything from advocating for a cancellation of rent to doing the heavy lifting on the ground, handing out masks, hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies, and groceries. They have even created hotspots and organized after school programs so that kids are taken care of and can keep up with their schoolwork. The list of Serve Your City’s duties is almost endless, highlighting how housing is not only about having a place to stay, but that it is pivotal to a person’s health, education, employment, nutrition, and communal integration. And so, one year after stay-at-home orders started, Cook sees people struggling as they find themselves falling into the crevice of class and racial disparities: “It is a city falling in the crevices [and] the crevice is growing like a canyon.”
Walking through certain neighborhoods in the capital, one cannot help but notice the CANCEL RENT signs hanging on light posts and fences or one of the many homeless encampments. It is clearly visible that many people are struggling especially hard during the long year of the pandemic – that with rent back pay hanging over their heads, they will never have any “dirt of land to stand on”, as Moulden expressed. Where people live and how people live determines how they get through the pandemic with regards to sanitary homes, community ties, and accessibility to infrastructures such as supermarkets, pharmacies, urgent care facilities, and social institutions like playgrounds and libraries. Looking into the future, it seems an even more bizarre prospect, then, to “make whole” the District where many of one’s neighbors are housing insecure and whose status as the nation’s capital continues to rapidly transform the daily experience and landscape of the city. Safe, affordable housing is the only stability the District Government can offer to close the crevices in the city deepened by the pandemic and give long term residents the support they deserve. Housing people is the only thing what will make the District “whole.”
Further Information & Ways to Support Mutual Aid
ONE D.C. / Organizing Neighborhood Equity represented by Dominic Moulden, member and community organizer
Serve Your City / Ward 6 Mutual Aid, represented by Maurice Cook, executive director and lead organizer
Stoop Law / Community Justice Project, represented by Aristotle “Ari” Theresa, civil rights attorney
Dominic, Maurice, and Ari were interviewed in February and March 2021 by Judith Keller.
Further Readings on the Housing Crisis
Desmond, Matthew. 2016. Evicted. Poverty and Profit in the American City. London: Penguin.
Gottesdiener, Laura. 2013. A Dream Foreclosed. Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home. Westfield, NJ: Zuccotti Park Press.
Harvey, David. 2012. Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso.
Shaw, Randy. 2018. Generation Priced Out. Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. Oakland: University of California Press.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. 2019. Race for Profit. How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Amazon. 2018. “Amazon selects New York City and Northern Virginia for new headquarters.” Retrieved from: https://www.aboutamazon.com/news/company-news/amazon-selects-new-york-city-and-northern-virginia-for-new-headquarters (last accessed March 18, 2020).
Destination DC. 2020. “Washington, DC’s Visitation Numbers and Forecast, Discusses Industry Resiliency Efforts.” Retrieved from: https://washington.org/destination-dc-releases-washington-dcs-visitation-numbers-and-forecast-discusses-industry-resiliency (last accessed March 18, 2020).
Eviction Lab. 2018. We’re unpacking America’s eviction crisis. Retrieved from: https://evictionlab.org/ (last accessed on February 24, 2021).
Flynn, Meagan and Teddy Amenabar. “Could D.C. become a state? Explaining the hurdles to
statehood.” The Washington Post, January 9, 2021 Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/01/08/washington-dc-statehood-faq/ (last accessed on March 25, 2021).
Gerhard, Ulrike and Judith Keller. 2019. “‘My Home Is My Castle’ – über die Rolle von Vertrauen im Wohungsbau. Ein Blick auf US-amerikanische Städte.” Forum Wohnen und Stadtentwicklung 6: 300-304.
Government of the District of Columbia. 2020. Executive Summary: Fiscal Year 2021 Approved Budget and Financial Plan. Retrieved from: https://cfo.dc.gov/publication/2021-budget-executive-summary (last accessed on March 3, 2021).
Government of the District of Columbia. 2021. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s FY22 Pocket Guide. Retrieved from: https://mayor.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/mayormb/page_content/attachments/FY22%20Budget%20Pocket%20Guide_1-10-21.pdf (last accessed on March 18, 2021).
Hochstenbach, Cody and Sako Musterd. 2017. “Gentrification and the suburbanization of poverty: changing urban geographies through boom and bust periods.” Urban Geography 39 (1): 26-53.
Joint Center for Housing Studies. 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/ (last accessed on March 16, 2021).
National Alliance to End Homelessness: State of Homelessness. 2020 Edition. Retrieved from: https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/homelessness-statistics/state-of-homelessness-2020/#ChapterOne (last accessed on March 18, 2021).
National Register. 2020. Temporary Halt in Residential Evictions to Prevent the Further Spread of Covid-19. National Register. The Daily Journal of the United States Government. Retrieved from: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/09/04/2020-19654/temporary-halt-in-residential-evictions-to-prevent-the-further-spread-of-covid-19 (last accessed on March 16, 2021).
Office of the Tenant Advocate of the District of Columbia. 2020. COVID-19 State of Emergency & Tenant Rights/Services. Retrieved from: https://ota.dc.gov/publication/covid-19-state-emergency-tenant-rightsservices (last accessed on March 15, 2021).
Salviati, Chris. 2019. 2019 Cost Burden Report: Half of Renter Households Struggle with Affordability. Apartment List. Retrieved from: https://www.apartmentlist.com/research/cost-burden-2019 (last accessed on March 16, 2021).
U.S. Department of the Treasury. 2021. The Treasury Department is Delivering Covid-19 Relief for All Americans. Retrieved from: https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/cares (last accessed on March 16, 2021).
Zillow. 2021. Zillow Real Estate. Retrieved from: https://www.zillow.com/ (last accessed on March 16, 2021).
Header image: Two Different Housing Situations in Washington, D.C., 2019 (Photo by Judith Keller)
Photo 1: Homeless Encampments in Washington D.C.’s Shaw District (Photo by Dominic Moulden)
Photo 2: “Rent Relief Protest” by Anthony Crider is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Photos 3 & 4: New apartment complexes are springing up all over the city (photography: Judith Keller)
About the Authors
Judith Keller is a doctoral researcher in the graduate program Authority and Trust (GKAT) at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA), funded by the German Research Association (DFG). As a social and urban geographer, she focuses on urban social movements and questions of social justice such as access to housing, education, health services, supermarkets, and urban infrastructures. Judith Keller studied Geography and English in Heidelberg and Tiffin and was a 2019 participant of the Abigail Adams Summer Seminar at Harvard University. You can get in touch with her on LinkedIn or via E-Mail.
Lauren Rever is a public historian and doctoral researcher in the graduate program Authority and Trust (GKAT) at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA), funded by the German Research Association (DFG). Her research focuses on public history labor and the role of historical institutions in American life. Lauren Rever holds a BA from Boston College and an MA from The George Washington University. You can get in touch with her on Instagram or via E-mail.
Great. Very good article. Even though it is definitely a sad reality. Following from that, here is my question: what would be a way out of the social and also political misery? Any ideas? Suggestions? What role could urban planning/geography/public history play to climb out of the canyon-like crevice? I am looking forward to discussing this with you.
Thanks, Professor Gerhard! Lauren here –
To parrot Erin Cole and Nicole Moore of the National Council for Public History: public history is a muscle. It is something that everybody can practice and use. Practicing public history means finding context and revealing root causes. Then talking openly about them with others to decide our future (individual & collective) actions.
Doing public history can mean learning about and following a tradition (like how Serve Your City follows in the footsteps of many other mutual aid groups). It could also mean bringing up important conversations with people in power based on knowledge of the past (maybe your company is looking to expand into a new neighborhood). Doing public history also shifts conversations about the present away from moral terms (“I must have done something wrong to be in this situation”). Making clear the actions of the past helps build actions for today.
(And, to echo Dominic Moulden, housing should not be a commodity!)