Television images from New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina made many Americans confront anew the nation’s deep divisions by race and class.
If you live in D.C., though, you don’t need CNN to see the sort of concentrated urban poverty that affected places like New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Our city’s most troubled neighborhoods closely resemble New Orleans’ distressed corridors before the hurricane.
In fact, a new Brookings analysis shows that in 2000, one-fourth of D.C.’s poor—roughly 30,000 people, the vast majority of them African-American—were locked into “extreme poverty” neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods, most of them east of the Anacostia River, at least four in ten people lived below the federal poverty line. Washington ranked 11th among the nation’s big cities on this concentration of poverty And because D.C.’s overall poverty rate has risen since 2000, the picture probably isn’t any better today.
Katrina showed how residents of the poorest neighborhoods, lacking transportation and cut off from information, can get left behind in an emergency. But Washington’s extremely poor neighborhoods embody a slower-moving humanitarian disaster. Concentrated poverty limits access to quality employment, educational, and housing opportunities. More than 40 percent of adults in D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods are disconnected from the labor market. High crime rates and low-quality housing debilitate families mentally and physically. Being poor in an expensive city like D.C. is difficult enough, and life in these neighborhoods just compounds the problem.
The city can do a lot to confront concentrated poverty. We already have a head start—we’re at the center of one of the country’s best-performing metropolitan economies. But the city and the region are generating jobs faster than qualified workers, leaving many low-skilled workers disconnected from the area’s prosperity. A two-pronged strategy focused on housing and workforce development would widen opportunities for the District’s poorest residents.
The city’s New Communities initiative is a big step in the right direction—redeveloping distressed neighborhoods into mixed-income communities and providing supportive services for residents. The key is to make sure that current residents don’t get lost in the re-development shuffle. Apart from “new neighborhood” strategies, the city needs to preserve and create affordable housing in neighborhoods where the market is booming and generate market-rate housing in distressed areas. A well-funded Housing Production Trust Fund is critical, and the healthy real estate market leaves the city ample room to increase its contributions to the fund. A mandatory inclusionary zoning policy now before the Zoning Commission would ensure that new housing developments include a certain percentage of affordable units.
And with rents still rising in the region, low-income families need more help to access housing outside the poorest neighborhoods. Investing local dollars to augment federal housing voucher funds, which subsidize rents in the private market, can help narrow the gap between incomes and the cost of quality housing.
This is not only the city’s problem to solve, however. The concentration of poor households in particular District neighborhoods partly reflects the lack of affordable options in the suburbs. Smoothing the way for developers to build higher-density projects in close-in areas around transit is crucial—producing more units will soften the market overall, reduce demand for subsidies among moderate-income residents, and make it easier for affordable developers to do their job. Suburban jurisdictions should also enact strong inclusionary zoning ordinances, and can look to Montgomery County as an example.
Of course, housing strategies alone are not enough. The city also needs to increase the earning power of its low-income residents through smart workforce strategies. Like the rebuilding of New Orleans, the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative presents huge opportunities for local workers. Let’s link the initiative’s infrastructure projects to a transitional jobs program—subsidized, short-term employment that helps workers overcome barriers to employment like criminal records or low skills. The District’s Department of Transportation, for instance, has already funded the Earth Conservation Corps to work with at-risk youth to rehabilitate portions of the 21-mile Anacostia Riverwalk.
One of the city’s most underutilized workforce resources is the University of the District of Columbia. UDC has a tough job, functioning as both a state university and community college. Currently it offers a handful of certificate and associate’s degree programs. But it comes nowhere near meeting the demand for post-secondary education among residents. UDC deserves greater financial and political support to develop stronger community college and workforce programs. Rejuvenating the Career and Technical Education division within the DC public schools would help, too, creating a direct pipeline from high school to apprenticeships, further education, or employment.
In short, we have a lot of options. In a vibrant city like Washington, concentrated poverty is inexcusable. Ten years from now, if we still rank as high on this statistic, then public policy and private initiative will have failed our city’s most vulnerable residents.