Can gentrification be illegal?
That's the question at the heart of a recent lawsuit in Washington, D.C., which alleges that the city courted "creative-class" millennials in recent years at the expense of longtime Washingtonians, particularly the city's lower-income African-American residents.
The city filed a motion to dismiss the $1 billion lawsuit, which was filed in April by a civil rights attorney on behalf of three D.C. residents and a local advocacy group. The city claims that the court doesn't have jurisdiction to determine whether housing officials were discriminatory in their efforts to attract young, professional workers.
What's more, since the city acted alone in attempts to attract creative-class workers, the defendants claim that there was no conspiracy to discriminate against residents based on their income and how they earned a living.
The plaintiffs say they plan to file for a summary judgement, asking the court to decide on the case based on the evidence that has been presented. They must file within three weeks.
At issue in the case is the question of whether the city enacted housing policies that were unfairly tilted in favor of a certain class of new resident.
“The city is intentionally trying to lighten black neighborhoods, and the way they have primarily been doing it is through construction of high-density, luxury buildings that primarily only offer studios and one bedrooms,” the suit reads. "Every city planning agency ... conspired to make D.C. very welcoming for preferred residents and sought to displace residents inimical to the creative economy.”
Not only did the city do that, the plaintiffs allege, it laid out its plans in black and white, in a 2010 report called “Creative Capital: The Creative D.C. Action Agenda.” That report suggested new strategies for attracting creative-class employees, including zoning changes to develop housing for creatives. The plaintiffs also assert that the city ignored established zoning practices to make way for younger, well-educated professionals to reside in the city.
“What we found was a pattern of behavior at zoning we thought was discriminatory,” says Aristotle Theresa, the attorney who filed the suit. It's a pattern that he says has continued to the present.
Like countless other cities in recent years, Washington has expressly sought to attract young workers in fields like technology, media and the arts -- the so-called creative class, first outlined by famed urbanist Richard Florida in his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. In that book, Florida described the group as "people in design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or creative content."
As more of those types of residents have flocked to central cities in the past two decades, they have gentrified neighborhoods and sometimes clashed with longtime residents who have been pushed out by rising housing prices.
But proving that a city like Washington "intentionally" discriminated against people based on age and source of income, as Theresa's lawsuit claims, will be difficult.
As one legal expert told The Washington Post, building new housing in lower-income neighborhoods is simply the way development works.
“Developers are looking at areas in the city where they can buy low and sell high,” Derek Hyra, an American University professor who has written about gentrification in Washington, told the newspaper. “Developers want to maximize their return. This is not a conspiracy. This is capitalism.”
Still, Theresa argues that Washington, in catering to young creatives, has been too accommodating to developers. Existing residents, he says, are often outmatched.
“It’s impossible to keep up with these developments. They have thousands of pages worth of records. As a citizen, how do you oppose these things when you are facing lawyers [who are] paid to get projects approved?”
The policies in Washington aren't unique, he adds. He hopes cities will at least slow down and better consider the needs of the existing community in making development decisions.
"What happened in D.C. is happening in other cities,” Theresa says.
*CORRECTION: A previous version erroneously stated that the lawsuit had been dismissed. The lawsuit is still pending.