Six hundred and ten square feet of possibility
The furniture catalogs and interior design books belonged to my mom’s friend, who collected them in her flawless house in Wembley. I liked to peruse their pages on my overnight visits, after everyone went to sleep. As a 12-year-old kid with a vivid imagination and an aptitude for the visual arts, I’d long paid attention to space and aesthetics, to the way things landed and were laid out. But seeing others’ visions had opened my eyes to a universe of possibilities. Home didn’t have to be a compromise or mere afterthought; it could be intentional, a place built on principles. I daydreamed of someday moving into a home where I could paint the walls, where I could realize just one of those possibilities for myself.
At the time, my mom and I shared a flat on the first floor of a plain Victorian in Harlesden, London NW10. Her bedroom was real, but mine was a closet the width of my single bed, so small it could only be entered and exited from the left pillow side. A window was carved into the wall that ran the length of my bed, and a shelved nook was cut into the opposite wall—a closet within a closet. But the bed pressed against the nook, blocking the bottom shelves. Thick black spiders perched on the burnt-orange curtains at night and watched me ball up as far away from them as our narrow circumstances allowed. On our first day home, the landlord, a handsome Jamaican man with exceptionally clear skin, had urged us to not report him to the housing authority. But we never would have, not after everything it had taken to end up in that flat.
We had met the legal definition of homelessness soon after emigrating from France, which is to say we had no address and not enough money to afford one without help. This precarious financial position made us eligible for social housing, but London was expensive, so the waiting list numbered in the thousands. Until our turn, the city shuffled us from hostels to inns on its tab.
In the late afternoons, my mom would keep her phone on hand in case a bureaucrat called with instructions to sleep elsewhere. If no one called, we stayed where we had been the previous night. Whether this was good news depended. Sometimes, our stay was as charming as the bedrooms that my mom cleaned in her brief stint as a hotel maid. Other times, it was one more night in a cramped hostel—like the one near Edgware Road, past the posh homes and tall hedges, which had a mouse problem, and a kitchen that my mom refused to use without deep cleaning it first, and a repeat boarder whose kindness was undermined by the unfortunate scent that overtook the hostel anytime he showered.
I was 12 and accustomed to being at the mercy of adults and their judgment. I had no power over my own person, no autonomy. Custody had outsourced the matter of where to be, what to eat, when to sleep, what to watch, whom to see, and where to settle. If this aspect of childhood felt tolerable, it was because it came with a sunset. Children were supposed to grow up and receive the keys to their lives. But after hauling our suitcases between inns and hostels, being jerked around like the silver balls in a pinball machine, I wasn’t sure I still believed in that handoff. Poverty superseded age and it swallowed up choices. It turned us into people who were happened to.
After a spring of uncertainty, the housing authority found a leafy corner of Willesden just for the two of us. It was a pleasant flat, except for the mold in the kitchen. My mom bleached the black patches and opened the windows wide. Still, the mold persisted. We hated to seem ungrateful—this flat beat the hostels by a mile—but my lungs were sensitive and my mom’s cleanliness bordered on compulsive. She mentioned the issue to the authority, hoping a professional would treat the wall in a few months. Instead, the authority had offered us the Harlesden flat.
My bedroom was no room at all, but we were exhausted and steeled against discomfort. The landlord and his fudged math were safe with us. Besides, escaping was as easy as shutting my eyes. I lay in my closet, splayed amid borrowed catalogs, and stacked imaginary bookshelves to the ceiling of imaginary homes where no one cared about what anything cost.
I had recently turned 16 when my mom bought her first home with my stepdad. We now lived in Nevada, which was in the midst of a real estate boom: the future was expanding to the south of Reno, where the desert was being seeded with imitation-Tuscan homes. To entice buyers, sales agents placed free real estate guides at the entrances of grocery stores around town. Curious about my classmates’ neighborhoods and what hid behind the lavish chalets in Incline Village, I always grabbed a guide on my way out the door.
Underneath each photo square, a block of text would distill the top amenities in shorthand. Jacuzzi in master. Four-car garage. Steps to Kings Beach. It was hard to imagine being unhappy in houses that had everything. If you could afford the seven-figure price tag, there was probably nothing you couldn’t buy. My parents would never be rich, and neither would I, but that made fantasizing all the more fun.
Something else about the free guides piqued my interest. The grid of listings was evidently governed by the same set of rules that determined the cost of each house. These rules went unexplained, but their effects could be grasped and even predicted with careful study. Reading the guides from front to back, I learned that houses could be identical without being equal: if two houses were substantively similar but one was zoned for Hug High and the other for Galena High, their cost couldn’t match unless the second house hid some terrible defect. Even though the precise reasons for these discrepancies eluded me, the Reno metro area’s housing market came to feel intuitive. Its rules reminded me of gravity; I couldn’t explain Newton’s Law, but I understood that an apple shaken from a tree would always fall to the ground.
In the beginning, the free guides told a story of prices with nowhere to go but up. A contagion of optimism, and loosened standards for borrowing, meant that everyone suddenly had the chance to buy low, sell at a profit, and repeat until they got rich. A month before my mom and I moved to America, President George W. Bush stood at the pulpit of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta and delivered a passionate pitch for expanding homeownership among minorities:
I believe there is such a thing as the American Dream. And I believe those of us who have been given positions of responsibility must do everything we can . . . to make sure the dream shines in all neighborhoods, all throughout our country. Owning a home is part of that dream, it just is. Right here in America, if you own your own home, you’re realizing the American Dream.
My parents pulled the trigger in late December 2004. One cold evening, a school night, the three of us sat in a small conference room across from their real estate agent, a petite blonde who wore her hair in two infantile braids. She explained how to claim a piece of the pie. You had to put in an offer and wait for other bids. After a deal was made, there would be a litany of fees, for a physical inspection, a title search, taxes, and other closing necessities. Dave had gone through this process in the ’90s, but this was my mom’s first time. She knew the house by Huffaker Park was the one the minute she stepped inside. I could see her chart the possibilities as we checked out the den, dining room, and upper floor. This was the American Dream, then: a loan approval and a house that two parents could agree on.
The agent delivered her spiel over my melodramatic sighs and eye rolls. Embarrassed by my little performance, my parents asked me to spit it out. This deal seemed like trash, I said. The asking price, which hovered around $315,000, was absurd for this particular house. For starters, it was twice my age and looked it. Its most basic features were outdated from top to bottom. And that was before we got to the garish stencil frieze that unspooled from the kitchen cabinets to the walls of my future bedroom, which was smothered in a demoralizing lilac. (The seller family’s matriarch had clearly undergone a DIY phase.)
I lacked the vocabulary to talk about market demand or identify a housing bubble, but I knew that something was shifting the rules in the south of the city. Whatever that something was, it was causing the freshly built developments in Damonte Ranch and Double Diamond to tumble in price. For $70,000 less than the asking price for this house, my parents could own a never-lived-in house with greater square footage near a mountain, a golf course, and the brand-new public high school. So why was this lady pushing so hard for the older house? (I had not been apprised of the mechanics of commissions.) My parents listened sincerely. The agent’s jaw clenched tight. It was her word against mine. She was an experienced professional, and I was a snotty teenager with a strange obsession. We moved into the Huffaker Park house weeks later.
On a sunny afternoon a few years later, in 2007, I watched through the window as our neighbor crossed the street and walked over to our home. Brandi was a broad woman with freckled arms and a kind demeanor. Her house was bigger but more densely filled. Aside from her husband and two kids, Brandi also lived with her mother, her grandmother, and two colossal Rottweilers that I’d seen the toddler girl brush like dolls.
Brandi handed a brochure to my mom. A guy in the mortgage business was giving a presentation at her place soon, pitching loans that could lower everyone’s monthly payments. Several neighbors had already RSVP’d. My mom said she’d think about it. The day of, though, she and my stepdad stayed home. They were not finance whizzes but they believed that if a thing sounded too good to be true, it probably was. This miracle loan reeked of bad surprises. They were sticking with their no-frills, thirty-year mortgage.
I now suspect that the broker was peddling mortgages with adjustable interest rates, which were the rage in the mid-aughts. The lender would guarantee a locked interest rate, typically for the first two to three years of the loan. The rate would be on the lower end, allowing for smaller payments. But there was a catch. After the locked period ended, the interest rate would reset on a schedule. The timing depended on the loan you picked—in some instances the interval could span one year, three years, or longer. The next interest rate was calculated based on a number of factors, including the risk that the borrower would be unable to repay the loan. If the risk was deemed to have increased for any reason, the monthly payment would rise sharply.
Borrowers often bet on one of several scenarios coming to pass before the balloon date. Perhaps their finances would drastically improve, making it easy to cover the higher amount. Some planned to refinance the loan instead, which is to say, negotiate a cheaper rate with the lender, as they’d seen many friends and family do over the years. Others yet saw a market headed ever upward, and banked on selling long before the higher payments hit.
It was a reasonable gamble. In Reno, all of us, whether poor or rich, were only a few degrees of separation from someone who had become a successful house flipper. Those people now had college savings accounts, new garages for new cars, and more rooms than they knew what to do with. Cultivating wealth was supposed to be simple. Buy low and sell high. Invest the profits into the next down payment. Retile the bathroom or splurge on a double oven. Watch the equity build up. Then, flip the house. With enough patience, you were bound to someday wake up in your ideal home.
Faith in the American Dreamers was universal, from the President who relaxed the lending criteria to the real estate agents who insisted on showing houses a hair above their clients’ budgets to the lenders who studied the Dreamers’ bank statements, computed the numbers, and nonetheless funded their enormous home loans.
Who among the American Dreamers could have predicted that jobs would suddenly disappear, that thousands of their fellow homeowners would default on their loans at once, that construction projects would grind to a halt, investment firms would flounder, and credit would evaporate—all shrinking their odds of selling and, with any luck, just breaking even?
I never discovered which of our neighbors entrusted their futures to the broker from Brandi’s house. But a few months later, Brandi and her four generations of family moved out, their home repossessed by the bank. Neighbors began to vanish in the night. Some abandoned their house keys in the front door, hopeful this would deter debt collectors from tracking them to the ends of the earth.
The loss spread like a virus. I remember foreclosure placards mushrooming around Huffaker Park. In a vicious cycle, each vacancy and tax sale lowered the value of the house next door. If the neighbors could still afford their loans, they were now likelier to owe more on their houses than the houses were worth on paper. No bank would agree to refinance under such conditions. Buyers held off. Why put in an offer today when the house might be cheaper tomorrow?
My parents had done everything right. The house was overpriced, but their loan itself had been within their means. They were proud to be owners and cared for the house with love. The stenciling was scraped off and the carpet torn out. The first floor was child-proofed so my mom could operate a small home daycare. We repainted the walls and planted tiger lilies outside. By the time I left for law school in August 2009, the house was prettier than ever. Nevertheless, outside forces had concluded it was now worth half the purchase price. Like many of their neighbors, my parents were facing a financial cliff. Being underwater meant paying for a house without building equity or security for the future. They might as well have rented and externalized maintenance costs on a landlord. But it wasn’t as simple as leaving the keys in the door—unless they could work out a deal, their lender would count on getting repaid in full, no matter how little money a sale could bring in. My parents’ ideal home had turned into a financial nightmare that would haunt them for years.
As middle-class Black Americans bought property once forbidden to them, a white panic seized the city.Tweet
The government claimed to be on the case. In my second year of law school, Congress authorized $475 billion in bailout funds. The money flushed corporate giants like Chrysler and AIG with quick cash, but the money slowed to a trickle for homeowners and people continued to lose their homes at alarming rates. A new federal statute, the Dodd-Frank Act, promised to reform the financial sector and created a new federal watchdog, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or CFPB. Professor Elizabeth Warren had left the faculty of my new law school to set it up in DC.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice and state attorneys general were making a big show of opening investigations. They were going to expose the root causes of the crisis. There was talk of potential criminal charges and fines assessed, and hope that people like my parents and their neighbors would be made whole. But where had this zeal been when bankers were running their industry like the wild west? How had capitalism—purportedly the greatest economic system in the world—let down millions of American Dreamers?
At a law school house party one night, a friend familiar with my longtime interest in housing wondered: Had I considered working for the federal government? The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in particular seemed right up my alley, he said. On top of administering the country’s public housing stock and housing vouchers program, subsidizing affordable housing, and dispensing disaster relief, HUD also enforced antidiscrimination laws and prosecuted violations of its program rules. Had my mom and I moved to the United States earlier, HUD might have been responsible for putting a roof over our heads. Whatever put the country in this big mess, my friend said, the department would have a role in undoing it.
On my first day of work at HUD, in late August 2012, the coordinator, Dara, showed me to a windowless office that, until recently, had moonlighted as a closet. I was to share it with two colleagues in my class of junior lawyers. The boy, Casey, was a wry but friendly hipster from upstate New York. My other office mate, Jacy, was a messy-haired brunette who rode a motorcycle and spoke French with an African accent despite being white, a result of her time in the Peace Corps in Benin. HUD had assigned us to separate divisions: Jacy and Casey to the group that enforced the Fair Housing Act, and me to the obliquely named Administrative Law division. None of our supervisors had room for us on their floors.
That was always HUD, a behemoth of ironies. The brutalist headquarters, with its strange curvature, was an iconic feature of southwest DC. But the architect had failed to account for the large number of bureaucrats who would eventually populate the building. Instead of bright and modern, the hallways were dark and poorly ventilated, earning it the epithet “ten floors of basement.” Shortly before my class started, a ceiling collapse had prompted a wave of office relocations—in the building of the organization tasked with ensuring that public housing agencies maintained their units in habitable condition. Dara apologized for the grim welcome, but I didn’t mind sharing a closet.
The day-to-day work was captivating, if somewhat remote from the agency’s core mission. After Hurricane Sandy proved that northern metropoles wouldn’t be spared by climate change, ambitious technocrats at the department decided to run a prestigious competition to gather ideas on building more resilient communities, and I spent hours advising them on the confines of the law. Some days, a political appointee might reach out with a question about whether appropriation laws permitted her to redirect funds to a certain project, or about the possibility of serving as a temporary director in one of HUD’s many divisions without Senate confirmation, and off I’d go, scurrying into the treatises. I enjoyed the variety and ambiguity of the work, the academic nature of it. It came to me naturally. Besides, whether the client took my advice or not, I could go home every night knowing I’d accomplished my primary job: covering the office’s ass with a clear and concise memo.
My heart was still in the business of providing safe and affordable housing to all, but I sometimes strained to articulate a clear link between my work and HUD’s responsibilities to the public. There had to be a kind of satisfaction, I imagined, in pointing to a tangible structure and being able to say one’s labor had contributed to housing families in economic precarity. I craved that connection. From what I’d heard, the action was in the regional and field offices, which buzzed with transactional lawyers who inked the deals that turned the agency’s lofty mission into reality. When the time came to select my first-year rotation, I asked Dara to ship me to where the deals were.
I began my summer detail at the DC field office, near Union Station, eager and hopeful. The Obama years were a tremendously exciting time at HUD; one couldn’t take a step without tripping over some public-private partnership. Bureaucrats on the public housing side were kept busy by a renewed commitment to addressing the multibillion-dollar backlog of maintenance costs that had allowed 1.2 million public housing units to fall into disrepair. HUD couldn’t make Congress fund its public housing budget adequately, not even during that glorious two-year period when the Democrats held the House and Senate on top of the White House. And the department’s hands were tied as far as building more units: the Faircloth Amendment, signed by President Bill Clinton, froze the number of federal public housing units to the number in existence on October 1, 1999. So the Administration had turned to the private sector to raise the capital, launching programs like the Rental Demonstration Assistance pilot, which created provisions for privatizing public housing in hopes of offsetting the costs of maintenance. “For example,” as Rachel M. Cohen explained in the American Prospect, “a local housing authority could either sell or lease a public housing building to a private developer; the developer in turn would agree to make certain renovations, and to respect tenants’ rights.”
To help stabilize the housing market after the crisis and encourage developers to take a chance on affordable housing, HUD was also investing millions of dollars in insuring projects with a multifamily housing component. All over the country, fresh construction carried the agency’s stamp of approval—a guarantee that if the developer defaulted on its loan, the government would pick up the bill.
What HUD’s work looked like in practice, though, hit me with an icy splash of disappointment. Rather than taking the lead on many of these multifamily housing deals, HUD intervened on the back end. This gave it little say on the ultimate design and amenities, or even on the prices renters would have to pay. Contracts between the private actors and HUD were pre-drafted and mostly nonnegotiable. It was also unclear to me if a deal could be halted once the wheels were set in motion, even for good reason. As the summer went on, I felt a growing suspicion that the government’s transactional lawyers were primarily paper pushers, cogs entrusted to check items off a list and babysit developers as they filled out forms. Did this even require a law degree? I doubted it.
I suppose the dullness of this work might have been bearable if the results had aligned perfectly with HUD’s mission. But even this was questionable. One afternoon, fellow junior colleagues and I were taken on a tour of beautiful unfinished apartments in the Shaw neighborhood, affordable housing built with HUD subsidies. Upon seeing the rent chart, we realized that we ourselves couldn’t have afforded to live in them.
It was impossible not to obsess about housing in DC. Rents were rising all over—but then again the city had been suffering from engineered housing crises for a century and a half. DC was built on layers of displacement, speculation, and migrations. As historians Chris Asch and George Musgrove have written, there would not have been a District of Columbia without a century of English colonists first decimating the native Nacostine tribe through “war, disease, and subjugation.” Decades later, descendants of these colonists would reproduce the cycle, waging a different war on the local Black population.
DC’s first white-only communities appeared around the 1890s, and by the turn of the century, the developer Francis Newlands was building Chevy Chase. The neighborhood’s central draw was that no Black Americans would have the right to buy or rent there—a guarantee the Chevy Chase Land Company was willing to enforce in court.
After the US Supreme Court declared “separate-but-equal” accommodations constitutional in 1896, in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson, more developers and landlords followed the lead of Chevy Chase. Restrictive covenants flourished. Suddenly, a third of DC’s population found its free movement constrained. The proliferation of segregated housing fed an artificial shortage. That cycle of engineered housing crises would roll into the next century, as de jure covenants eventually gave way to displacement via “beautification” and “urban renewal.”
By the time I arrived in DC, new and longtime DC residents were at the mercy of gentrification. A study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition concluded that between 2000 and 2013, DC experienced the highest “intensity of gentrification” in the United States. Between 2009 and 2011, around 30,000 newcomers had moved in, a majority of them white. National newspapers were beginning to report on older neighborhoods as if they were expeditionary finds, a habit that some residents derided as Columbusing. An overstory of cranes canopied the city, but never to seed additional public housing. President Obama’s smiling face joined murals of Bill Cosby and Chuck Brown on the alley-side of Ben’s Chili Bowl, the iconic restaurant on U Street. A couple of blocks away, the first of seven Busboys and Poets restaurants—their tagline: “Inspiring Social Change”—offered vegan scrambles, live slam poetry, and reassurance that the neighborhood’s vicious crack epidemic was firmly in the rearview mirror. In the era of hope and change, no enclave seemed safe from the creep of gentrification. Last I’d heard, white people had even been spotted east of the Anacostia River, in the Blackest and poorest part of DC.
For all that, few people were in a position to resist gentrification’s pull. A law school classmate and I had moved into a shared house in the car-centric suburbs, which were uninteresting but somewhat accessible by public transit and, most importantly, affordable. We had assumed that a mutual commitment to paying low rent—him being a well-off libertarian and me being poor—would suffice to make it work. But a few months in, our friendship was falling apart. Arguments were wearing on my patience. One afternoon I happened to mention that a mutual friend, a white woman, had once remarked that I was essentially “white on the inside.” She’d said this without malice, and I wasn’t upset with her at the time. My point was only that the older I got, the less I found this kind of comment acceptable. What I didn’t expect was my roommate to defend the merits of the remark, or to volunteer his definition of Blackness to me, with all the sensitivity of a sheltered, libertarian white man from the South. The more he doubled down, the more convinced he seemed by his own argument. It didn’t seem to bother him that under his definition, I was no longer Black. Or maybe that was the point.
We argued again in the wake of the murder of a young Black woman named Renisha McBride. She’d gotten in a car wreck in the early morning hours and knocked on the door of a house on a residential street in a suburb of Detroit. The homeowner, a white man, had answered with a shotgun in hand. He’d blasted it through the screen door, killing McBride instantly. I’d found this news deeply upsetting. Black America seemed to be passing through a season of death, starting with the killing of Trayvon Martin a few yards from the home where he was staying—though perhaps the season had begun much earlier and I was only now noticing. Either way, I was tired of being reminded, death after death, that lives like mine didn’t matter.
The question at the forefront of our kitchen was whether, like Trayvon Martin’s killer, the man who fatally shot McBride should go unpunished. Under Michigan law, the homeowner could claim self-defense, but only if he honestly and reasonably believed that killing McBride was necessary to prevent his imminent death, great bodily harm, or sexual assault. My roommate considered the question a no-brainer. Of course the homeowner’s fear was reasonable. I couldn’t believe my ears. In no universe could an unarmed, injured, 19-year-old woman begging for help embody such great danger. Unless, of course, her Blackness counted as an aggravating factor.
I thought of myself, of how disheveled I could be, head-in-the-clouds enough to misplace my house keys and need to be let in in the middle of the night. And I thought, too, about the firearm my roommate had in his bedroom. Would he have been that afraid—the imminent death, great bodily harm, or sexual assault kind of afraid—if it were me at the front door that morning? My roommate answered: “Probably.”
After that, I began scouring local apartment listings in earnest. At any given moment, that fall of 2013, my browser was open to listings in the city and to the home decor website Apartment Therapy, which I’d discovered through my office mate and now close friend Jacy. Jacy shared my deep curiosity about how and where others lived, and together we’d developed a habit of satisfying our curiosity by scrolling through endless listings. Maybe in five years, I reasoned, I’d have enough saved to leave the shared house in Arlington, Virginia, for DC. I scrolled through the staged interiors, speculating about a future that I couldn’t remember ever not chasing. Dream job. Perfect romance. Tightknit community. Didn’t it all begin with the ideal home?
DC didn’t make the search easy. Luxury apartments went for luxury prices. Meanwhile, the cheaper housing stock was rife with code violations. Jacy lived in an art deco building up in Mount Pleasant, a weird little sublease fitted with a single sink so close to her bedroom that we refused to believe it was up to code. My boyfriend lived south of her, in a rent-controlled walkup near Malcolm X Park, large and sunny but infested with a scurry of roaches. In the winter, the central heating puttered out, dropping indoor temperatures to the high fifties. The cold was uncomfortable, and a quirk made me feel it more acutely on one side of my body. But to the babies on the lower floors, the temperatures were life-threatening. Tenants told the supers, the supers told the landlords, and the landlords shrugged off the complaints. A critical mass of the tenants in Jacy’s and my boyfriend’s buildings were undocumented immigrants from Central America, so the landlords didn’t have to care. Where else would they all go, the shiny buildings rising on Fourteenth Street?
The market for sale was just as strained. Every week, it seemed, another affordable unit vanished from the real estate listings. Under Contract. Sale Pending. Sold. In Petworth, where Casey lived in a shared house, the average raw profit on house flips reached $312,400 in 2013, which had gotten it crowned the “best neighborhood in the country to flip” that year. A condo would sell and the following week a near identical replacement would appear. Two streets down, same square footage, same appliances. Only for $10,000 more. Under Contract. Sale Pending. Sold.
We were eating lunch in the HUD cafeteria one day when Jacy told me about a city-administered program that sounded interesting. She, too, was looking for new living arrangements. The one-sink apartment, it had turned out, was an illegal sublease—a fact that she’d recently discovered by way of an eviction notice.
The premise of the program was simple. City government would put down up to three percent of a home price for any household that made less than $126,000 a year and for any property within the DC limits. In exchange, the homebuyer would commit to staying five years. A carrot to retain a yuppie tax base that often decamped for cheaper pastures after a few years.
Though this sounded too good to be true, and though I hadn’t lived in a single place for that long since kindergarten, and though my savings were modest, a roach-free apartment for one seemed like a real possibility. Our first raise from HUD, to $75,000, was coming soon. I’d been frugal, saving up $7,000 in my first year. A pittance in the grand scheme of things, but for me this represented my very own safety net. The prospect of handing it over to a real estate agent was harrowing. Still, I began squirreling away money even more diligently and kept my browser tabs open to units for sale.
I told myself that I was just looking, even as I returned to the online listing I’d seen for a condo in Petworth—a charming one-bedroom for sale near Grant Circle. I’d barely visited the neighborhood, but remembered how many of the faces at the Georgia Avenue metro station resembled mine. I’d had the feeling of melting seamlessly into the pot there. Something like home.
What did he think would happen if he called enough times? Some of the younger adults in the house would be sent to jail?Tweet
I was taken by the images of the condo despite their clumsy staging: the imposing armchairs, the awkwardly sized dining table, and the eggshell color that shriveled the walls. If it were up to me, there’d be an antique credenza in the living room, contrasted against a metallic bookshelf. The pendant lights in the kitchen would be swapped out for something more modern. And I’d put in a loveseat with clean lines in a fashionable neutral. Each of my virtual visits to the listing brought a fresh coat of paint: charcoal gray, forest green, a moody navy.
I expected the condo to disappear. This city teemed with people who were wealthier than me, with parents and grandparents whose own lucrative housing investments now allowed them to conjure large sums of money in their children’s bank accounts for adorable condos like this one. I deemed it foolish to get my hopes up.
Strangely, though, the condo sat on the market through Christmas. New Year’s Day of 2014 came and went, and the condo was still on the table. Reading this lingering as a sign, I made an appointment to go see it.
Though I wasn’t aware of it on the day of my visit, this corner of this neighborhood, and the garden-style building itself, were testaments to the city’s cycle of crises. The Petworth of the 1920s and ’30s had been idyllic. Residents were proud to call it home and participate in civic life. Describing the locals’ fierce loyalty in 1939, the Washington Post wrote, “their Home and School Association, their churches, and numerous other groups are geared for trigger action when the ‘threat of invasion’ is breathed. . . . No Washington section has more community consciousness, nor works harder to keep it. Petworth is distinctively Petworth.” Perhaps it goes without saying that “distinctively Petworth” meant proudly segregated. Residents leaned on institutional support to maintain this ideal. The Washington Real Estate Board refused to sell homes to Black families in segregated areas, and barred real estate agents who bucked the rule. This regime only began to crumble with Shelley v. Kraemer, one of the budding civil rights movement’s first victories in the Supreme Court. As of 1948, it was unconstitutional for states to enforce restrictive covenants.
Two years later, a Black DC postal worker named Samuel Harris bought one of the row houses on Grant Circle. Where white neighbors would once have pooled their resources and sued Harris out of the purchase, now the community settled for harassment and threats. This didn’t deter Harris’s sister, Jane Harris, and her husband from settling next door to Harris in 1951. A third Black family, the Lewises, moved in down the street.
As middle-class Black Americans bought property once forbidden to them, a white panic seized the city. Sensing opportunity, real estate agents urged white homeowners to sell fast, all the while flipping their homes back to Black buyers at inflated costs. Meanwhile, the Federal Housing Administration—a HUD predecessor—signaled its support of the ring of white suburbia quickly forming around DC with home loan subsidies for the fleers. Twenty years after Harris’s arrival on Grant Circle, the city had gone from 65 percent white to 70 percent Black. Local radio DJs started calling it Chocolate City.
The condo building that I wanted to see was charming now, but for a long time had been an eyesore and a symbol of those troubled days. Code violations had mired it for years. The elderly owners, Rufus and Delores Stancil, had entered the landlord business in the years following DC’s spending spree to revitalize Columbia Heights and other areas underserved by the city. Officials hoped that improving local amenities would entice investment and reverse the white flight. With the opportunity to sell high imminent, in the 1970s landlords began to evict tenants at jarring rates. Thousands of former rentals sat empty, awaiting developers who would rehabilitate them before selling them, usually to well-off white professionals. The city’s rates of displacement and homelessness soared. Tenants and local organizers pushed back through creative direct actions like rent strikes, squatting, lobbying to transfer properties into land trusts, and even hunger strikes. The movement eventually won tenant protections codified in the law and, in 1978, the passage of the Speculator’s Bill, a tax aimed at curbing the ravages of gentrification.
While discussing the anti-speculation tax in a 1975 hearing, the DC council member and future mayor Marion Barry asked: “How do you stop the speculator without also stopping the bona fide builder or restorer who provides decent and sound housing at justifiable prices?” The speculators bought low and sold high, without having changed so much as a lightbulb. Slumlords like the Stancils thrived on scarcity. But developers were supposed to be different. Developers were the city council’s hope for restoring DC to her integrated glory, elevating her as a beacon of economic prosperity—a hope for America’s white-deserted cities. But in the end, they found enough common ground with the speculators to rally against the anti-speculation tax, to ensure that the final bill was first defanged and then, three years later, off the books entirely.
The Stancils eventually lost the Petworth building in a tax sale in fall 2011, opening the door for a developer to gut the property and start over. Kitchen islands made of silvery-white stone. Wood floors and cabinets stained in dark mahogany. Long windows along the street-side wall. Sparkling bathroom tiles and tubs. White walls for a fresh start.
I found the condo even more beautiful in person. At six hundred and ten square feet, it was tiny but smartly laid out, and so felt spacious and airy. I left the tour exhilarated. My browsing checklist had never been onerous. The neighborhood had to be walkable and enjoy decent public transportation. I needed to feel safe, and so refused to be surrounded by affluence or neighbors frightened by my skin color. A majority-white neighborhood was out of the question. To me, the best communities were diverse. They were committed to, or at least counted members who were committed to, welcoming new faces without forcibly displacing long-term residents. I saw this potential in Petworth.
The ideal home would be above all a place that I never dreaded returning to. I hoped for an apartment with the bones to become beautiful at a price that wouldn’t jeopardize my first foray into financial stability. The cheapest unit in the building was priced at $280,000, while the third-floor condos hovered around $400,000. The one I cared to see was listed for $310,000, close to what my parents had paid for the Huffaker Park house, only for a third of the space and no yard. The city’s down payment assistance would lessen the risk of financial ruin. Still, the teenage me would’ve laughed.
On the day of the signing, I took the morning off and met my real estate agent at the condo. By then, I’d attended a mandated class for first-time homeowners and gathered a truckload of paperwork to convince the lender I could be trusted to make a mortgage payment despite the $125,000 in student loans looming over my credit report. I’d spent hours on the phone pleading with Old Navy and its third-party debt collector to remove a phantom debt off my report—the bill had never been sent to me for payment—with no success, until a last-ditch effort in the form of a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau resolved the issue. I’d taken the home inspector’s word that the water heater was functional and wired two-thirds of my savings to the developer before committing five years of my life to DC, unlocking the free money offered by the program.
And so, this was it. I paced the condo, taking in its smells, its eggshell walls, the soft light beaming through the bedroom window. Six hundred and ten square feet of possibility, though with the staging furniture gone, the condo felt larger. I’d have to fill it from scratch. Besides a mattress and an IKEA sofa past its prime, my belongings were few.
We waited for the developer’s attorney to show up. “She’s from Petworth, you know,” the real estate agent said, as if to reassure me about my choices. The attorney, a Black woman in a smart suit, arrived with a stack of legal documents. I signed and initialed without dwelling on the fine print. This deal was too far along for me to change my mind, and anyhow, the terms of the contract were nonnegotiable. This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? The agent handed me the keys with a proud, motherly smile: “Congratulations! You did it!”
I took the train from my condo to the HUD building. My condo. I didn’t know what to feel. Some of my law school friends had made big announcements on occasions like these. They posted photos of the keys on Facebook and posed by their new front doors on Instagram. Our mutual friends would validate them with hundreds of likes and comments, cheering them on for claiming their piece of the pie. But I couldn’t do it. Once at the HUD building, I told no one about my morning, save for my family back in Nevada and Jacy and Casey, who already knew.
The truth was, I was afraid. Afraid of having drained my self-made safety net into an impulsive purchase. Of becoming attached to a place that could be taken from me with one bad surprise. Of jinxing my luck with open joy.
My anxieties were not unfounded. I was for the first time squarely in the middle class. A public-servant salary had granted me the financial independence my parents had dreamed of for me. But this stability hinged on my wages; it was ephemeral. Months earlier, my roommate’s girlfriend, also a lawyer, had been walking down the street when a car swerved into the sidewalk and struck her. She’d survived the freak accident but suffered the aftereffects of a severe concussion. Had this happened to me, I wasn’t certain that HUD would’ve kept me on after my fourteen-month trial period.
Then there were the furloughs. In October 2013, a budget impasse between Democrats and Republicans had shut down HUD and other parts of the federal government for sixteen days. At the time, none of us knew whether we’d be paid back for our involuntary vacation. A longer shutdown might cause me to fall behind on my mortgage. I had no plan B. No secret trust fund to bail me out and no more savings to rescue my family. Being a junior lawyer made me disposable. Last hired, first fired. This home was one more thing to lose, on top of my health insurance.
For my parents, the so-called achievement that was homeownership had generated dozens of sleepless nights worrying about money. I’d seen it break up other families—people lost everything in a matter of months. The financial collapse spared few, and from 2007 to 2010, the median net worth of American families had dropped by 40 percent. But of course, Black and Latino households had not entered the recession on equal footing with their white counterparts: their median home equity had been lower, their incomes and savings smaller, their prospects for a substantial inheritance less likely. By the end of the Great Recession, in 2009, the share of Black American households that were worth zero dollars or less was greater than that of any other population, though Hispanics were close behind. The recovery had been just as uneven, with higher foreclosure rates falling along predictable lines. White and Hispanic households would eventually see a rebound in rates of homeownership, which remains the primary mode of building and rebuilding wealth in this country. But the number of Black homeowners would keep plummeting from its 2004 high.
For all the noise that the Justice Department had made while I was in law school, few heads had rolled in the wake of the crisis. Those who had been at the helm of the ship either were still there or had received bonuses for being fired. Government officials had admitted to letting foreclosures go on unabated to soften the hit on the banks’ bottom line. The banks had grown even bigger than they were before the financial crisis. This was the American Dream, then: a predatory marketing ploy. In what world, I wondered, was playing along, even with my eyes wide open, worthy of congratulations?
Still, I allowed myself to feel a pinch of contentment. Jacy and Casey biked over and spent a Sunday helping me cover the living room walls in charcoal and repose gray. When the drab eggshell was painted all over, I stepped back and admired our handiwork. Even if this apartment slipped through my fingers, I thought, no one could ever take from me the happiness of having made it truly mine for a moment.
The condo building wasn’t quite fully occupied at the time of my arrival. Erin, the midwestern redhead on the second floor, had been there longer than most. We usually ran into each other at the mailboxes and chatted while sorting through packages. I liked her. She seemed well-meaning, if a little high-strung, which the crime reports for Petworth didn’t help. Our conversations often ended with her dispensing safety tips. Women living alone had to look out for each other. After one of these conversations, she’d forwarded me advice from her friend. Ex-military, she said. The email read: Find out about the neighborhood watch. Install some security film on the windows. A dead bolt on the bedroom door. A home security system. Bear spray (link attached—“haha!”). Get to know your neighbors. Contact the city if it’s dark on the street-facing side. And no bushes covering the windows.
My stepdad had mailed me a pepper-spray dispenser while I was in law school. I figured it must’ve been somewhere around the apartment, congealed in its rigid plastic seal. I kept forgetting to search for it. But did I really need to? Had I missed something fundamental about Petworth? Sure, there was the occasional stabbing, and sure, a handful of houses were known for drug-dealing activity, but none of this called for panic. Our corner was largely serene. On Sundays, bell songs emanated from the two churches on 8th Street and Grant Circle and floated all the way to my windows. Domku, an Eastern European restaurant and a staple of Upshur Street, let me hole up in their window with Norwegian pancakes and magazines for hours. The neighborhood was expanding, too. An upscale restaurant had recently opened across from the small indie bookstore. A yoga studio was on its way.
The condo building filled up soon after I arrived. Newlyweds moved into the unit above mine. A senate staffer and his husband bought on the third floor. My hallway welcomed a thickset brunette named Sheila in the corner unit, a warm Brazilian couple at the other end, and a consultant across from my door. If this place was really so dangerous, would yuppies have descended on Petworth in such droves?
With all my meager savings in the condo, I was too broke to invest in Erin’s security measures anyway. A quality roll of the bulletproof film alone cost $300! No, I thought. Better to do what I had always done. No headphones at night. Always walk away from the gun shots. Kindly acknowledge the recurring faces of Petworth: the dazed teen who liked to show off his albino python, the cheerful drunks who idled by the post office, the rowdy teens by the metro station. On my way to work, I waved at the West Indian grandmother who oversaw our street from her porch until nighttime. The town house she shared with two or three generations of children was our closest neighbor on my side of the building. Like the others, she always waved back.
I thought of her on the day one of the other condo owners in my building emailed the building listserv to celebrate the news that, for what appeared to be the first time in Petworth history, a single-family home in the neighborhood had crossed the million-dollar threshold. It was near enough to us to raise the value of our building. In the short-term, our property taxes would go up, but we’d come out ahead. The more yuppies were willing to pay per square foot, the more owners on our block would be able to seek in a later sale. Our condos would be worth more than the year before, without us changing a single lightbulb.
In theory, this dynamic could benefit the West Indian grandmother and her household, too. If she or her heirs ever sold, they were sure to get more for the property than she’d paid. But how this would shake out for them depended on a number of factors, with several opportunities for bad surprises.
If the grandmother left no will behind—an issue more common among Black American families than white families—then the property would pass down to her children in equal parts. The children could sell, assuming the house was paid off or close to it and assuming they could all agree on doing so. After taxes, though, individual shares would be unlikely to afford each heir a home the size of the grandmother’s property and certainly not in any location as convenient as Petworth. Alternatively, they could hold on to the house, but this would mean maintenance costs and property taxes that would gradually rise with the value of surrounding homes. Falling behind on payments would mean a risk of losing the house to the city, just as the Stancils had lost my condo building. The city would auction it off to recoup its taxes, at a fraction of what a standard sale would’ve given the heirs. A developer would inevitably win the bid, break up the house into two or three condos, and list it on the market at a price none of the heirs could afford. Then, they’d take the proceeds and invest them in the next project. Buy low. Sell high. Repeat.
Each routine stop or wellness check, each petty neighbor complaint, had the potential to end a Black life.Tweet
The ugly truth was that my neighbors and I personally stood to benefit no matter the outcome for the West Indian family next door. As one drafter of the anti-speculation tax had put it, “although renovators and rehabilitators play the same role as the speculator in moving low- and moderate-income families out of their homes and neighborhoods, they do provide some benefits to the District through improvement of the housing stock.” This was true only in the narrowest sense. The “District” in that sentence represented a small group of winners: the city’s tax-funded budget, the developers, the residents who could afford to stay after the improvements and new amenities, and, last but not least, those of us who owned near the improvements.
My home was a commodity with a life of its own. It operated within DC’s cycle of displacement, increasing in value without much input from me, and regardless of my politics or morals. My income, which in my third year at HUD would approach six figures, made me an economic gentrifier. It had allowed me to pay an absurd amount for 610 square feet. And my willingness to do so reinforced the system by validating the real estate industry’s gamble that others in my tax bracket, or higher, would happily overpay for comfort. The next round of comparable condos would ask for even more money, fattening my own equity in the process.
In thinking about all this, I tended to dabble in hypotheticals, as if my purchase hadn’t already ensured that my predecessor in this apartment, the poor soul who had paid years of rent to the Stancils, could never return. Asch and Musgrove write in their history of DC that by 1790, “the Nacostines were long gone . . . so much so, in fact, that when Thomas Jefferson inquired about the name of the Native Americans who lived along the Eastern Branch, no one could remember.” More than any crime alerts, I feared the day someone would describe a Petworth born of a hundred years of gentrification, one where no one could remember its lost Black residents.
The system had made accomplices of all who now lived in my building. But still, there was a fundamental difference between Erin or the senate staffer and me. I was reminded of it every time my real estate agent emailed me automated estimates of my condo’s resale value. Watching the number creep up, I understood that the reason this was happening—at this speed, without my having to lift a finger—had everything to do with the demographics of the building. Despite institutional efforts to undo Jim Crow, studies consistently showed that the Blackness of a neighborhood sank property values. A critical mass of white newcomers had settled in Petworth, and a critical mass of Black residents had been priced out. I was part of a tender equilibrium. My neighbors’ returns, and my own, depended on there not being too much of me.
As months then years passed, I began to know my fellow condo owners through the building listserv. I learned that they hated the music that drifted from the West Indian house on the weekends, and were irked by the voices on their porch. The laughter of Black children playing late into the humid summer nights bothered them, as did the sight of Black men congregating in any number. As of late, some had taken to signing off emails with Stay safe! as if our street was war-torn Libya. I thought it possible that, since I rarely chimed in, most of my neighbors had forgotten that a Black woman was on the building listserv.
Why choose this street, I often wondered, if its liveliness, which preceded our arrival, was anathema to them? I asked myself this again when, in yet another dispatch about the West Indian house, the senate staffer wrote to us, “I’ve called the police many times over the years and nothing changes . . . I’ve never tried to talk to them myself as I’ve found them to be extremely unfriendly.”
Maybe the staffer saw these calls as his last resort. Because the house belonged to the grandmother, there was no boss to complain to, no landlord to rat her out to, no building manager to dispense a stern warning on his behalf. The staffer was too cowardly to address the neighbors in person—rightfully embarrassed, I hope, by the pettiness of his complaints—and so he deployed the state to resolve what was, at worst, a matter of neighborly consideration. But what did he think would happen if he called enough times? Some of the younger adults in the house would be sent to jail? The children would be removed from their family? Or perhaps he hoped the police calls would eventually intimidate the West Indian house into silence. After all, a quieter neighborhood made for higher property values.
Whether the Metropolitan Police Department recognized it or not, protecting these buildings, along with the delicate, fast-growing tax base inside them, was now one of its core duties. The arrival of the moneyed newcomers between 2000 and 2013 coincided with a $157 million increase in MPD’s budget. By 2017, the budget had swollen by another $92.6 million, easily gliding past the half-billion mark. That money came with expectations, or at minimum an expectation that the department bring down the district’s already declining crime rate even further. DC’s history should have foreshadowed that MPD would do this at the expense of some over others. Analyzing police records from 2013 to 2017, the ACLU has identified concerning disparities in the force’s enforcement. Black people made up less than half the city’s population in that period, but 86 percent of all arrests—an imbalance that held even in predominantly white neighborhoods. Of course, the police department was responsible for its own strategy, but calls to 911 were instrumental in directing its attention to particular neighborhoods and particular residents. Given a reason to look, the police could always find crime.
Reading his emails to the listserv, I felt as if the floor between the staffer’s condo and mine put us on different planets. In his world, the police were rational problem solvers. They showed up well equipped and willing to diffuse tensions. In mine, they were trigger-happy, prone to reacting brashly and later lying in their reports. Even those officers who looked like me—DC boasted one of the most diverse police forces in the country—seemed to think Black people were made of different stuff, that they felt less pain than others did. Each routine stop or wellness check, each petty neighbor complaint, had the potential to end a Black life. If this had ever been a mystery to the staffer, he should’ve known better by March 2018. The Black Lives Matter movement was, by then, four years old, and countless news reports had proved me right. Did the staffer simply not care? Was his vision of the ideal home, of the ideal Petworth, so superior that it warranted sacrificing just about anyone?
In a strange way, I understood where he was coming from. The relief at having found an ideal home. The desire to hold on to it. To stake a claim against anyone whose claim might encroach on his. We lived alongside others but each carried our own images of the right community and varying commitments to making that image into reality. In the background were industries and governments that built and razed, opened and shut doors, and redrew the borders of our loyalties along the way. So much of our lives was shaped by the ensuing collisions. Still, we had agency in how we weathered them.
One day, after my neighbors spent the better part of an afternoon speculating about the source of recent gunshots, I reached the end of my rope. In what became a particularly nasty, reply-all type of listserv fight, I asked the staffer to let me know if he wanted tips on how to live his life without harassing our next-door neighbors. Erin piped in to say that she didn’t think the staffer was being racist. The aftermath was awkward. The newlyweds above my unit either pointedly stopped acknowledging me when we passed each other on the street or simply abandoned any effort to differentiate me from other Black faces around the neighborhood. Sheila from the corner unit would later reassure me that, for her part, she didn’t see color—an admission I found more chilling than she intended. As for the staffer and me, we never acknowledged each other’s presence again. Erin remained pleasant as a sunflower, aloof to the damage caused by her comment.
With the knowledge that some of my building now resented me, I grasped for the first time the strength of my position as an owner with a title equal to my neighbors’. That day, I’d staked a claim on behalf of the West Indian house and other Black Petworthians, myself included. There was nothing my neighbors could do to force me out. There was no manager, no landlord, not even a police officer they could call on to punish my bluntness. I was as free as they were. Unless they wanted to suffer another public shaming, it was on them to accommodate my intolerance for their racist speculations. I expected them to try with the same zeal they showed in demanding our block accommodate their preferences. I didn’t regret my outburst. If living alongside Black people was so antithetical to their vision of the ideal home, they could leave.
And most of them did, in time. I doubt that it was my doing, as flattering as that would be. This is DC; turnover will always be high. The staffer and his husband bought a house north of our building. One of the two churches on 8th Street relocated to Maryland, where most of its Black congregation had already migrated, and sold to a developer who tore down the church’s dark brick and colorful windows, replacing them with high-end condos. The newlyweds left with a baby. Domku, the popular restaurant, closed after a decade in Petworth—the landlord raised its rent by 66 percent and wouldn’t budge. Sheila moved out of the corner unit, to a Maryland suburb with “good schools” for her infant daughter. My former roommate relocated to New York City and became a prosecutor. As for me, my days in the building were numbered after I met my future partner. Fortunately, the grandmother in the house next-door will outlast us all. Seven years after my arrival, you can still find her sitting on her porch, watching us come and go.