Shouldn’t the Poor Be Able to Live in D.C.? A Letter From Parcel 42’s Tent City

Shaw Tent city stands proudly against a backdrop of despair on the affordable housing climate where Shaw residents make on average $25,000 to $35,000 a year. Photo by Eric Sheptock.

Everyone was excited.  

It started with a community block party on July 10, attended by close to 200 people. Then, roughly 100 of the partiers marched to a vacant lot in Shaw, known as Parcel 42 to set up tents, tables, lawn chairs, beach umbrellas and a sign on the chain link fence declaring the encampment “The Land of Broken Promises.” And as of this writing, we are still taking action on the “Take Back the Land Campaign.”  

Going into this, we have a two-pronged goal. First, we want to call out Mayor Adrian Fenty on his broken promise to put 94 units of affordable housing on this vacant lot, Parcel 42, and get other local politicians to commit to making good on this promise if the present mayor won’t. Our second goal is to educate Washington, D.C. on the affordable housing crisis.  

People’s greatest fears, being shut down by the police before we even got started and possibly going to jail, have not materialized. Different groups of police have stopped by repeatedly to ask the same questions. But they have yet to evict us. We think they may be fighting a war of attrition, just waiting for us to get tired and go home.  

But every evening, six to ten people spend the night here at the tent city and some of them even go to work in the morning. Another group of six to ten people have manned the information table during the day and engaged the public in discussion about D.C.’s affordable housing crisis.  

The support and interest from the community is heartening. Dozens of people come when they get off from work to spend time with the campers and project a movie onto the exterior wall of a building on adjacent property. Many individuals, as well as representatives of Busboys and Poets and Food Not Bombs, have brought food and drink. Children come by each evening to play on the vacant lot. Some adult chaperones even brought their children’s summer activities groups to visit and learn about the pertinent issue.  

Residents of the city scurry by the tent city, while some stop to show support. Photo by Eric Sheptock.

A Georgetown University professor was making arrangements to bring her class of 20 students, studying about inner-city issues, to the tent city to learn about D.C.’s affordable housing crisis.  

City Councilman Michael Brown visited our campsite on the evening of July12, but apart from that, we haven’t had much luck with politicians. Nonetheless, we’ve garnered plenty of media coverage. We’ve been interviewed by ABC 7 News, Blue Lagoon (grassroots media), WPFW and the Associated Press.  

Some of the media outlets that have interviewed us have posted those interviews on their websites, which has given way to some rather crass, uninformed remarks from readers, most notable among them: those who can afford a cell phone or iPod should be able to pay rent. Some would go so far as to say that gentrification is a good thing or that their tax dollars shouldn’t go toward helping the poor to live in the city.  

Yet residents of the Shaw neighborhood have praised our efforts.  

ONE DC and the mayor have haggled over the degree of affordability this property should have for some time now. The Washington, D.C.’s area median income presently stands at $103,500 for a family of four because it includes the salaries of people in the surrounding counties’ suburbs. City officials originally planned to make this housing affordable to those making at least 60 percent of the AMI, or $62,100. That would seem like a kind gesture, until you consider the fact that residents of the Shaw neighborhood generally earn $25,000 to $35,000 per year.  

Building a property in this neighborhood that is affordable for those making $60,000 or more would raise the value of surrounding properties and the property taxes would follow suit. This would raise rents, and people who have lived in the neighborhood for many years would be priced out of their homes. Such a move would constitute gentrification.  

We have requested a meeting with the mayor and are awaiting his response. We aren’t certain we’ll realize victory by having affordable housing built on Parcel 42. But we have raised people’s social consciousness and we see that as a victory in and of itself. We plan to remain here until the police shut us down.  

We won’t see the closure of the tent city as the end of our direct action, but rather as the beginning of something much bigger – a renewed culture of speaking truth to power and of making demands on our politicians. No matter how it ends, we win. 

Issues |Community|Encampments|Housing|Living Unsheltered

Region |Shaw|Ward 6|Washington DC

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