How Washington, D.C., Fought Housing Displacement

August 2, 2019 - (4 min read)

Local leaders are taking bold action to address the housing affordability challenges in their communities. While current levels of federal and state support for affordable housing are invaluable, it is clear that more must be done to combat the current lack of affordable housing options that is weighing heavily on far too many families. NLC’s recent Housing Task Force report advocates for ten years of new funding and programs aimed at increasing housing opportunities for all American families.

In the meantime, local officials are making good use of all the tools at their disposal. Some city leaders have begun to give greater consideration to shared equity housing models that use public subsidies to place housing and land under community control and ownership, thereby keeping housing supply permanently affordable for current and future generations of residents.

The District of Columbia is a prime example. Earlier this year, Mayor Muriel Bower of Washington, D.C., announced a $138 million public investment into eleven affordable housing projects in wards across the city. A portion of this historic investment was designated to help preserve 65 units of permanently affordable housing at the Savannah Apartments complex in the city’s Congress Heights neighborhood.

The Congress Heights community suffered from decades of disinvestment, as far back as the 1960’s. Over the last ten years, however, increased public and private investment has led to economic development, rising real estate values, higher rents and the displacement of many long-term residents.  One such change inducing project, the 350-acre St. Elizabeth’s retail-entertainment-housing redevelopment, is just steps away from the Savannah Apartments.

In 2017, when the owner of the Savannah Apartments entered into an agreement to sell the garden-style apartment complex to a for-profit developer, the residents organized themselves to exercise their rights under D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA). Under TOPA, tenants have the right to match an offer to purchase a property before a landlord can sell it to a third party.

It is not uncommon for tenant groups facing housing insecurity, like the Savannah Apartments tenant’s association, to have neither the development capacity nor the financial resources to execute a purchase alone. In such instances, non-profit housing development partners are often sought out for their advice and for both short-term and long-term stewardship of the projects.

The Savannah Apartments tenant’s association chose to work with the National Housing Trust Enterprise Preservation Corporation (NHT-Enterprise) and transferred the residents’ collective TOPA purchase rights to NHT-Enterprise which quickly secured $7.6 million in acquisition funding to purchase the apartment community from the landlord. The District of Columbia awarded the project an additional $8.2 million in DC Housing Production Trust Fund and HOME funding for the renovation of the complex’s structures and individual housing units. And this summer, the recently-established Douglass Community Land Trust (DCLT) joined the project with a $1.3 million commitment to acquire the property’s underlying land, helping to ensure that the apartments remain affordable in perpetuity.

Some critics note that while community land trusts (CLTs) are best known for enabling below market rate homeownership opportunities for families, the Savannah Apartments will continue in service as rental units.  As a result, the Savannah Apartments project will provide no individual asset building potential for the mostly low-income residents that inhabit the complex.

Despite this, DCLT’s ground lease agreements do provide tenants with some insulation from free-ranging rent increases. In general, CLT rental housing also steers clear of the often-contentious debate over the efficacy of resale restrictions common to shared equity housing models, which lend themselves toward a level of permanency in affordability, above and beyond the 15 -30 years of affordability offered by traditional housing programs

And as we’ve seen in Washington, community control and ownership of land may help to prevent displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods and ensure that all residents can share in the growing prosperity of American cities.


Terrah Glenn smallAbout the Author: Terrah W. Glenn is the Senior Associate for Housing within NLC’s Center for City Solutions. In addition to pursuing dual Master’s degrees in the fields of urban and regional planning and landscape architecture, Terrah works on the Center’s full range of research priorities with special emphasis on the areas of affordable housing, urban innovation, sustainability, and economic development.