Unintended Neighbourhoods

Things don’t always work out the way you mean them to.

Take, for example, the strange story of Jacqui Janes. Her son died in Helmand in Afghanistan in 2009 and she received a handwritten letter from the then Leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister Gordon Brown. She thought the letter was a “hastily scrawled insult” partly because of the spelling errors.

The biggest selling daily newspaper in the UK, The Sun, had recently taken the decision to stop backing the Labour party and to start backing the Conservative party. They ran with the Jacqui Janes story as an attack on Gordon Brown.

It seemed like a very clever move. They hoped to right a perceived wrong, to attack a politician that they no longer favoured and also, possibly, sell more newspapers.

However, it did not work out that way. Many people thought the attack was inappropriate and polls found that people had a higher opinion of Gordon Brown and a lower opinion of The Sun as a result of the whole episode.

It has become very fashionable for people who think about how to revitalize cities to talk about the importance of the “creative class”, a term some people will know from Richard Florida’s work. In particular, lots of city governments are now bending over backwards to attract young creative people not just artists, but also people working in tech, media or even engineering.

Will these plans to attract the creative class work out as intended?

A recent piece by MSN real estate said that U Street (the area of Washington that I live in) is now one of the best neighborhoods in America for people without children. Proof perhaps that the city has been successful in attracting young creatives. That is certainly the view put forward by The Washington Post in an article that referred to the city as an “urban playground” for twenty-somethings.

But things do not always work out how you hope. That same article wonders if the city could retain these same people or if they will move out to the suburbs when they grow a bit older and have kids.

Some citizens are taking matters into their own hands. A new organization has been set up called the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance (SDCA). They are protesting the number of places that sell alcohol, how hard it is to find parking and how noisy the area is late at night. Their views are strikingly similar to the ones put forward in the neighbourhood of London I used to live in, Camden Town.

They may be successful in their campaigns but will their success undermine the very things that the creative class finds attractive about U Street?

Indeed, there is already a tension at work in the way housing developers and the city have tried to attract the creative class to U Street, summed up in the name of one of the large housing developments, The Ellington. It’s named after the famous Jazz musician. He was born in the area and the success of him and a number of other musicians meant the area was for a while known as the ‘Black Broadway’.

People from the creative class are attracted by the development’s mixture of modern condo living and hint of excitement and ethnic diversity (plus excellent transport links, of course). But, just as they are attracted by these things, they also undermine them and actively work against them.

Where does this story led?

One future can be seen in the adjacent neighborhood to Camden Town, Primrose Hill. For years it was a smoggy working class area populated by people who worked building the railways. Then, in the 1960s, a wave of people working in the theatre or media, fresh out of university, attracted by low rents, community spirit and transport links, moved in. As they grew older they managed to get the large road that used to go through Primrose Hill re-directed. They invested in their houses. They got the area designated as a “Conservation Area”. House prices started to increase. The shops started to change. The schools improved. Now it is one of the wealthiest parts of the country, and when artsy residents move out, it is corporate lawyers or money men that move in.

Like I said, things don’t always work out how you intended.

Unemployment and neighbourhoods

There are now a very large number of unemployed people in Europe. One in three people aged 15 to 24 is out of work and looking for work. There is less unemployment in Washington DC, overall, than in many other American cities but unemployment is sickeningly high in some areas.

You see, D.C. is divided into eight wards, and those areas with the highest concentrations of low-income and African American residents also face the highest unemployment rates. 1 in every 4 people in Ward 8 is out of work and looking for work, whereas only 2.5% of people in Ward 3 are unemployed.

What is the answer to this problem?

Many people would say that education is the answer. But a new report from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research shows why this might not be the case. They found that a third of people who are in low paid jobs have some college education and another 37% have a high school diploma.

Getting more formal education is no longer a guarantee of a job or a well paid job (although a college degree is still a very useful thing to have when you are looking for work.


Partly because education is a ‘positional good‘. To an extent it doesn’t matter what your objective level of education is for your job hunting prospects. What matters is how well educated you are compared with other people in the economy. Because so many people now have high school diplomas it does not have the cache with employers that it used to have.

What would happen if, through some miracle of public policy magic, we managed to get college degrees for all unemployed or low paid people in America? I am guessing a few things would happen;

1.College degrees would no longer be seen as an important qualification by employers.

2. Employers would find new ways of privileging some people over others (perhaps post-graduate qualifications) for work

3. There would be lots of unemployed people and people on low paid work with college degrees.

Does that mean that we just have to resign ourselves to the fact that some areas will have very high concentrations of unemployed people or people on low pay than others and all the problems that come with this in terms of crime, mental health and sense of community?

In both America and England this is in fact current government policy. Whereas in 2001 New Labour pledged to “narrow the gap” between the poorest neighborhoods and the rest of the country, there is no such commitment currently being pursued by governments on either side of the pond.

Instead politicians and policy makers talk about social mobility and expanding opportunities. The clear implication of this approach is that those few people who are able to take advantage of these opportunities and will literally become socially mobile and move on, out of neighborhoods with a high concentration of people with low incomes.

Meanwhile, those people who lose out in this new mobility rich world (warning: social mobility means your income may go up as well as down), will find that the only places where they can afford to rent or buy are neighborhoods with a high concentration of people on low incomes.

Perhaps this will always be the case as long as we have both;

1. A large number of jobs that pay low wages (currently, in the UK and the USA roughly 1 in four jobs are low paid, McDonalds and Safeway are two of the largest employers in DC, employing 15,000 and 10,000 people each)

2. Rent and house prices that are set by the market meaning that people are often paying to live away from neighborhoods with a large concentration of people with low incomes.

This is one of the reasons why an ‘economics first’ approach to regeneration is, as John Houghton writes, destined to fail.

DC Returning Citizens facts

1. Federal statutes prohibit employment of ex-offenders with certain criminal convictions in certain jobs including certain airport jobs, armored car crew members, and any jobs in employee benefit plans.

2. In DC employers and occupational licensing agencies can ask about arrests that never led to conviction unless the record has been sealed, and can refuse to hire or license anyone with a criminal record no matter their qualifications.  There are no opportunities for people with criminal records to obtain restoration of civil rights or certificates of rehabilitation for employment purposes.  Records are available on the Internet.

3. Employers can be held liable for the criminal actions of their employees under the theory of negligent hiring which states that “..employers who know, or should have known, that an employee has had a history of criminal behavior may be liable for the employee’s criminal or tortuous acts.”

4. Many employers do not want to hire returning citizens. In surveys only about 40% said they were willing to even consider hiring a returning citizen. In 2002 an academic sent employers in Milwaukee applications from four groups of imaginery male job applicants with virtually identical educational and work experience credentials. They were split into white and black citizens and returning citizens. Returning citizens were said to have been incarcerated for 18 months for a non-violent drug sale. White citizens received offers from 34% of employers, white returning citizens received offers from 17%, black citizens received offers from 14% and black returning citizens received offers from just 5% of employers.

5. Returning citizens often do not have academic qualifications. One study found that 70% of returning citizens do not have a high school diploma.

6. Returning citizens have gaps in their work experience as a result of being in prison and often had limited work experience prior to detention.

7. Returning citizens are more likely to live in stigmatised areas.

8. Returning citizens are more likely to be a member of a race that is discriminated against by employers.

Connerley, M (2001) Criminal background checks for prospective and current employees: Current practices among municipal agencies Public Personnel Management, Vol 30(2)

Holzer, H. (2003) Employment Dimensions of Reentry: Understanding the Nexus between Prisoner Reentry and Work New York University Law School

Hirsch, A. et al (2002) Every Door Closed: Barriers Facing Parents With Criminal Records Center for Law and Social Policy and Community Legal Service

Legal Action Center (2009) After Prison: Roadblock to Reentry http://www.lac.org/roadblocks-to-reentry/upload/reportcards/58_Image_DC%20Report%20Card%20alf.pdf

Pager, D (2002) The Mark of a Criminal Record U.S. Department of Justice https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/198320.pdf

Travis, J et al (2001) From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry The Urban Institute

DC displacement facts

The White population of DC is growing, from 217,000 in 2007 to 244,000 in 2010.  The black population is declining, from 326,000 to 314,000
Black households usually earn less than White households. More than one in four Black DC residents lived in poverty in 2010 (8.5 percent for non-Hispanic White residents)
Black residents are less likely to be in work than White residents. The unemployment rate for Black DC residents has doubled since 2007, from 10 percent in 2007 to 20.6 percent in third quarter 2011. From 2007 to third quarter 2011, the unemployment rate for White (non-Hispanic) DC residents rose from 1.9 percent to 3.7 percent.  
The number of households earning over $75,000 per year has increased, the number of families earning less than $50,000 per year has decreased.

Percentage change between 2000 and 2009

Household incomes




Less than $50,000

-24 percent

-32 percent

-26 percent

$50,000 to $75,000




More than $75,000

+81 percent

+58 percent

+63 percent

The number of low cost rental properties has decreased. The stock of low-cost rental stock has shrunk by more than one-third since 2000. The number of rental units with rent and utility costs of $750 or less fell from 69,000 in 2000 to 45,000 in 2007.  (all figures are adjusted for inflation to equal 2007 dollars.)

Low-cost homeownership options also shriveled, the number of DC homes valued at $250,000 or less fell from 58,000 to 15,000 between 2000 and 2007.

There is a shortage of housing that people on less than 50% of the Area Median Income can afford.

Certain neighbourhoods are becoming less black and more white.

A growing number of DC households are finding it difficult to afford housing. Nearly 100,000 DC households — or two of five — spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing in 2007 (20,000 more than in 2000)

Four of five DC households with incomes below 30 percent of the Area Median Income (about $28,000 for a family four) spent more than 30% of their income on housing. 62 percent of this group spent half or more of their income on housing in 2007 — up from 50 percent who had housing costs this high in 2000.

In 2009, 24.8 percent of District renter households (34,140 households) had severe housing costs (spending 50 percent or more of their income on housing)

In 2006 the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated that a full-time worker would have to earn an hourly wage of $24.73 — three and a half times the minimum wage — to afford the rent for a modest two-bedroom house or apartment. The minimum wage is $8.25 per hour in DC. A person making that much would have to work 153 hours a week to afford to rent a two bedroom apartment in the open market.

Funding for all of DC’s major housing programs has been cut in recent years, however, which means that the city is unlikely to have made much progress on the affordable housing problems highlighted in this report.  The budget for core housing programs in FY 2010 is $64 million, a nearly 50 percent cut from 2008 and the lowest level since 2004.  The Housing Production Trust Fund will receive $18 million in 2010, compared with $62 million in 2008.

The 160 unit Columbia Heights Village development 14th Street and Columbia Road Northwest recently started accepting applicants. It is a project-based Section 8 development that bases tenant rents on their income level. People waited in line for over 4 hours for a chance to put their name down on the list for these properties. One woman in line said

“They are pushing us out! … Average people deserve to live in the city.”

Another said

“I was born and raised here I’m not moving. I will find affordable housing.”

D.C.’s old Capitol Gateway housing project during demolition in 2005

Capitol Gateway today.

Capper/Carrollsburg site in 2006

The unfinished site in 2008

Partially completed in 2010 with properties going “from $781,300”

Why will Walmart not pay a living wage in Washington DC?

Walmart does not want to give workers in the Capitol any say on how much they will be paid, or on anything else for that matter, but grassroots organisations are building an alternative economic approach, grounded in democracy.

Walmart is coming to Washington, DC and they have promised to pay “competitive market salaries”. So, what’s the problem?

Surely the six new stores, will bring good jobs to DC, at a time when jobs are hardly growing on trees, right? One in ten are out of work in Washington (and more like one in six African Americans) and people are crying out for more jobs.

Well, one problem is that Walmart has refused calls by many in DC to guarantee it will pay a “living wage” to its workers. Instead, they have said they will pay these famous “competitive, market salaries”. Who decides what level is competitive? Well, I’ll give you a clue, it’s not the local community, and it’s not the workers.

Even the promise to pay market salaries might not be as firm as Walmart is making out. The company has signed a “Community Partnership Initiative”, in which they make a number of pledges. All of these are “subject and contingent upon business conditions”. Who decides whether business conditions mean any of these commitments can be broken or watered down? Again, I’ll give you a clue, it’s not the workers, it’s not the local community, hell it’s not even the DC government.

Deputy Mayor Hoskins went on the the Kojon Namdi radio show and said that it was not up to him or the DC government to hold Walmart to its promises. Instead, he says its up to the local community.

This might not be too easy. Walmart is one of the biggest companies in the world. How can shop workers and residents hold Walmart to account? Well, they might try and form a Union, but we all know Walmart’s track record in breaking unions.

In fact, we might start to believe that Walmart is not too keen on being held to account by anyone, not by it’s workers, not by the city government and not by the local community.