Spike Lee, Brooklyn, and D.C.

Spike Lee doesn’t have many friendly words for  the hipsters who have flocked to Brooklyn over the last decade. The director spent much of his childhood in the borough, and it’s where his father still lives. Speaking at a recent event in New York, Lee said that long-term residents who rent, rather than own, are  being pushed out as prices increase.  He seemed to agree that many neighborhoods have gotten safer, schools have improved, and city services are now more reliable. But, he asks what good is local progress if you can’t afford to live there anymore?

Over at Time, John McWhorter says Lee missed the mark. McWhorter, who is also black, says all-black neighborhoods aren’t something that should be desired, but are rather a relic of state-led segregation. As legal and social barriers have come down, he says, black residents are taking advantage of their new options.

“[Lee is] yearning for the multi-class black communities that people of his generation regret the dissolutions of after the end of institutionalized segregation (when black people like my parents, for example, moved out to mixed or white neighborhoods).

“But let’s face it: The reason there were black communities like that was because of segregation. If there still were black communities like that, no matter how beautiful they would look when shot lovingly in films like Lee’s, it would signify racial barriers

“When racial barriers come down, people mingle, cohabitate, and mate. People grumbling on the sidelines about the losses and appropriations and whatnot that this involves are historical detritus.”

McWhorter is correct to write that neighborhoods, and the people who live in them, are going to look different as racial barriers fall. These changes will continue as our country’s barbaric history of segregation retreats further into the past. This is something worth celebrating, but it doesn’t mean that Lee’s concerns shouldn’t be taken seriously, even by  those who don’t agree with his larger perspective.

In cities with restrictive land-use regulations and lengthy entitlement processes–like New York City and Washington, D.C.–economic development usually corresponds with increasing rents. This can lead to a situation that looks a lot like what Lee was describing.

When a neighborhood becomes significantly more popular, we should expect real estate developers and individuals to respond to increased demand by increasing the number of units available for sale and rent. In neighborhoods with detached homes, developers have an incentive to create townhouses. In areas where these already exist, developers might look to build mid-rise apartment buildings that allow for greater density. If a neighborhood already has mid-rise buildings and rents are high enough, developers start to build high-rises. This process of change keeps prices lower than they otherwise would have been in two ways.

First, it increases supply, which in turn lowers the equilibrium price for housing. Second, availability of new units means wealthier residents leave their old digs behind, freeing up more affordable housing for others. This process is important, because it means that houses get cheaper for middle-class renters even if developers are building more luxury units.

In contrast, when the stock of available housing is fixed because of local rules, rents skyrocket. Under this regime lots of people want to live in a neighborhood, but the available units each go to the highest bidder. This is bad news for people who don’t have a lot of money.

Columbia Heights is a case study of what happens to a newly-popular neighborhood under a restrictive land-use regime that doesn’t fully allow the processes described above. In 2000, there were 27,129 people living in the neighborhood,* including 11,092 black residents. After a decade of construction (mostly renovation), new residents, and change, the total population only increased by 1,087 people. By then, there were 3,107 fewer black residents. This sounds likes a lot like what Spike Lee was talking about, except that the dislocation might have been self-inflicted: it’s likely that developers would have greatly increased the number of housing units available in Columbia Heights if were legal to do so in a larger portion of the neighborhood.

While the story of dislocation is true for Columbia Heights as a whole, there is significant variation between the six Census tracts that make up the neighborhood. Tract 29–the area north of Park Street, south of Spring Street, between 14th Street and New Hampshire Avenue–had the highest percentage loss of its black population. Tract 37–north of Florida Avenue, south of Harvard Street, between 16th and 14th–had the lowest percentage loss of its black population.

  Tract 29 Tract 37 Columbia Heights
Housing Units +1.73% +23.80% +11.55%
Black Population -45.47% -10.99% -28.01%
Total Population -5.42% +15.49% +4.00%

The residential areas of Tract 29 are zoned R-4 for the most part, which allows buildings up to 40 feet tall, has minimum lot sizes, requires backyards, and requires 40% of any given lot to be vacant. This is an effective ban on new apartment buildings.

Most of Tract 37 is zoned R-5-B, which allows for apartments, has a higher height limit,  though it still requires 40% of a lot to be vacant.  North of Meridian Park, two blocks are zoned R-5-D, which allows for much taller apartment buildings.

By 2010 Tract 29 added a mere 28 units of housing, and ended up with 423 fewer residents. Tract 37 added 494 units of housing and an additional 773 people were able to move in.

There are a lot of other important factors to look at here, but in Columbia Heights we see that looser zoning regulations and a large increase in housing units corresponded to a significantly smaller exodus of black residents during a period of rapid economic development.

Race in this discussion is really a substitute for economic variables, and there isn’t a good reason to think that a similar process of outmigration didn’t take place for middle-class white and Latino residents who were priced out of the neighborhood.

But Spike Lee’s concerns are very real under the District’s current rules. Economic theory and our experience in D.C. suggest that restrictive land-use rules should be a major concern for those worried about displaced renters. As more people from around the world choose to make Washington their home, we’re faced with a clear choice. We can accommodate new residents by allowing for greater density through relaxed land-use rules, or we can expect more people to get priced out.


*All data for this post are taken from the 2000 and 2010 Census reports. Columbia Heights is defined here as Census tracts 3, 28.01, 28.02, 29, 36, and 37. By this definition, Columbia Heights is located north of Florida Avenue, west of 16th Street, south of Spring Street, and east of 11th and New Hampshire (whichever is further east).