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For Many Black Washingtonians, Gentrification Threatens Housing and Health

Gentrification can have negative effects on the health outcomes of Black residents in Washington D.C. The CDC says that gentrification has many health implications that contribute to disparities among special populations.

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By Barrington M. Salmon (BlackPressUSA/NNPA Newswire Contributor)

This is the first article in a series focused on the health effects associated with gentrification in Washington, D.C. This series is supported through a journalism fellowship with the Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California.

By many measures, the revitalization of neighborhoods across Washington, D.C. has been a windfall for the city. Fueled by higher tax revenues and property values, the city is awash in construction cranes, new libraries, restaurants and retail, and more than 70 miles of bike lanes—all welcomed signs of gentrification in the nation’s capital.

Lost in the city’s waves of new amenities and newer, more affluent inhabitants, are the long-time Washingtonians who have been pushed out or who are fighting to stay in the city.

Shirley Williams is one of those residents, who decided to fight. For Williams, that fight came with debilitating consequences.

Williams said that she developed diabetes a year after she and fellow residents were displaced, for eight years, from their 54-unit garden-style apartment complex at 7th and Q Streets in the Shaw neighborhood. She has since returned. Now, there’s a new apartment building at 7th and Q named Jefferson Marketplace; an upscale pet store, a Thai restaurant and a French wine bar are located on the street level. Like her old neighborhood, Williams said that she’s not the same either.

Williams connects many of her health problems to the uncertainty of her housing situation, a rootlessness that has spanned nearly a decade.

“I’m on dialysis now; I can hardly get around,” said Williams, a mother of three grown children. “I wasn’t weak. I could walk down to those ONE DC meetings, but I can’t do that anymore. I’m pretty sure it affected my health; I lost my eyesight…can’t see anything anymore.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the displacement associated with gentrification has many health implications that contribute to disparities among special populations, including the poor, women, children, the elderly, and members of racial/ethnic minority groups.

“These special populations are at increased risk for the negative consequences of gentrification,” the CDC said. “Studies indicate that vulnerable populations typically have shorter life expectancy; higher cancer rates; more birth defects; greater infant mortality; and higher incidence of asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

Dominic Moulden, a veteran activist, housing advocate and resource organizer for Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE DC), knows Williams well and spoke of her challenges and those faced by thousands of other residents who have been displaced by rising housing costs or who have decided to fight for their homes in court and on the streets. ONE DC is a grassroots organization that advocates on behalf of residents who are in danger of losing their homes.

Moulden said that he’s watched the city change in significant and seemingly all-encompassing ways, usually to the disadvantage of native Washingtonians.

“I’ve been here for 32 years and I organized on 14th and U Street in the ‘90s. If we talked then, I could have told you what was going to happen in every quadrant,” he said. “Our focus is on displacement—the economics of land and housing impact health and wellness, as people are moved around this chessboard.”

Moulden said that Williams’ story of declining health during a prolonged housing battle, is a familiar one.

“I’ve seen people get sick and die in the years [after they were] forced out of their homes and that includes mental health issues,” Moulden said.

In the mid-90s, according to Census data, the district had a population of 528,000 and by 2015, the population had climbed to 681,170. Washington has seen a net population gain of more than 70,000 people since the 2010 Census and more than 100,000 residents since the 2000 Census. In the mid-1990s, the city boasted a 72 percent Black population and in 2016, according to the Census, it now stands at 48 percent. To the chagrin of the city’s Black residents, “The Chocolate City,” has become a vanilla swirl, replete with dog parks, street cars, bike lanes and cobbled streets as physical evidence of the changing demographics.

Washington, D.C is one of the most expensive cities to live in anywhere in the United States. Million-dollar homes are commonplace in areas of the city like Kalorama and Congress Heights and it’s fairly certain that buyers would have to ante up hundreds of thousands for a home, apartment or townhouse. In 2015, the median household income in Washington, D.C. was $75,628, a 5.55 percent growth from the previous year.

Statistics from the U.S. Census, a combination of studies conducted and compiled by researchers at Georgetown University and an investigative series centering on gentrification by the nonprofit, independent news organization Truthout, estimates that more than 50,000 D.C. residents have fled the city, as housing costs spiraled out of reach. Washington has the second highest rents in the country and more than 50 percent of the city’s affordable housing stock has vanished since 2009.

Researchers, policymakers and physicians have only begun to scratch the surface of the effects of gentrification on residents who have lost their homes or those who refuse to leave their neighborhoods, who have chosen, instead, to do battle with wealthy landlords, real estate developers and newcomers. A number of reports and studies over the past year detail the scope and depth of the health effects caused by the dismantling of low- and middle-income neighborhoods and the displacement of residents, some of whom have lived in Washington for decades.

Maurice Jackson, a history professor at Georgetown University and the chairman of the DC Commission on African American Affairs and Christopher King, an assistant professor at the university’s School of Nursing and Health Studies (NHS), produced a report in 2016 that found that gentrification has had a major impact on the health and welfare of the city’s African American population.

Researchers reported that many of Washington’s long-time, Black residents, who remain in the city, have experienced increased stress and financial hardship, as the cost of living continues to rise.

King said that this form of “survival stress” can increase risks for or exacerbate chronic disease conditions.

“Native Washingtonians also recognize how their communities are changing, and that results in a loss of cultural identity,” King said, noting that some African Americans have been forced to leave the area even though their families have lived in the city for generations. “This dynamic can have a profound effect on mental health and the civic engagement [of city residents].”

Gentrification in Washington has produced tension and lingering resentment between Black and White residents—old and new.

Long-time residents have complained about newcomers who have lobbied to change the names of old neighborhoods, called the police to harass families sitting on their own stoops, and pushed city officials to ramp up parking enforcement, ticketing and towing churchgoers double-parked on Sundays—a custom in D.C. that has spanned generations. The stress and trauma associated with the city’s very real demographic and cultural shifts, not only affect where people live, but also how Washingtonians are living.

One area of particular concern to researchers and those in the medical community is the relationship between toxic stress and displacement. Experts like Amani Nuru-Jeter, a social epidemiologist at the University of California at Berkeley are studying the impact of stress on health disparities and outcomes. While Nuru-Jeter, Dr. Roberto Montenegro and other researchers are looking at the effects of racism and discrimination on the bodies of Blacks and Latinos, others are tying displacement to toxic stress, which many believe, is likely a precursor to a range of diseases that could afflict those who are being pushed out of the city or have already left.

Studies have connected a number of maladies to toxic stress, such as mental illness, substance abuse and behavioral problems, cancer, obesity, diabetes, auto-immune diseases, asthma, high blood pressure and heart disease, kidney disease, and gastro-intestinal problems.

Detrice Belt, a 33-year-old native Washingtonian and resident of Barry Farm, a public housing complex in Southeast, Washington, D.C. has been engaged in a six-year battle to stay in the community where she has lived for 20 years. She lives with her nine-year-old daughter, two pit bull terriers and a turtle. Belt vowed that she’s not leaving.

“Housing is a big issue in D.C. Right now, current residents are moving out,” said Belt, a licensed dental assistant who’s also the chair of the Barry Farm Tenants’ Association. “This property has [over] 400 units, but now there are about 100 residents left. People are in shelters, some are in other public housing projects, scattered.”

Belt continued: “These [apartments] are bad, but not so bad that they have to be demolished. We want redevelopment, but we want the developer to do it while [we’re] here. They told me about the noise; that my lights may be cut off and other things, but I’m not moving, whatever comes.”

[/media-credit] A once-thriving community of more than 400 residents has been reduced to less than 100 as city officials prepare to build expensive, mixed-use housing that Barry Farm residents fear will force them out of their homes. (Miriam Machado-Luces/NNPA)

Barry Farm, located east of the Anacostia River—a natural divider between the city’s visible progress and neighborhoods of concentrated poverty—has been targeted by the DC Housing Authority and developers who seek to have the 432 public housing units demolished; in its place, developers want to build a 1,400-unit, multi-phase $400 million mixed-income housing. The plan is part of the city’s New Communities Initiative, a public-private urban revitalization partnership modeled after the federal government’s Hope VI program.

According to the Washington City Paper, in 2017, a group of Barry Farm residents and housing advocacy organization, Empower D.C., filed a 65-page, class-action lawsuit against the DC Housing Authority (DCHA), which manages the property, as well as its two private developer partners, A&R Development Corp. and nonprofit Preservation of Affordable Housing Inc.

Belt said that one of her great fears is that neither the DC Housing Authority nor the developers have given the remaining residents a written guarantee that they can return when the property is redeveloped. And the past is prologue, she said, because once public housing residents are displaced, few ever return.

“They changed the language from ‘guaranteed return’ to an ‘opportunity to return.’ Despite our concerns and questions, this is a done deal,” she said. “I’ve been going to redevelopment meetings for the past six years. I’ve been trying to hear the other side. I told councilmembers that people are stressed and don’t know their rights.”

Belt said that her ordeal has left her and other Barry Farm residents stressed out, worried and fearful of what the future holds.

“They have been using scare tactics, like putting up a notice on my door about my dogs,” Belt said. “Children’s Protective Services has been called on people here, the Department of Health on others. I was born and raised here. I’m fighting back. I’m not moving.”

This article was published as a part of a journalism project for the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship. Read the full series:
As Real Estate Developers Rush to Mine D.C.’s Affordable Housing Stock, Some Residents are Left in the Dust
How Healthy is Gentrification?
For Many Black Washingtonians, Gentrification Threatens Housing and Health

 Follow Barrington on Twitter @bsalmondc.

Coronavirus

“Cease and Desist:” Cal Workers’ Union Pushes Back on New State Vaccine Requirement

The governor announced the policy during a press conference on July 26. He said all state employees and health care workers will either have to test regularly for COVID-19 or provide evidence that they’ve been vaccinated by August 2, 2021.

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Doctor Administering a Shot to a Patient; Photo courtesy of California Black Media

The California Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000 has delivered a cease-and-desist letter to the California Department of Human Resources (CalHR) opposing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new vaccine requirement for state employees.

The letter addressed to Paul Starkey, deputy director of Human Resources for CalHR, reads:

“This letter serves as a demand to meet and confer and as a formal objection to the implementation deadline until the meet and confer process is completed.”

SEIU 1000 is the largest SEIU 1000 in the state with nearly 100,000 members and one of the largest in the country, according to the organization’s website.

The governor announced the policy during a press conference on July 26. He said all state employees and health care workers will either have to test regularly for COVID-19 or provide evidence that they’ve been vaccinated by August 2, 2021.

Newsom says that the new requirement is a way to bolster efforts to vaccinate more Californians.

“We are now dealing with a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and it’s going to take renewed efforts to protect Californians from the dangerous Delta variant,” Newsom said.

“As the state’s largest employer, we are leading by example and requiring all state and health care workers to show proof of vaccination or be tested regularly, and we are encouraging local governments and businesses to do the same,” he continued.

Following the governor’s announcement, Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said the COVID-19 Delta variant as well as vaccine disinformation are justifications for the measure.

“California has administered more vaccines than any other state, with 75% of those eligible having gotten at least one dose, and we were weeks ahead of meeting President Biden’s 70% goal. But we must do more to fight disinformation and encourage vaccine-hesitant communities and individuals,” Ghaly said.

“The Delta variant is up to 60 % more infectious than the Alpha strain but many times more infectious than the original COVID-19 strain. If you have been waiting to get vaccinated, now is the time,” Ghaly continued.

Newsom reassured Californians that vaccines are not dangerous and are the way forward for the state.

“Vaccines are safe – they protect our family, those who truly can’t get vaccinated, our children and our economy. Vaccines are the way we end this pandemic,” Newsom said.

However, the safety of the vaccine is not the union’s chief concern, according to the letter.

The letter claims that the lack of communication between the state and SEIU prior to the implementation of the mandate is the reason for their complaint.

The letter also alleges that the governor’s office embarked on this decision without consulting SEIU, breaking a pattern of continued communication about changes in policy regarding COVID-19.

“Throughout the past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, State workers have been both on the front lines and forced to adjust to teleworking,” the letter reads.

“During this time, the State has issued hundreds of COVID-related notices to the Union and offered to meet and confer over many changes or other matters within the scope of bargaining specifically pertaining to changes in procedures or policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter continues.

The letter claims that the labor union found out about the vaccine requirement during the press conference where the policy was made public.

“On July 26, 2021, the governor abruptly turned away from the legal requirements of notice and bargaining and instead held a press conference and issued a press release, followed shortly by your Notice,””the letter states.

“Rather than giving this Union the legal right to meet and confer over this important policy change, CalHR dodged its legal obligations concerning vaccination confirmation,” the letter concludes.

California Black Media’s coverage of COVID-19 is supported by the California Health Care Foundation.

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City Government

Sec. of State Shirley Weber Urges All Californians to Vote in Upcoming Recall Election

Weber is California’s first African American Secretary of State and the fifth Black person to serve as a constitutional officer in the state’s 170-year history. She said working as president of the San Diego Board of Education and serving four terms in the state Assembly after that showed her how elected officials can dismiss communities when they know that they don’t vote.

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Election Mail in Ballot at an Official Ballot Drop Box; Photo Courtesy of California Black Media

California Secretary of State Shirley Weber says all registered Californians should vote in the special election to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom. It is scheduled for September 14.

“This is an extremely important election,” said Weber, who said she comes from a family of Arkansas sharecroppers who migrated to California when she was three years old.

“My grandparents on my father’s side never had a chance to vote because they died before 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed,” she said. “We understand why it’s important to vote but we also understand what happens to communities when they don’t vote. We have to understand the positives of voting and also the negative impacts of not voting.”

Weber is California’s first African American Secretary of State and the fifth Black person to serve as a constitutional officer in the state’s 170-year history. She said working as president of the San Diego Board of Education and serving four terms in the state Assembly after that showed her how elected officials can dismiss communities when they know that they don’t vote.

Weber was speaking at a news briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services last week. During the virtual news conference, Weber shared details of how her office has been planning for the special elections, including making sure that every Californian will be mailed a ballot. Counties across the state will start sending them out in mid-August.

On the day of the special election, Weber said, polls will open at 7:00 a.m. and close at 8:00 p.m.

Voters will also be able to track their ballots via email or text messages by registering at wheresmyballot.sos.cagov.

Weber said the recall election ballot will ask two questions: Do the voters want to recall Newsom, and if so, who do they want to replace the governor. If 50% or more of voters cast no votes on the first question, Newsom stays on as governor. If 50% or more say yes, then he will be recalled and replaced by one of 46 candidates on the ballot who has the most votes.

Weber said planning the special election has been challenging, but her team has been effective and thorough.

“What I inherited in the Secretary of State’s office is a group of people who really know elections,” Weber told California Black Media.

“I’ve just been in awe of what they do. They have a system and they have it down pat. The last election was a good training ground for them to deal with absentee ballots, ballot boxes, and things that we’ve known would work but could never implement because people were hesitant about it. That is one thing that I know for sure that takes place in the Secretary of State Office: We know elections.”

Along with its elections duties and to safeguard the state’s official documents, including the Constitution and Great Seal, and the state archives, the Secretary of State office also registers businesses, commissions notaries public, and manages state ballot initiatives.

Each of California’s 58 counties oversees its own elections but Weber’s office sets the stage and regulations to ensure the counties have the tools to function properly and efficiently.

Weber meets with each county Voter Registration and Elections office each month. She learned when she took office in January that local election officials have been ahead of the process. Weber said, “this whole reality of elections is their life” and not something that is done one time each year.

“They were prepared for the recall before the recall was called,” Weber said during the virtual news conference.

“They are not the type to sit around and wait until July 1 and jump up and say we have to have an election. They have been preparing all along in terms of staffing, what they would do, and their plans to implement the election,” she added. “They are in the process of setting up voting centers, polls and mailing out the ballots. They know ( the recall election) is coming fast and that it has been an extremely unusual year of election after election.

Weber also provided details to media outlets needed to inform voters: from when to expect mail-in ballots, to the number of candidates, to when the polls will open and close, and the impact of voter turnout.

The budget for the Office of Secretary of State in the 2020-2021 fiscal year was $ 252,722,000. But the recall election has a hefty price tag.

“We are not really sure the total amount,” Weber said. “In the end, it could be close to $400 million and some people say $500 million. Yes, it is an expensive enterprise. It’s a serious one not only in terms of financing.”

Whatever the recall election outcome is in September, Weber said that Californians will have a chance to elect another governor in two years.

“No question. The regular elections move on,” Weber said. “We’ll have the primary election in June (2022) and the general election in November (2022).”

For more voter information about polling places, language preference for election materials and status about mail-in ballots, California voters should visit voterstatus.sos.ca.gov.

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Coronavirus

As the Pandemic Drags on, Cal Lawmakers Push Bills to Keep Public Meetings Virtual

Executive Order No. N-29-20 relaxed provisions in California’s Bagley-Keene and Ralph Brown acts, allowing state, county and city government institutions to take their public meetings online. 

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Microphone Angle From Podium Stock Photo; Photo courtesy of California Black Media

The threat of the COVID-19 Delta variant has become more apparent. And what was once the looming possibility of  reinstating pandemic public safety guidelines is becoming  reality.  As this is happening, California lawmakers are pushing a number of bills to expand the use of various telecommunication options for public meetings.

On July 2, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the extension of Executive Order No. N-29-20, through September 30. The goal of the order, which he issued last year, was to make sure Californians continued to have uninterrupted access to government meetings as the global COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the state’s day-to-day operations. It was set to expire June 15.

Executive Order No. N-29-20 relaxed provisions in California’s Bagley-Keene and Ralph Brown acts, allowing state, county and city government institutions to take their public meetings online.

“A local legislative body or state body is authorized to hold public meetings via teleconferencing and to make public meetings accessible telephonically or otherwise electronically to all members of the public seeking to observe and to address the local legislative body or state body,” Newsom’s order read.

California’s Brown Act of 1953 ensures in-person public participation in county and local government meetings. The Bagley-Keene Act guarantees the same for meetings held by state boards, state commissions, and state agencies.

Citing inadequate staff or equipment, some California governments — Lemon Grove, San Diego County and the Carlsbad City Council – have already reduced or removed the option to attend public meetings over Zoom or by phone after returning to in-person meetings earlier this summer.

But activists insist the onus is on government to make it easier for people to participate in the policy discussions that impact their lives.

Last week, the San Diego Democratic Party endorsed a policy initiative called “Boost Democracy” that is the brainchild of the Rev. Shane Harris, a local activist and founder of the People’s Alliance for Justice.

It proposes that four of the county’s largest agencies – the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), San Diego County Board of Supervisors, San Diego County Office of Education, and San Diego City Council – adopt a text message notification system to public meetings that alerts the public when their agenda item is up for discussion.

“The party backs my proposal because they know that it’s right and it will make lives easier for everyday people,” Harris said. So far, only SDUSD has endorsed the Harris’s idea.

The bills, the California lawmakers are moving through the Legislature, are Assembly Bills 703, 361 and 339.

Assembly Bill (AB) 703, introduced by Assemblymember Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) would do away with many of the Brown Act restrictions on teleconferencing from various locations, allowing for broader virtual access.

“This bill would remove the notice requirements particular to teleconferencing and would revise the requirements of the act to allow for teleconferencing subject to existing provisions regarding the posting of notice of an agenda, provided that the public is allowed to observe the meeting and address the legislative body directly both in person and remotely via a call-in option or internet-based service option, and that a quorum of members participate in person from a singular physical location clearly identified on the agenda that is open to the public and situated within the jurisdiction,” the text of the bill reads.

AB 703 would remove the current Brown Act requirements that each virtual or telephone location be identified and made public.

The bill also includes a requirement to streamline the process of reviewing and resolving Americans with Disabilities Act requests for virtual meetings.

AB 703 has now been referred to the Assembly Committee on Local Government and is awaiting further action.

AB 361, introduced by Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) would allow local agencies to hold remote meetings during a declared state of emergency.

This bill, until January 1, 2024, would authorize a local agency to use teleconferencing without complying with the teleconferencing requirements imposed by the Ralph M. Brown Act when a legislative body of a local agency holds a meeting during a declared state of emergency,” the bill’s text reads.

AB 361 passed in the Assembly Committee on Local Government and is currently being reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Finally, AB 339 — introduced by assemblymembers Rivas, Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) and Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) — would require county supervisors and city councils to allow the public to have access to meetings through a two-way phone option or a two-way internet interfacing option along with video streaming and in-person comments or questions.

“This bill would, until Dec. 31, 2023, require all open and public meetings of a city council or a county board of supervisors that governs a jurisdiction containing at least 250,000 people to include an opportunity for members of the public to attend via a two-way telephonic option or a two-way internet-based service option, as specified, and would require a city council or county board of supervisors that has, as of June 15, 2021, provided video streaming, as defined, of at least one of its meetings to continue to provide that video streaming,” the bill’s text reads.

AB 339 would also require public agencies to provide real time translators for their virtual meetings.

AB 339 has been referred to the Committee on Appropriations in the Assembly.

Supporters of virtual meetings say, for parents, disabled citizens, people without access to reliable transportation, seniors and other Californians who have trouble attending public meetings, teleconferencing has provided an avenue for Californians to be more involved in the legislative process than had been possible before.

“If there is one silver lining from the pandemic, it’s that public access to local government meetings expanded beyond physical attendance, to telephonic and even video attendance,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a non-profit organization that focuses on supporting freedom of speech and accountability in government.  “This made local democracy accessible for many who would otherwise not be able to attend–and public agencies should maintain, not constrict, this access as California returns, however slowly, to normal.”

These bills, if passed, could set the ground for extending public access far beyond COVID-19.

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