By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers
I’m still haunted by the August 9th Washington Post story, “Facing eviction over $25.” I just can’t get it out of my mind. How can a person be evicted for owing $25 in back rent, for walking a dog without a leash, or for the tragedy that her son used an unlicensed gun to commit suicide? The fact that they are all lease violations punishable by eviction still seems unfathomable and just plain wrong.
If you haven’t read the article, I would urge you to do so. It appeared to offer a powerful testimony to how structural racism plays out in the housing arena in the District of Columbia and, perhaps, across the country. Upon reading it, you might think that zoning commissions, wanting to increase property values, were allowing property owners to maximize profit by transitioning their property from low-income housing to housing that appeals to higher income residents, without sufficient consideration of how all people will be impacted. You might also think that court systems were allowing overly zealous landlords to utilize “the letter of the law” to evict tenants whose only true offense is that they’re poor. And, who do these actions most often affect in our region? Black and brown people.
But before you totally form your opinion on this particular situation, you must read the August 14th response from the owner of the property. He rebukes the primary focus of the article, by citing, very publicly, his company’s history vis-a-vis affordable housing and his company’s commitment to retaining affordable units in the future. Now what am I to think?
Some of the work that WRAG has done on structural racism has emphasized that far too often our public institutions legally, but, in my view, immorally, provide an advantage or disadvantage to one race of people over another. That occurred for decades with redlining, contributing to the wealth gap that persists today between black and white Americans. Is that the case in this situation?
What I have also learned from the hours of conversations and lectures about the dimensions of racism is that we all need to talk to each other more – really talk and really listen. And not only do we need to talk, we need to research to get to the bottom of situations. Assumptions and misunderstandings abound. Was that the case with aspects of the story about eviction at Brookland Manor in the District of Columbia? I don’t know.
What I do know is that every family deserves quality housing that they can afford. Every individual deserves to be treated humanely and fairly. The front page story and the subsequent rebuttal offer extraordinarily different views. The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in there. We must be able to simultaneously recognize the devastation that eviction places on a family while acknowledging that a property owner does have the right to be paid. Stories like that of Brookland Manor are often the catalyst for reform. We must provide for affordable housing and we should improve areas that have long gone neglected in our region. I simply hope that those improvements can be guided by a moral compass while also grounded in financial reality.
Is that possible? It has to be.