Welcome to DC – Publicly progressive, privately guarding his privilege – The 74


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This summer marks 15 years since I moved to Washington, DC. Spending so much time in one place makes a person pensive — given what Maryland commuters are like drive around heremy bike and I might not have that many years left.

How to explain the district? When friends elsewhere ask about my adopted hometown, I often tell them that “Washington, DC, is a very serious city for very serious people who think about very serious things,” for better or for worse. Forget the dark fictions you’ve seen in political TV dramas, ignore the vacuous rhetoric of candidates demagogic against the federal government they are supposedly fighting to lead — this is a city run by dopey, serious, bourgeois beliefs lives to public service, public debate, public sector … in the public.

But it’s also a city like many others in the United States: a hub for the consolidation of well-paying jobs and economic power that draws inexorable waves of privileged newcomers. Here, as in New York, Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, Oakland and so many other places, housing construction is not keeping pace, creating a corresponding pull that is driving long-established residents out of the city. Between its persistently hot housing market and an almost universally unaffordable childcare ecosystem, DC is churning toward a future where an upper-middle-class income could be a requirement for any family trying to live—and stay—in the city.

That is DC in 2022: a city of kind-hearted progressives tightly tethered between their open-minded public philosophy on the one hand and the increasingly tight pressures that shape families’ private lives on the other.

Recent surveys by researchers at SocialSphere provide some data on these considerations. Compared to respondents from nine other states who took part in the survey (and the national average), DC residents were the most politically engaged, most attuned to national politics, and most likely to be progressive. They tended to respond positively when asked for Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and local DC health officials.

They were most likely to think US public schools were good or excellent and Having a positive opinion of local school officials. They were the second most likely to respond positively to local teachers (behind Missouri). They were — by far — the most willing to agree to a hypothetical proposal to overhaul school funding to send more resources to schools for low-income and children of color.

Basically, even amidst the turmoil of American politics in our current era, my DC neighbors have maintained their steadfast faith in public institutions. When asked about the impact of the pandemic on children, a full 52% of DC respondents said children are “disadvantaged” in the short term but are likely to catch up over time. This result was also the most optimistic in the survey compared to all nine states included.

And yet it’s difficult to reconcile that talk with the city’s path. New residential construction is lagging behind demand – particularly dense and/or affordable units. Efforts to address this almost always meet resistance from mostly privileged homeowners. The hot housing market supports racial and socioeconomic segregation in the city. According to an Urban Institute school segregation measurement tool, the demographics of a single school, Deal Middle School, the DC’s affluent enclaves west of Rock Creek Park, produce nearly 16% of the citywide school segregation. By gathering a large portion of DC’s white (and largely wealthy) families into its enrollment, Deal makes the rest of the city much more segregated.

How is that possible? How does a family come to deal? It’s easy! They buy a house in one of the neighborhoods that have guaranteed access to the elementary schools that go directly into Deal. Except that the median price for a three-bedroom single-family home in these particular neighborhoods was over $800,000 in 2015, before the pandemic blew up DC’s housing market. So it’s not surprising that a quick search of real estate site Redfin reveals that the current median price of a three-bedroom home near Deal is $1.2 million.

So, of course, these neighborhoods’ corresponding elementary schools — disproportionately white and gilded campuses like Janney (4.1% of DC school segregation), Lafayette (4%), Murch (2.6%), and Hearst (1.1%) — all add to the problem. Affordable housing is almost non-existent near these treasure troves of privilege.

This is us, DC: bleeding hearts and sharp elbows. A city increasingly dominated by a mob of relatively privileged Crusaders working to make the world fairer, better, safer, and cleaner… while struggling to preserve our ability to preserve our benefits and pass them on to our children. We will do almost anything to make our city more open, fair, progressive, and tolerant—decriminalizing various drugs, introducing paid family vacations, demanding more bike lanes, etc.—as long as it doesn’t materially affect our ability to access mostly white and affluent neighborhoods and schools to buy. Yes, we’re drifting, trying optional tweaks on the fringes of our enrollment policy to make it a little fairer, a little less reflective of the massive tide of gentrification that is changing the city’s demographics.

It almost seems like a cruel joke: 20 years from now, DC may have the fairest, most progressive, and just systems of public policy in the United States… and will have expelled most of its residents of color and low-income, who might have benefited from these.


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