More Than a New Starbucks: On Gentrification and Domestic Violence


We’ve had many conversations about gentrification on Racialicious, mostly focusing on the race and class drivers.

However, there are a multitude of ways to think about the impacts of gentrification and the long term results of a gentrification project aren’t always simple to quantify by our usual measures. We can point to displacement or economic growth, but what about unintended consequences?

A cold knot of dread took root in my stomach as I read a recent headline from the DCist: “D.C. Sees Increase In Homicides Connected To Domestic Violence.”

D.C. has seen a troubling increase this year in the number of homicides that appear to be connected to domestic violence, an issue Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier addressed in an interview yesterday.

“If you’re in an abusive relationship, the biggest problem is that people don’t think it will turn fatal,” she said on WTOP. “We’re seeing more than a double increase in domestic violence murders, not just of women … but children, as well.”

In analyzing the rise in both calls to police and actual homicides, the writer includes this very interesting side note:

Survivor access to long-term affordable housing is also key. Last year, local providers were unable to fulfill 52 service requests from victims, a 24 percent decrease from 2012. The vast majority of these requests — 77 percent — were for housing.

“Many victims are forced to stay because they don’t have access to housing,” Cottman said. “Either be homeless, or stay and be victimized.”

The knot in my stomach grew worse, so I tweeted the article. My friend Zeynep responded “Abused women can’t afford to move out.”

That was true, but I couldn’t figure out why the article caused such a strong reaction.

Then I remembered: that was me, almost 10 years ago.

In another life (certainly a far cry from the life I have now), I dated a man who I would still hesitate to call abusive. He never raised a hand to me in anger, though he would destroy other things around me – walls, rear view mirrors, storage boxes. He was jealous and bullying, flying into rages prompted by the slightest infraction. Looking back, I am surprised to think of how long I stayed – but that’s always the rub isn’t it? Getting into these kinds of relationships is easy – it is the leaving that is difficult. And to leave requires not only a will, but also a way.

For me, the writing was on the wall about the way this relationship was going. The ex had informed me that he and our roommate had decided to find a cheaper place in Virginia to live in. At the time, I had no car, no driver’s license, and had spent my entire life in D.C. and Maryland. Virginia might as well have been the West Coast. I was not given a say in this – the idea was that I would come along once I knew what the plan was.

This was the beginning of the end as I suddenly felt desperate and squeezed. Did I really want to be in a more isolated area, away from friends and family? Away from my current jobs (at that time, I held down two)? And school? I felt trapped and confessed to the property manager that my roommates wanted to move but I wanted to stay. However, on my income alone, I couldn’t afford my own place.

Calmly, she asked me a few questions about my income and let me know that there was a program called MPDU (Moderately Priced Dwelling Units) that was essentially a discount on rent. The program was designed to ensure the Montgomery County workforce could afford to live near where they worked. There was a minimum income requirement back then of $28,000 a year, but you could not make more than $38,000 per year. The idea was that upward mobility was still in play – they fully expected most households to earn out of the program within a few years.

I forked over $1500 to the rental office – in exchange, I purchased my first bit of freedom for $715 dollars a month. As I’ve gotten older, I realized the kind hearted woman bent some rules for me – I should have probably been put on a waiting list, and I never took any of the classes referenced on the MPDU site. Later, she told me I had the cheapest rent in the entire building. But she did it – she found a place for me to stay that I could afford on my own.

For a month, I secretly moved clothing and items from one apartment to the other – after 60 days, I was settled into my new efficiency.

I had 500 square feet, a balcony that stood in for a window, and a kitchen small enough to that careless hand placement meant carrying electric charge from the fridge to the sink. After paying rent, I had about $60 to last me until the next payday.

But those were just details. In my small apartment overlooking Silver Spring, I was free – and ready to start a new life.

Some people would argue that these types of situations should not factor into city planning – economic progress tends to benefit most of the community and while displacement is unfortunate it is a known part of a neighborhood’s cycle. Rising housing costs are considered the price we pay for improved services, less crime, and more amenities. If some people can no longer afford to live in the city, the argument goes, there are other places to live that are cheaper. These arguments have some validity – but designing for a city is about so much more than maximizing space.

DC is in the fourteenth year of a new cycle of revitalization. This is part of a continuing conversation about identity – what economic drivers need to be put in place, what distinguishes the city from other cities, what makes DC a great place to live. DC in particular tends to frame change in a series of initiatives and public conversations: we are becoming a bikeable city, a green city, a digital city. There are conversations and action plans, committees and closed list-servs.

Right now, there are people trying to work or go to school or raise a family or possibly all three at the same time, trapped in a relationship that teeters on the verge of violence.

So where is the conversation around the needs of these residents, who are already in the city?

(Image Credit – Alex Barth, via Flickr)

About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

The founders of Racialicious are Carmen Sognonvi and Jen Chau. They are no longer with the blog. Carmen now runs Urban Martial Arts with her husband and blogs about local business. Jen can still be found at Swirl or on her personal blog. Please do not send them emails here, they are no longer affiliated with this blog.

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  • Edna Nelson

    wow, this article is really amazing, and definitely highlights and aspect of gentrification that often gets overlooked. Thank you!