Justice and gentrification in Washington DC

Anita Bonds has spent her entire adult life as a grassroots organizer, activist and campaigner for social justice and it is down to the work of her and colleagues, and a particular form of housing co-operative, that the capital of the USA is becoming less divided and divisive than it has been over time.

In Washington for the first time myself, as a guest of the US co-op sector, I had the chance to hear of her work as a champion for housing co-ops.

As a student at the University of California at Berkeley, she became involved in the Free Speech Movement and returned home to support the struggle for underserved communities in Washington DC, a city long divided by economic and race injustice.

Since 2012, Anita Bonds has served as an At-Large Council Member on the Council of the District of Columbia and she chairs the Committee on Housing and Neighbourhood Revitalization.

“I have always had a concern about poverty in the District of Colombia. I remember being shocked hearing elderly people talking about how they couldn’t afford their prescriptions and they had to choose between food and medicine.”

The District of Colombia has a unique and important longstanding law, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives tenants the right to purchase their residential building before any other buyer. As many are condominiums of apartments, tenants form ‘limited equity’ housing cooperatives.

Today, she explains in a talk at the Co-op Impact Conference in Washington, organised by the National Co-operative Business Association, that the district has around 4,400 units of co-operative housing in 99 properties. What they have been successful at is keeping low and moderate income residents in their communities, because rents are affordable, even where neighbourhoods are rapidly gentrifying.

Last year, she championed new legislation to promote housing co-ops, with recommendations to increase the number of limited equity co-op units by 40% by 2025.

“We should pay attention to the least of us. This is an expensive community and with different incomes and walks of life, as we like to call it. One part of the city has four percent of affordable units, but cross the river and it is ninety three per cent. Housing co-ops are a way of addressing this because they allow for a mix of people right across the city and they are a powerful way of keeping communities inclusive.”

The next challenge she sees are the rocketing rents faced by small businesses as neighbourhoods gentrify. Her tool for addressing that? As she sees it, this would be small business co-ops, to keep rents in the control of local people.

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