The Land of OZ

8 min read

Washington, DC: OZ in my hometown 

I was born and raised in Washington, DC, and though I’ve traveled around the United States and the world, personally and professionally, the Nation’s Capital has always been my home. The city has a static and somewhat clichéd image, based on our wealth of museums, monuments and other tourist attractions, as well as the less than attractive impressions emanating out of Capitol Hill and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But neither of those represent the real Washington, where real people live and work. And from that perspective, it would be disingenuous to deny that the city has changed at least as much as I have since that day when I was born at the old George Washington University Hospital.

Which brings us—bear with me—to Opportunity Zones.

From kindergarten through sixth grade, I attended Georgetown Day School, the first integrated school in Washington. It was so colorblind that when I started there at five, it didn’t occur to me that the African American children belonged to African American parents and the white children belonged to white parents. I thought it was luck of the draw. When my wife questioned me about whether I thought it was odd that my parents had three white sons and no black ones, I replied, “No odder than having three boys and no girls.”

Yet, as I got older and went to birthday parties and my schoolmates’ homes, I began noticing that the black children lived in different neighborhoods than we did, many in what was known as Far Northeast. And older still, I became aware there were places my school friends and I couldn’t go for birthday parties, like Glen Echo Amusement Park and Congressional Roller Rink—both in Maryland, not Virginia, by the way—because of their whites-only rules. To put it bluntly: Opportunities were not equal. And as I grew older still—now in public junior high and high school—I knew there were certain neighborhoods that we just didn’t venture into because they were “not safe.”

As time went on, more of the city that had once been practically off limits to the white middle class became chic and desirable, such as 14th and U Streets and the Seventh Street corridor, both ravaged by the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination in that brutal spring of 1968. Is that progress or merely gentrification? I suppose the answer lies in the perspective of the beholder.

The District of Columbia government has placed a strong emphasis on affordable housing and municipal services for less affluent residents, going back several administrations. Former mayor Vincent Gray made a particular commitment to housing, and current mayor Muriel Bowser has spearheaded programs aimed at combatting homelessness, improving healthcare and providing economic mobility.

But there are still large areas of the city that have not seen the improvement and economic development experienced by the other areas, and that is where we hope Opportunity Zones will have their greatest impact. If we look at the map of the mayor’s designated Opportunity Zones, we see that most are, as we say here, “east of the river,” meaning the Anacostia River, and none are in “official” or “tourist” Washington. Rather, they are in the “real Washington,” the home to hundreds of thousands of longtime residents, the vast majority African American or Hispanic, and many struggling to meet their economic challenges. As in Chicago, Philadelphia and other major cities, these also tend to be some of the areas where drug addiction and violent crime are the highest.

From Mayor Bowser’s stated priorities in designating DC’s 25 Opportunity Zones, we see that she wants not more gentrification or attracting more tourist dollars, but to improve the residential, commercial and social life of “real Washington’s” residents and businesses, specifically: “Deliver new amenities, such as community-serving retail and fresh food grocers; Increase affordable and workforce housing; Capitalize DC small businesses; Create jobs for DC residents and pathways to the middle class.” And in keeping with previously sketchy areas that are now upscale, the mayor’s website states, “We also removed areas [from OZone consideration] that have received a great deal of investment or are already higher-priced markets, such as Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan and Logan Circle. We then layered on unemployment, commercial land and District development priorities to ensure that selected tracts aligned with District priorities of reducing employment disparities and benefiting existing residents, and to estimate investment potential in each tract.”

Can this work?

Lori Chatman is senior vice president of Enterprise Community Investment and president of Enterprise Community Loan Fund, in nearby Columbia, MD. Though Enterprise is initially focusing on Virginia and North Carolina, Chatman’s goals apply here as well: “Powered by our Opportunity360 platform, our investments will take a data-driven approach to advancing equitable and inclusive economic growth while generating attractive investor returns. To create pathways to economic mobility for residents, we are examining investments in well-designed homes, mixed-use developments, startup and entrepreneurial space and more.

“The types of projects we’re looking at are consistent with our mission: those that bring opportunity to lower income communities – including affordable housing, commercial space and mixed use. We want to generate sustainable, diverse and dynamic economic growth by revitalizing emerging main streets and supporting local entrepreneurs.”

“When you start to put an emphasis on particular areas, you’ll start to see the desired outcome in terms of increased housing, increased businesses and increased commerce,” states Tyrone Garrett, the dedicated executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority. “We want to make sure the Opportunity Zones end up with the kinds of amenities any other desirable community would have. I was just in the Navy Yard neighborhood and I saw good housing, soft retail—the kinds of small stores we need for everyday life —restaurants, and economic opportunities.” His office has long been active in many of the designated OZones.

Garrett has wide experience with redevelopment and what his official bio calls “the new reality of public housing” and understands that finding places for people to live does not exist in a vacuum. “One of the things we’re doing is using various methodologies to reposition our portfolio as to where we derive our subsidies, and it can be beneficial to move some of our units into other programs to greatly improve the quality of life for our residents. Now, Opportunity Zones don’t necessarily equate to housing, but housing and community development go hand-in-hand, and if we can leverage everything together using other initiatives, we can produce the kinds of communities we want here and keep them whole.”

Chatman says, “We’re using the expertise we’ve developed over the past 30 years managing investments, including funds drawing on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and the New Markets Tax Credit funds, as well as our own conventional equity fund.”

As to the danger of success turning into gentrification, Garrett says, “We need to be very thoughtful about what we’re doing. We’re using all of these tools and metrics, but after we do our numbers, we have to take into consideration the one factor that doesn’t show up in the numbers, and that’s the human capital. How does this [redevelopment] impact the residents and how do we assure that they can return to the site after redevelopment? We are very mindful that displacement is not our intent. We will redouble our efforts tenfold if necessary, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Our partners in the field have been clear that in many areas, there’s significant concern that Opportunity Fund investments might create or accelerate displacement. In those areas, local governments have the opportunity to step in and create policies that align with local needs and preferences,” Chatman comments. “But let’s not forget that in many Opportunity Zones, the problem is not one of imminent gentrification but rather of continued under-investment. If this incentive works how we hope it will, Opportunity Zones will help combat that longstanding challenge.

“What we are after,” says Garret, “is producing communities with good housing and economic opportunity, so people can stay there and get good education and good jobs. And Opportunity Zones are certainly part of that goal and effort.”

If this happens, it may help Washington and other cities finally begin to approach the “equal” kind of place I thought it already was back when I was in kindergarten.

Story Contacts:
Lori Chatman,

Tyrone Garrett,

Christy Goodman, Public Affairs and Communications,