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How Gentrification Impacts Washington’s Nonprofit Community

Gentrification has been a fact of life in Washington, D.C. for the past several years, and we have all seen its impact on the historic character of the city’s diverse and distinctive wards.

One group hurt by gentrification has been local nonprofits that have seen their missions dramatically reshaped by gentrification, and have been forced to change the way they operate to respond to demographic shifts. In addition, the rising costs of operating in the city has forced many nonprofit facilities to close their doors or relocate.

Recently, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center and Compass studied these effects and reported the findings in The Impact of Gentrification on Nonprofit Organizations in the District of Columbia.

One nonprofit in Columbia Heights has had to change its operations to reach its Spanish speaking clients who continue to work in the community, but can no longer afford to live there. Another nonprofit has had to open several branch locations, to reach its school age clients who no longer live in the immediate neighborhood, and cannot always travel to the nonprofit’s location to take part in its after-school activities.

Certainly, the District’s redevelopment has been a boon to the economy as new residents and corporations flooded into the city. However, the  influx of more affluent residents into the District—along with the accompanying high-end businesses that serve their needs—has driven up rents, displaced nonprofit clients and sometimes caused conflict with existing nonprofits doing business in newly renovated neighborhoods.  More than one nonprofit serving the homeless has had to spend significate time educating more affluent neighbors about the need for its services.  This effort has stretched the nonprofit’s already thin resources even more thinly and has had a negative impact on its ability to carry out its mission.

Government officials and funders have not often recognized the challenges nonprofits face as a result of the District’s changing demographics. Even  medical clinics and other providers of essential services have seen their clients forego assistance because of the transportation challenges their clients face when they no longer live near the facilities. For other nonprofits, such as after-school programs, being close to their client population is  even more critical.

Additionally, D.C. nonprofits have had to deal with the impact of gentrification largely without assistance from the District government. For example, the District government has not always fully recognized overhead costs. When a nonprofit starts an after-school program, the District may fund direct costs for running the program, but it doesn’t provide assistance to nonprofits in order to help meet the long term challenges of continuing to operate in D.C.  

Additional support could take many forms—providing guaranteed funding for general operating expenses in all nonprofit grants, similar to what the federal government now provides; funding planning grants, as well as moving expenses, for nonprofits forced to relocate to lower cost neighborhoods; and including nonprofit space in planned developments in the same way that retail space and affordable housing are incorporated.

The D.C. Office of Planning has begun work on  the Comprehensive Plan, which is amending the document that outlines the District’s strategy for commercial and residential development over the next few years. Nonprofits and their clients must be heard and considered in the deliberations on the amendments to the plan over the next year.

Many cities do not enjoy the same level of nonprofit support found in Washington, D.C. To maintain this support  the District government, the funding community and the general public must  act swiftly to address the perils posed by genetrification —or risk losing vital nonprofit organizations that are necessary for the District government and the funding community to carry out their missions.