When A Historically Black University's Neighborhood Turns White The area around Howard University was once working-class and black. As more nonblack residents move in and property values rise, the D.C. university is taking advantage of the hot real estate market.

When A Historically Black University's Neighborhood Turns White

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/538894722/539183645" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The real estate market here in the nation's capital appears as strong as ever. And high demand for housing means neighborhoods are changing. People with money are moving into low-income areas. And predominantly African-American areas have become whiter. It's the kind of change we're exploring this summer as part of the NPR Cities Project.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I was a part of the community.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You need to move out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Fix up these property.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Taxes are going to go up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I may not afford the rent.

MARTIN: Howard University is a historically black institution right in the center of Washington, D.C. And it is right in the middle of all this change. Brakkton Booker of member station WAMU is a Howard graduate. And he has these reflections.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Man, I really enjoyed my time at Howard University. I met my wife there. And back in 2000, I saw Jay-Z perform at homecoming.


JAY-Z: (Singing) When the Remy's in the system, ain't no tellin'...

BOOKER: But you know what else happened? One night, me and 10 of my friends were walking near our dorm when two dudes popped out of the shadows with guns and robbed all of us. Another time, at an off-campus party, someone from the neighborhood pulled a knife and stabbed a student. The neighborhood then felt much rougher than it does today.


BOOKER: Instead of liquor stores and run-down properties, now, you'll find bike shares and coffee shops, like this one, where I meet Jocelyn Lederman. She's white, a realtor and in her early 30s.

JOCELYN LEDERMAN: I had a lot of cab drivers asking me if I was single and that I shouldn't live over here. (Laughter) I was like, oh, thank you for your opinion. I don't care.

BOOKER: Lederman bought her condo by Howard in 2010.

LEDERMAN: I'd loved it. Didn't really know anything about the neighborhood. But that's kind of where I could afford to buy.

BOOKER: And she's come to love the university atmosphere.

LEDERMAN: I know it's fall when I hear the drum line.


BOOKER: That's Howard's Showtime Marching Band here on campus last fall. But unlike the band, the neighborhood and university have not always been in lockstep. Just ask Maybelle Bennett.

MAYBELLE BENNETT: How you doing?

BOOKER: She's been Howard's point person for community outreach for 26 years.

BENNETT: The relationships with the community have been relatively schizophrenic.

BOOKER: Back when the area was predominantly black and working-class, residents viewed Howard as insular. And the school heard complaints in the '80s and '90s about upkeep of its off-campus properties.

BENNETT: Howard needs to clean up its own backyard. Howard needs to fix...

BOOKER: But when the university fixed things up, another point of tension surfaced. Howard was accused of gentrifying the neighborhood.

BENNETT: And it was damned if we do and damned if we don't because of the rise in value and because of the rise in tax bills.


BOOKER: Here on Hobart Place, property values are going up. Rowhouses pop with fresh paint, some colors so vivid they belong in a bag of Skittles. And the change hurts some longtime residents, says Darren Jones, head of the Pleasant Plains Civic Association.

DARREN JONES: Some of my elderly neighbors are talking about not being able to pay their taxes anymore.

BOOKER: New condos start in the $700,000 range, 10 times what Jones paid for his home in 1993. Jones grew up here. And he's worried his adult son won't be able to stay, even in his family's old house around the corner.

JONES: Taxes are going to go up because they're going to say your house is worth what the house is worth next door.

BOOKER: Jones is thrilled newcomers see the beauty in his neighborhood. But he wishes prices weren't forcing neighbors out.


BOOKER: Back on Howard's campus, community outreach director Maybelle Bennett says the university is trying to help the neighborhood and itself. Howard has financial troubles, including $750 million in overdue repairs to its campus - so one solution, capitalize on the hot real estate market. The University and a developer are working on a brand new condo building with more than 300 units. Bennett knows this likely means more white people moving to this part of Washington.

BENNETT: It is going to continue to bring in people who do not necessarily look like us. And we are going to continue to have to find respectful ways of working with them so that we can stay alive.

BOOKER: The university and the community have always talked about ways to be more neighborly. But those talks are changing.

BENNETT: These are people who have not been there a long time and who are not the same culture, you know, who may be frightened when they see groups of African-American men walking up and down the streets together. And...

BOOKER: When I was here at Howard, walking in a large group was a way to stay safe, though it didn't help me back in the day. Now Bennett worries some newer residents may see that same group as a threat. At Howard University in Washington, I'm Brakkton Booker for the NPR Cities Project.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.