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"She was moving slowly, but she needed to speed up. Her blue sandals clicked on the hardwood floor, echoing off the empty green walls of the two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment in Northwest Washington where she had spent the past 40 years of her life. Reluctantly, she spun from one room to the next, packing boxes, folding sheets, unfolding sheets, opening cupboards, closing cupboards, doing a mental inventory.
What to take? What not to take? Where would she and her family live now? She hadn’t looked for an apartment since everyone called D.C. by its old nickname: Chocolate City.
Now that city was vanishing, and so was Sanathera Price’s place in it.
“I really don’t want to move,” said Price, 61, sinking into a chair in the living room of her beloved apartment in the 1800 block of 13th Street NW. “My time is up, I guess. I know I have to move. But I’m stuck.”
Her emotions welled up in the thick, oppressive summer heat inside the apartment. The air conditioning was broken, and the fan had stopped spinning in the living room. She opened a window that faced a red brick wall. It wasn’t a pretty view but it was hers.
Outside, her block was a booming microcosm of gentrification. Construction workers hammered and drilled, transforming an apartment building two doors down into condos that will sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Tourists with rolling bags swept in and out of the huge brownstone mansion next door that has become a bustling bed-and-breakfast. Millennials sped up and down the sidewalk on scooters. The corner store across the street at 13th and T had begun selling organic milk to cater to the newcomers. Rowhouses around the corner where black people once lived were being gutted, renovated and flipped. Now her own building was being emptied of its last tenants to be remade into something far fancier, something she knew she would never be able to afford. Price had to pack, move and turn in her keys before Labor Day.
She’d planned to stay here until she became an old lady, in a building that sits just off U Street, a corridor known as Black Broadway. Next door to her was the historic century-old Whitelaw Hotel, designed by noted African American architect Isaiah T. Hatton. Down the street: a childhood home of Duke Ellington.
She’d moved to this block in Shaw when she was a mother in her 20s, raising three children and a nephew in a neighborhood that was once mostly black and is now overwhelmingly white.
She paid $525 a month to rent her two-bedroom apartment — at least $1,500 less than what many apartments in this neighborhood now commanded.
Price was wearing a blue summer dress and her thick hair was plaited in two French braids. She’d just gotten off work at the Social Security Administration office in Northeast Washington, where she has worked as an administrator for as long as she has lived in this apartment.
“I am the kind of person who doesn’t like change,” she said. “I spent 40 years in the same job; 40 years in the same apartment.”
She’d cooked and cleaned at 1829 13th Street NW, first on the building’s third floor and later on the first floor. There were Christmas trees, home-cooked meals and first-day-of-school photos. And there was loss.
One day in 2001, her husband, Walter Hilliard, got out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to get to his job as a dump truck driver. Suddenly, he fell to the bedroom floor.
“I jumped up, turned on the light and found him,” she recalled. “His mouth was twisted, but he kept saying, ‘I’m all right. Just give me a minute.’ ”
But he wasn’t. He was taken to a hospital with an aneurysm that eventually killed him at age 53.
“He never came back home,” she said.
Now she lived in the apartment with her second husband, Elgin Allen, one of her sons, and two of her 10 grandchildren.
Through it all, Price said, her biggest fear was “getting put out. I never wanted to be put out.”
After four decades of dutifully paying her rent, that’s exactly what was happening.
‘More and more expensive’
Price is among thousands of people being displaced in the nation’s capital by warp-speed gentrification.
In Columbia Heights, Capitol Hill, Navy Yard and other neighborhoods, affluent white people have moved into the city, forcing less affluent black people out of the city.
The District has one the nation’s highest displacement rates for low-income residents, according to a study by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, which investigates social and economic disparities in the United States.
“We see over and over again, D.C. is getting more and more expensive with incentives for owners to turn buildings into luxury condos,” said Lori Leibowitz, managing attorney for the Neighborhood Legal Services Program. “As that process happens, our clients — many of them are black, and longtime residents — are getting pushed out of D.C.”