Rally goers take their message to the sidewalk on M Street SW. Courtesy of the Author

By Matt Koehler

On a typical hot and sunny early June day, members of SW DC Action convened a rally at a lot across the street from the Waterfront Metro stop. 

“Look at this group of people! I’ve always wanted to do this in front of the people. Can y’all repeat after me, ‘Power to the people!’” Coy McKinney, one of the organizers for SW DC Action, said to the gathered crowd of more than 100. 

The reason for the rally? Recently, two parcels of land at 425 and 375 M Street SW, which had been slated for development, went up for sale. Activists and a rapidly growing number of Southwest residents have been pushing the city to purchase the parcels and put them in a community land trust (CLT). CLTs were born out of the civil rights movement and were first used by Black sharecroppers after they lost their homes and jobs for registering to vote. 

According to a 2019 study by Grounded Solutions, CLTs are increasingly being used by people of color and provide stable, affordable housing over generations, as well as stave off displacement. They are also an effective way for lower-middle income families to build wealth and either avoid poverty or escape it.  

In a post-rally press release, SW DC Action said: “[CLTS] are non-profit organizations that own land and lease access to it at affordable and below market-rate prices for housing and retail. CLTs have been proven to prevent gentrification and the displacement of residents and small businesses. A CLT at the site would provide the opportunity for residents to control and steward the land while also allowing the possibility of permanently affordable housing and retail space.” 

The two parcels have been in limbo for more than 12 years and were originally zoned for commercial development. 

“In 2017, the developers submitted to the zoning commission that they wanted to change the zoning from commercial to residential, and what they wanted to build here was 598 units – 8% of those units would be quote-unquote, affordable,” McKinney explained to the rally-goers. “So that’s when myself, along with a group of other Southwest residents got involved and said, ‘Hell no.'” 

An underlying philosophy guiding SW DC Action’s advocacy is the belief that the most fundamental and transformative part of the effort in Southwest (and elsewhere) is the collective ownership and stewardship of the land. “There should be more of that wherever possible, not less,” McKinney said in a follow up email to The Southwester.  

In December 2019, the nascent activist group held a press conference on the same parcels as the rally. They were filing a brief with the Court of Appeals to halt the development and push for more affordable housing, as well as time for the community to weigh in. The appeal ultimately failed, with the court siding with the Zoning Commission, but now that doesn’t seem to matter as the land is up for sale. 

For the last several years, the parcels, particularly 425 M Street SW, have become community and cultural assets inseparable from Southwest itself. The lots have hosted a weekly farmers market that goes year round and a night market every other Friday during the warmer months. They’ve also hosted the state fair and the 202 Creates festival. And generally, people use the lot across the street from the metro to gather, hang out, or just take a lunch break – for free. 

“This space is so central and integral to our community,” Thelma Jones, one of the activists and long-time community icon, told the crowd. “A community like ours needs a central place to convene and meet. This is that space, and we want it to stay that space.” 

It’s not just that the spaces host some events, though, as there’s a deeper community buy-in, according to Jones. “Many different people of all walks of Southwest come [here]. Our low-income families come here to purchase fresh produce – to use their Produce Plus card, so that they can go home with nutritious food. And they’re not feeling that they’re in a food desert, which is representative of so many places in our city.” 

However, the space and what it offers isn’t just a community asset. Many of the vendors are local Black and Brown business owners who can’t afford the high rent of a brick and mortar at The Wharf, for example, or elsewhere. Without this space, its convenient and visible location, and popularity, these vendors might be out of luck, and out of business. 

“[I]f the vendors are pushed away from here, where else will they go?” Jones said. “Some people say well, there’s a lot of other places they can go. That’s not true. That’s simply not true. We wouldn’t be taking up your time if that were the case. This is our space for a centrally located space to gather, shop, and celebrate.” 

What is the path forward? It’s unclear right now, even as community support grows. SW DC Action’s petition was closing in on 1000 signatures when this story was written, but convincing elected officials to purchase the land might prove an uphill battle.

Ward 6 Council Member Charles Allen has supported the CLT model in other areas of Southwest, but voiced skepticism as it applies to these two parcels of land, stating in a letter to a community member that he doesn’t “believe the Mayor or DMPED is interested in purchasing these lots on the open market.”

Kiesha Davis, who spoke at the rally and is the community engagement coordinator for Douglas CLT, said, “[W]e need more presence to go down…[a]nd let these elected officials know that we’re gonna get the land somehow.” 

A Ward 3 community member, who requested to remain anonymous but is deeply embedded in the CLT movement, said over email, “to control development outcomes the city must prepare in advance to buy land when it comes on the market, for example, 4th and M Streets SW and the former Wardman hotel site.”  

Margaret Dwyer, convenor of Ward 3 Housing Justice, a grassroots group organizing for affordable housing in Ward 3, wrote in an email that they “stand in solidarity with SW DC Action and the Southwest community in calling for the city to acquire the parcels at 4th and M Streets SW.”  

Dwyer likened the push to acquire the Southwest parcels to the failure at the Wardman Hotel (in Ward 3), which she said was a “huge missed opportunity.” Dwyer also said that waiting for private developers to produce the neighborhood serving amenities and affordable housing doesn’t work. “This is the moment for the Bowser administration to step up and change business as usual. The proposal from SW DC Action is simple and brilliant: Acquire the lots, turn them over to a Community Land Trust, and create true community assets. We agree. No more Wardmans.” 

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