This D.C. building is a haven for residents
In the middle of gentrified Columbia Heights in Northwest D.C., Samuel Kelsey Apartments stands as a safe haven for older adults and people with disabilities. It’s one of the only apartment complexes in Columbia Heights that refuses to hike up the rent.
At first glance, Samuel Kelsey Apartments, located a block from the Columbia Heights Metro station and Target, seems to be just another attractive apartment building in a rapidly changing neighborhood. There’s a gym, a resident café and a computer center.
The complex, however, is a rarity. With rent fixed at 30% of each resident’s income, Samuel Kelsey Apartments protects the city’s most vulnerable population — seniors, especially those of color — in the midst of rapid gentrification.
Built in 1920, Samuel Kelsey Apartments is “a historic building that stands for the neighborhood,” said Matt Philbin, regional vice president of the residential division at WinnCompanies, which created the apartment complex in 1985.
Its preservation is especially important to long-term residents of the area as Columbia Heights is quickly becoming unrecognizable to them.
Since the opening of the Metro station in 1999, Columbia Heights has become one of the fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in the country.
After the city government invested $138 million in the area in the early 2000s, people and businesses flooded the once-quiet neighborhood. Family-owned establishments closed and chain restaurants like Starbucks and Chipotle were quick to take their places.
Today Columbia Heights has two upscale grocery stores, five banks and four apartment buildings, all within two blocks.
“What we were seeing was a lot of properties being run down on purpose — not receiving maintenance — and then [afterward] the buildings would be changed,” said Daniel del Pielago, the organizing director of Empower D.C., a nonprofit advocacy group for people of low and moderate income. “It forced residents out so new residents could move in.”
Often the residents most affected by this displacement are people of color. In the last 10 years, Columbia Heights has lost more than a quarter of its black residents and almost 20% of its Latino residents.
Protecting its community
Samuel Kelsey Apartments, however, is bucking this trend: most of its residents are older people of color.
There are several protections in place to ensure the ability of these residents to stay in Columbia Heights. The federal government has committed to subsidize the Samuel Kelsey Apartments through 2031, and WinnCompanies has promised to extend this deadline by another 10 years.
“It’s not just somewhere to rest your head,” Philbin said of the Samuel Kelsey Apartments. “It’s really a community.”