Millennial migration to cities over the last decade has transformed urban landscapes around the U.S.,[i] bringing new businesses and capital for some and displacement and marginalization for others.[ii] Falling along class and racial lines,[iii] gentrification in American cities produces the painful paradox of increased wealth, city services, and civic vibrancy at the very moment the city’s founding communities can no longer afford to stay. As rent and cost of living increases, low-income residents are priced out of participation. The loss to dislocated residents is significant: historical ties, established businesses, and the dignity of a robust civil society.
The search for effective solutions, whether hampered by an unwillingness to take on the problem or disheartened by the intractability of it, has a long way to go. In the life cycle of litigation, advocates around the country are engaged in that early stage of creative legal action. In San Francisco, residents indirectly challenged gentrification through a class action against AirBnB, theorizing the business model aggravated an already limited housing supply.[iv] Similarly, a lawsuit against the city’s bus system on environmental grounds provided an oblique avenue to tackle the bus routes that allowed Silicon Valley employees to commute from the city and raise rent.[v] In Brooklyn, The Fifth Avenue Committee, after a decade of revitalizing Park Slope by building affordable housing and training residents to own local businesses, has had to shift strategies to protect residents from being displaced after their hard won gains attracted less equitable development.[vi] In her 2015 article “Fighting for a Place Called Home: Litigation Strategies for Challenging Gentrification,” Hannah Weinstein offers additional solutions for the litigating advocate: suits to enforce inclusionary zoning laws, preemptive efforts to include a right to affordability-friendly zoning regulations in state constitutions, grounds based on state and federal environmental impact statements, and claims under the Fair Housing Act.[vii]
In DC, a current controversy involving the United House of Prayer, District Department of Transportation, and DC’s bike advocacy groups presents another avenue, at an unexpected nexus of civil rights and civil liberties. The Department of Transportation is considering the installation of a protected bike lane along Sixth Street, a location where a dozen bikers have been involved in accidents in the last few years.[viii] The street runs in front of the United House of Prayer and provides parking for its African-American congregation, many of whom have had to leave the neighborhood and now commute from outside the city. Installation of a bike lane would eliminate a significant number of parking spaces around the church and is one of many proposals in recent years[ix] made to accommodate the growing population of mostly white bike commuters in the city.[x]
The United House of Prayer, represented by counsel, responded stating the proposed changes to Sixth Street “would place an extreme burden on the free exercise of religion by United House of Prayer Congregants.”[xi] The potential for litigation over religious freedom is likely a frightening prospect for the Department of Transportation, which has already received thousands of emails on this issue and held dozens of meetings and calls.[xii] But the alleged wrong seems out of step with the nature of the controversy. The controversy raises difficult questions about the equitable use of community space, divergent visions for the future of D.C., and the growing pains from a decade of rapid growth. But it is not so clear that the controversy raises the specter of religious oppression. So why invoke it?
The decision is reminiscent of the writ system’s rigidity under English Common Law—with only limited forms to express endless causes of action, writs resulted in complaints plead to fit the form, regardless of the facts of the case. Why turn to religious freedom in a case about protected bike lanes? Perhaps because the law lacks an adequate articulation of the real harm in this case, the indignity of a splintered congregation from a neighborhood they can no longer afford losing parking spaces to accommodate the very residents responsible for the cost of living increase.
DC has seen an enormous influx of millenials in recent years, with an average annual net gain peaking in 2010-2012 at 12,583 people between the ages of 25 and 34, more than any other city that year.[xiii] The effect on the DC landscape has been drastic, changing entire neighborhoods in under a decade.[xiv] The newcomers—mostly college educated, white, and able to afford increasing rent and cost of living—benefit from the “storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit”[xv] at locations like Marvin’s, a bar down the street from Marvin Gaye’s high school, which celebrates its namesake with $12 cocktails.[xvi]
At a D.C. Department of Transportation community meeting earlier this week Pastor Robert Price III of the United House of Prayer framed the controversy with indivisible stakes: “We are not going to allow someone’s pastime to destroy our lifeline.”[xvii] Lifelines, whether they take the form of deep-rooted churches or protected bike lanes, run through and across our cities, bounding communities and creating new identities. As we face the currently trends shaping cities around the country, it will take creative litigation and legislation to avoid their painful intersection, to carefully balance and rights and liberties that every community is owed, and to better foster the vitality lifelines bring to urban landscapes when they work in unison.