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$2 Million Art Above Homeless Tent Encampment Highlights DC’s Problems


Tents are a permanent fixture beneath the bridges that support the train tracks feeding into Washington DC’s Union Station, particularly along the sidewalks in the rapidly developing NoMa neighborhood. Along the portions of M, L, and K Streets that are covered by railway overpasses in Northeast DC are dozens of tents — some taking over the entire width of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to step down into the street and dangerously close to oncoming traffic to get by.

Camping on public property is illegal in DC, but the police don’t typically crack down on tent-dwellers. Every now and again the city cleans things up by sweeping through heavily tented areas, ordering campers to leave and packing up any belongings left behind in storage, which residents can collect from the city up to 60 days later. Residents are given two weeks notice prior to the scheduled cleanup and the tents often return soon after.

Steps away from these densely populated overpasses are newly built, high-rise luxury apartments with studio units that rent out at close to $2,000 a month. Not long ago, the area was once a seedy bus station, but it has transformed into a millennial’s paradise. It features an outdoor beer garden, a massive REI store, bike lanes galore, a Trader Joe’s, and nearby Union Market that contains craft beer and cocktail sellers, a raw oyster bar, and numerous artisanal jewelry and home products.

The NoMa Parks Foundation, which oversees the distribution of a $50 million taxpayer-funded grant to purchase public land and build parks in the neighborhood, has set aside $2 million of that money to install artistic light displays or, as the foundation’s website calls it, “Underpass Art Parks,” to spruce up the dark tunnels.

Near-completed light installation on M Street NE.

A Tent Dweller Is Shocked At The $2 Million Sticker Price

One woman camped just outside of the L Street bridge, where she will likely be forced to vacate soon when the light installation project expands, was aghast at the $2 million sticker price for the project.

“That money could’ve been used for little huts or something,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only as a lady who’s been on the street for seven years. The city’s problems are “like cancer,” she says, adding that the sidewalk under the bridge often floods and that rat infestations have plagued the city for years. “You can’t cover it up, you’ve gotta get it out. Fix the problem, and then make it pretty.”

Yet “pretty” isn’t a word she would use for the nearly completed M Street art project, adding that she hopes the L Street project will “look better than that.”

“They say tents are illegal in the district, but who can pay $2,600 for a studio?” she said as she gazed at the high-rise apartments just blocks away outfitted with rooftop pools, indoor pet washing stations, and 24-hour concierge service.

Under the nearby K Street bridge, a notice hangs announcing the next cleanup is in three days. Dozens of tents and ramshackle shelters made with plywood and blankets line both sides of the sidewalk.

Tent dwellings.

“Do not take photos of our tents!” a man’s voice yelled from inside one of the tents. “Don’t be doing that! Next time ask first!”

Expensive Lights Won’t Fix These Underpasses

Throughout the construction of these “Art Parks,” fencing has appeared along M and parts of L Streets in an effort to clear the area for work crews to install the lights. Just outside of the fencing along M Street sits one tent, stubbornly defying the obvious intention of the nearby chain link barrier.

Last week, several tents were pitched inside the fencing, only to disappear the next day. After the completion of these light installations, it’s likely the tents will return, making the sidewalks once again un-walkable in places.

Drugs and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and a lack of affordable housing contribute to DC’s homeless population, which is the highest per capita in the entire United States, according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Activists say rapid gentrification, spurred by taxpayer subsidies and government programs, have made areas like NoMa less affordable for longtime residents.

DC-based lawyer Ari Theresa is suing the city for $1 billion over its development plans to attract transient and childless millennials with higher incomes. He alleges the plan discriminates against poor, African-American families.

It might seem odd that a city that has never had anything but a Democratic mayor and is densely populated by liberals is being sued for racial discrimination, but its leftist policies and spending habits that have spurred rapid gentrification. Government subsidies are part of the problem, Theresa explains, as areas with the most new development  are receiving the most subsidies.

Taxpayers Are Subsiding Luxuries for High-Earning Singles

A peek into’s Inclusionary Zoning database shows a number of the District’s newest high rises — 77H, Ava on H, Aria on L, among numerous others — offer subsidized units for residents earning up to 80 percent of the Washington Metropolitan Statistical Area Median Family Income (MFI),which is set at $117,200. The chart shows that a single person making $65,650 a year could qualify to live in a subsidized unit in of the city’s most luxurious apartment buildings.

The database shows many of buildings have studio and single bedroom units available for those making between 50 and 80 percent of the median family income, but there is a scant offering of units with additional bedrooms to fit a family with children. In short, DC taxpayers are footing the bill for a single person making plenty of money to live in luxury apartments, which are driving up the cost of housing for everyone by raising property values and therefore taxes and rent.

When you throw subsidies around like this, that ends up setting the floor,” Theresa said. “Everything goes up.”

Absurd housing subsidies and million-dollar light installations aren’t the only ways the District has chosen extreme gentrification in favor of millennials over its longtime African-American residents. The rapid expansion of bike lanes in the city has made it difficult for families to find parking outside of their churches on Sundays.