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Unpublished Paper
POWER AND LAW, BAIT AND SWITCH: DEBUNKING “LAW” AS A TOOL OF SOCIETAL CHANGE The Disappearing Act of Affordable Housing in the District of Columbia
ExpressO (2010)
  • Samuel Jefferson




The Disappearing Act of Affordable Housing in the District of Columbia

by Samuel L. Jefferson, Jr.

I. Introduction

“It was a typical sunny, hot and hazy July afternoon in Washington, D.C. when I, as a 17-year-old, walked down the hill towards my apartment complex. As I approached, I noticed people gathered in the street in front of my building. I also noticed that someone had been evicted. As I moved closer, I noticed that the belongings were mine and my family’s. That’s when, at least after the numbness, the reality of being homeless set-in. Ironically or appropriately, shortly thereafter, I was flown-off to the U.S. Olympic Festival to represent the United States. A homeless person from the nation’s Capitol officially representing the United States – there’s an icon, tragically fitting for America that is not found at most Independence Day parades.”

Housing is among the most basic of human needs, orbiting somewhere near air, food, water, and love. Accordingly, many lawyers have spent their entire careers advocating for and securing affordable housing for that segment of American society generally referred to as low-income or the working poor. Theoretically, with each unit of affordable housing preserved, homelessness or some other housing-related tragedy is averted or at least delayed. The benefits of the affordable housing lawyers’ efforts can be seen in the expressions of joy and relief on their clients’ faces, and tangibly experienced by their clients.

Yet, there is a conundrum that affordable housing lawyers face in the District of Columbia. Isolated victories are not adding up to maintenance of, or increased, affordable housing. In fact, as discussed below, the affordable housing inventory is disappearing. This paper examines this “affordable housing disappearing act” through the lens of a landmark law designed, and recently amended, to preserve affordable housing -- the Rental Housing and Conversion and Sale Act of 1980 , more commonly referred to as the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (“TOPA”).

Although, this article focuses on TOPA, the “phenomenon” at work -- (i) an identifiable societal problem, (ii) the passing of a law to remedy the problem, and (iii) the problem’s continuation or exacerbation -- is not unique to the District of Columbia, TOPA or the affordable housing context. Rather, it is not a “phenomenon” at all. It is the normal functioning of the intersection of power and law in American society. As discussed below, the analysis of this dynamic’s normal functioning in the context of affordable housing debunks the notion of law as a tool for societal change.

Part II of this article provides information about the District of Columbia and TOPA -- including TOPA’s creation, implementation and amendment. Part III sets forth and examines the empirical data with respect to the inventory of affordable housing pre-TOPA and post-TOPA. Part IV sets forth the parameters of my discussion regarding the nature and intersection of law and power. Part V applies that understanding to explain the post-TOPA disappearance of affordable housing. Part VI examines and dispels alternative theories and explanations for the disappearance of affordable housing. Part VII proposes and advocates for power-based approaches and strategies by, and for, low-income tenants and their allies to better protect against the impact of the societal power dynamics at work.

  • law and organizing,
  • community,
  • affordable housing,
  • housing,
  • legislation,
  • public policy,
  • policy,
  • civil rigtht,
  • critical race,
  • critical,
  • community lawyering,
  • public interest,
  • african-american,
  • minority,
  • power,
  • legal theory,
  • jurisprudence
Publication Date
February 22, 2010
Citation Information
Samuel Jefferson. "POWER AND LAW, BAIT AND SWITCH: DEBUNKING “LAW” AS A TOOL OF SOCIETAL CHANGE The Disappearing Act of Affordable Housing in the District of Columbia" ExpressO (2010)
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