Students from the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy developed a proposal that will help small businesses in Washington, D.C., stay open amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and gentrification.
Lindsey Volz (GRD ’22) and Nicholas Stabile (GRD ’21) won the seventh annual Georgetown Public Policy Challenge, an event hosted by the McCourt School designed to encourage graduate students to critically address issues of public life in D.C. Their winning proposal, titled “Buy Your Own Building,” outlines a plan to combat gentrification and the economic consequences small businesses have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Volz and Stabiles’ plan guarantees small businesses the right of first refusal, which ensures that landlords who are selling their property offer the opportunity to purchase the building to the business owners first. The plan also proposes gifting grants to small businesses in Wards 7 and 8. Winners of the challenge receive $2,500 to be used in implementing their proposals.
The ultimate goal of “Buy Your Own Building” is to address the problems of gentrification and economic instability that small businesses in the District face, according to Stabile.
“It’s important to address lack of capital for small businesses, particularly for Black- and minority-owned businesses,” Stabile said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “Mitigating gentrification and displacement pressures and sort of allowing small businesses that have sort of been at the heart of a lot of communities to continue to stick around even as rents rise in D.C. is also important.”
Inspiration for the winning proposal came from the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses. Since March 2020, 375 businesses have closed in the District, according to the DCist.
In particular, the majority Black populations of Wards 7 and 8 have faced disproportionate barriers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents find themselves facing a pattern of being underserved by the D.C. government. Compared to majority-white areas, like Ward 2, residents of Wards 7 and 8 have faced low vaccine availability. Further, these wards have experienced heightened economic hardship amid the pandemic and business closures.
The Public Policy Challenge allows graduate students to investigate issues that impact local neighborhoods and talk to community members who have lived in the District for their entire lives, according to Jaclyn Clevenger, associate director of student affairs at the McCourt School and director of the challenge.
“This is really an opportunity to learn about D.C. and the local issues that are happening here in the District and figure out ways to address them,” Clevenger said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
Volz and Stabile looked to Check It Enterprises, an apparel business that supports LGBTQ youth in Anacostia and secured funds from the District in order to buy their building, for a roadmap for their proposal.Check It Enterprises received $2 million from the city in 2020, which allowed the business to remain in its building and own the property.The “Buy Your Own Building” proposal would afford this same opportunity to all small businesses, Volz and Stabile said.
Gentrification and the long-lasting impacts of redlining, the practice of refusing mortgages to people in certain neighborhoods, can be combated through property ownership, according to Ronald Moten, a partner with Check It Enterprises.
“There are few places like Anacostia,” Moten said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “We need to make sure we preserve the culture and the business owners with something where they will be owners, not renters.”
Volz and Stabiles’ winning proposal has the potential to positively impact the lives of small business owners and employees in the District, while also addressing crucial problems like gentrification that business owners face, according to Clevenger.
“It’s just so needed in D.C. communities to have that longevity, to have these local businesses as part of our neighborhoods,” Clevenger said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “My hope is that their project will really help D.C. residents in need keep their small businesses in D.C.”
If “Buy Your Own Building” becomes a reality, small businesses throughout D.C. could benefit from property ownership, according to Volz.
“There is real community support,” Volz said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “It was built off of actual feedback we’ve gotten, which is really cool because it is something where we can speak to people in the community going forward and hopefully push some version of this to actually being a possibility.”