A grant designed to assist newly-introduced retail shops on H Street while offering no relief for longtime minority-owned businesses sparked a heated debate on Sept. 21 with city officials.

Officials with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), and the Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD), laid out the criteria, application and deadline process for local businesses to apply for the newly-introduced H Street Retail Priority Project Grant (RPAG). The grant awards a total of $1.25 million in $85,000 allotments to eligible merchants.

As DMPED Chief Of Staff Brian Kenner and the other officials described how the RPAG came to supplant an earlier, ineffectual, tax increment financing (TIF) funds initiative for H Street business improvement, meeting attendees aggressively pressed forward, demanding to know why barber shops and beauty salons had been excluded from consideration for RPAGs.

Black and minority-business operators, many with over 50 years of H Street history were seething. “It seems you all don’t want us here.” insisted beautician Betty Hart, owner of With These Hands. “It’s race discrimination.”

Bachir Diop, an H Street business owner, said, “The intent of this grant and, it seems to me the legislation behind it, is highly questionable certain businesses associated with small black businesses.”

Minority business owners are mobilized by a mixture of fear and resentment over a funding process they believe to be stacked against them in favor of newcomers representing the first wave of H Street gentrification. Their grievances include the pervasive belief that they’re being disenfranchised, with grant money getting fast-tracked into the hands of deep-pocketed newcomers out to bring nightclubs and tiny eateries to the H Street strip, while they are left to whither away.

Kenner interjected that the new grant program should be seen not in isolation but as part of a continuum including other programs and relief funds, designed to help businesses that fall under various profiles.

When questioned about that prevalent impression, Jose Sousa, DMPED director of Communications, defended the agency. “We offer many different types of programs through our office. This particular program is focused on growing and creating retail businesses and the local jobs that come with these neighborhood businesses.”

Charles Allen, chief of staff for DC Councilman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) sparred with H Street business community activist and property owner Pam Johnson. Wells designed the legislation. Johnson asked how the provision barring certain businesses was determined, and with what motives. Allen claimed the legislation was fully vetted through the public hearing process. “Black-owned businesses have weathered the storm via the riots of the 60s and crack epidemic since the 80s. Now with the DC government investing over $50 million in the H Street Corridor and enacting policies that expedites the gentrification of H Street, it seems the Council wants to prevent our barber shops and beauty salons from receiving one dime of the assistance that’s being given to the gentrifying businesses,” said Johnson.

Anwar Saleem has been working with the government to revitalize the H Street Corridor for decades. He owns several properties on H St, including a popular beauty salon. Saleem believes that in order for some of the longtime businesses to remain vibrant, they must make drastic changes to meet the demands of the new communities sprouting in the area. “If the District government truly wants to help existing businesses then it must give them the assistance, both financial and administrative, to make the changes. It won’t be easy because some people are set in their ways but it can be done,” Saleem said.

One newcomer to the neighborhood agreed. “When I come here to buy basic goods, Rite-Aid works. But if I want something nicer I have to go far outside the neighborhood. We need more retail diversity.” She declined to identify herself.

Later, in response to the AFRO, Allen noted the issue was revisited and Wells ”has introduced an amendment to clarify eligibility for the retail incentive program by proposing to remove the specific references to hair salons and barber shops as exclusions, and clarifying that a service-oriented businesses can be eligible if a significant proportion of their business is comprised of retail sales of goods.”

Researcher DeRutter Jones contributed additional material for this story.


Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO