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Can DC redevelop public housing without displacing residents?

Public housing residents filled the room to testify at the DC Council on January 28th about the ways the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) has betrayed them through neglect and dereliction of duty as a landlord.

Tenants noted systemic housing code violations like rodents, mold, leaking plumbing, and holes in ceilings and floors, as well as DCHA’s unwillingness to respond to requests for service. Residents also testified to the warm memories and positive communalism they’ve loved about their public housing neighborhoods at their best.

These stories came out at a Public Roundtable on the New Communities Initiative (NCI) held at the John A Wilson Building, where about a dozen Bread for the City client leaders and staff testified, many for the first time.

Michelle Hamilton testifies on her experience in public housing

Michelle Hamilton testifies on her experience in public housing and the need for Right to Return

New Communities is DC’s redevelopment program intended to turn public housing into mixed-income housing, through transferring ownership from the city to private developers. As federal investment in public housing has dropped precipitously, the city has turned to this mixed-income model as a way to make housing for the very low-income more financially sustainable. NCI includes four DC neighborhoods: Barry Farm in Ward 8, Lincoln Heights – Richardson Dwelling in Ward 7, Northwest One in Ward 6, and Park Morton in Ward 1.

The problem is that, since the program’s start in 2004, many of the redevelopments have taken such a long time, or have been built with insufficient numbers of affordable units, that the original public housing residents have not been able to return. In some cases when they have returned, they’ve met new restrictions they didn’t face as original public housing residents.

Those restrictions have included barriers due to employment, credit ratings, or criminal history. In sum, the projects have resulted in the destruction of traditional public housing units, rather than their preservation for the long term, as the program promises.

Bread clients speak truth to power

Bread for the City clients gave some incredibly powerful testimony throughout the roundtable.

“I can’t afford to pay full market rent, and rely on public housing to live,” said Tyanna Dickey, who has three children as well as custody of her late sister’s three children. “There’s already so many people who are homeless. I was one of them, before I came to Barry Farms. I lived in DC Village where conditions were so bad they shut it down, and was thankful to have housing when I came off of the list and moved into Barry Farms. Imagine how mad I was when I arrived to find the conditions of Barry Farm were not much better than the ones I left.”

Dickey has had awful conditions there: a floor so soggy her 13-year-old fell through it, a bathtub so leaky you couldn’t bathe in it, and a bedbug problem the Housing Authority refused to resolve, forcing her to cough up $300 for it herself. Meanwhile, the Housing Authority is trying to evict her for a crime her grown son committed across the city – and she says they’re refusing to negotiate.

“If New Communities is able to build a Barry Farm that is healthy, safe, kid-friendly and most importantly, that I can afford,” Dickey said, “then I should have the right to live there.”

“I’m a returning citizen, but I’m not the same person I was in 1998 or 2006 when I got arrested,” said Bread client leader Chearie Phelps-El. “When residents are coming back after redevelopment, please don’t discriminate because of criminal history, poor credit history, or family size… Our communities can only grow together if everyone feels they’re being treated equally and fairly.”

Through discussions with resident leaders and other partners, Bread for the City’s housing advocacy campaign made seven demands of the city and the Housing Authority as they recommit to a New Communities Initiative without displacement:

  1. A real commitment to Build First, and when possible, building in phases. This means building nearby–or even on-site, affordable and dignified housing for residents where they can live while their homes are being redeveloped.
  2. A clearly stated and written date of eligibility for the right to return to the newly-developed property given to the resident. This date should be tied to something concrete, like the date of selection of a master developer for the project.
  3. Return criteria that maximize resident return, and prevent the “creaming” of residents that ultimately leads to displacement. This means no new criteria such as criminal background and credit checks, which ultimately restrict residents from returning to their redeveloped homes.
  4. In the mixed-income communities, public housing residents should be subject to the same rules as tenants at other public housing properties. High on the list in this category is that the Housing Authority continue to fund public housing resident leadership groups, especially since public housing residents will find themselves in the minority in the new developments.
  5. Residents of properties going through New Communities should have any outstanding rent debt wiped clean upon the initiation of the relocation process. DCHA is asking tenants to keep their end of the deal, while falling woefully short in so many of its obligations as DC’s biggest landlord.
  6. NCI and DCHA should partner with community organizations and other agencies to support residents during relocation.
  7. This strategy should be written down and codified.

During the roundtable, supporters from around the city tweeted with the hashtags #RightToStay and #DevelopWithDignity. One activist tweeted, “Public housing is most of DC’s last truly affordable housing. Don’t let New Communities mean MORE displacement.”

If you want to watch the hearing, see the video here. To be part of another big affordable housing hearing, join us this Thursday, February 4th, at 5pm at the Wilson Building for a hearing on protecting the rights of tenants at Congress Heights. And stay tuned for more opportunities!

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