Advocates call for overhaul of affordable housing strategy

Two prominent advocacy groups on Tuesday called for the D.C. government to overhaul its approach to the city’s most ambitious affordable housing plan.

Begun in 2005 by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), the New Communities program proposed turning four public housing communities into mixed-income neighborhoods:

“Northwest One,” a term the city uses to refer to the Temple Courts, Sursum Corda and Golden Rule projects in Northwest; Barry Farm in Southeast; Park Morton in Northwest; and Lincoln Heights and Richardson Dwellings in Northeast.

The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, an influential think tank that advocates on behalf of low- and moderate-income D.C. residents, was originally encouraged by the strategy, known as the New Communities Initiative. But the programs have fallen so far behind that the institute is now advocating for a new strategy.

In testimonyto the city council’s Committee on Economic Development, Jessica Fulton, the organization’s outreach director, said that “the current New Communities Initiative is not financially viable as structured.”

Of the 1,500 units promised to replace public housing, only 149 have either been built or are under construction. Many residents have complained that those new units do not meet their requirements, such as number of bedrooms, and choose to stay put.

“In Northwest One, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, the creation of market-rate housing far exceeds the creation of deeply subsidized and moderately affordable units,” Fulton said. “In each of the other communities, no market-rate housing has been constructed at all, and the creation of affordable housing is moving slowly. One goal of New Communities was to have interest in market-rate units help generate financing to support the affordable housing, but this has not happened at three of the four sites.”

During the committee’s budget oversight hearing Tuesday, Will Merrifield, a staff attorney at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, also advocated changes to the program. “The city claims to be committed [to New Communities], but it has not even come close,” Merrifield said.

Last week, D.C. Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins, one of the officials overseeing the program for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), decided to cut ties with the city’s development partners for the Park Morton project. They claimed the developers — Landex Corp., of Linthicum, Md., and D.C.-based the Warrenton Group — have not made enough progress since being awarded the rights to develop in 2009.

Developers were supposed to build 500 units to replace the project’s 174 property units. So far, they’ve only constructed 83.

Judy Siegel, chairman of Landex, testified that she was shocked Hoskins canceled the contract because “we don’t have a contract. We never had a contract. He’s talking about things he doesn’t know anything about.”

Instead, Siegel alleged that her company was awarded the rights to develop from a staffer with then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty via a phone call a night before a news conference announcing their development plans. Working to achieve the plans has since been a “nightmare” that has lasted through two mayoral administrations, Siegel said.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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