By now, Mary Dews-Hall was supposed to be back home. When the city tore down Temple Courts five years ago, staff assured her that she and her neighbors would return. That there was a plan. That this time wouldn’t be like the others, when poor, black neighborhoods were paved over in the name of progress.
The New Communities Initiative was going to infuse prosperity into this troubled area, 10 blocks from the Capitol. It would serve as a template for remaking other violent neighborhoods in the District, a commitment to those who felt a changing city was leaving them behind.
By the end of this year,180 units were to have been built for former Temple Courts tenants. So far, the plan hasn’t delivered one.
The plan for Dews-Hall’s neighborhood was supposed to show that the city had figured out some of the great puzzles of urban renewal, how to revitalize a community without replacing it, how to create a place for prosperous newcomers without pushing out poor old-timers.
Instead, New Communities has shown how hard it is to make affordable housing work in the modern American city and how easy it was to let a program that was the centerpiece of the District’s affordable-housing efforts unravel.
“We just never seemed like a priority,” said Dews-Hall, 65, a round-faced hairdresser who neighbors called “Miss Mary.” “Why did anyone believe them?”
The city, spurred to action after the killing of a teenage girl, had pledged to marshal hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment for the neighborhood. More than 1,000 apartments would be built. No existing unit would be torn down until a replacement was constructed.
And when New Communities was complete, the people who had lived in the neighborhood — in Temple Courts, Sursum Corda, Golden Rule and other buildings — would find themselves in new apartments, with new neighbors but in a place that still felt like home.
Today, hundreds remain far from their homes, some in living conditions no better than the ones they left. They navigate a city where, studies show, the number of low-cost units has shrunk by half while rents have increased by about 50 percent.
They aren’t the only ones who lost out. Teachers and other government workers were supposed to move into “workforce housing” that was envisioned for the area when the city bought Temple Courts for $22.5 million.
Then came a succession of oversights, missteps and missed opportunities.
The city didn’t hire someone to oversee the project for nearly eight years. It couldn’t get the housing agency, headquartered just up the block from Temple Courts, to move out and make room for new housing. The city’s planning department lost track of the original blueprint for the project and was unable to locate the document until last month.
Giddy at the prospect of creating a better neighborhood, politicians grinned as a wrecking ball razed the complex at 33 K Street NW. Yet, sitting in the property records, unnoticed, was a restriction that would cripple the project.
Dews-Hall’s former home is now a parking lot. Spaces go for $8 a day, in a Zip code that is gaining white people at a rate faster than any other place in the city. This spring, NPR moved in across the street. The city bestowed $40 million worth of tax abatements and froze property taxes for 20 years to keep the media organization in the city.
Some residents who lived in the neighborhood found themselves in suburban Maryland. Most moved from one concentrated pocket of poverty to another, east of the Anacostia River.
Dews-Hall, who has weak knees, is resigned to climb three flights of steps to her apartment in Southeast Washington, near Good Hope Road. The floor in her one-bedroom is crowded with toys and dolls for her 28 great-grandchildren to play with when they visit.
Hanging on the walls, near the framed photos of Michael Jackson and her beauty school graduation, is a letter. It is from a Boston-based agency that receives more than $650,000 a year to assist residents from Temple Courts. The letter praises her as a “model of self-sufficiency.”
Dews-Hall no longer dreams of doormen and granite countertops. Nowadays, she’d just be grateful for an elevator.
“They got their stadium; they got their young people,” she said. “But they didn’t get me the housing.”
Miss Mary’s new housing was to be in an enclave that would be the envy of urban planners, a world that looked nothing like the neighborhood she remembered. It was all asphalt and brick back then, a place where children played tag in parking lots and teenagers traded cocaine for cash. Their homes were in impoverished buildings emblazoned with pious names.
Temple Courts was a 10-floor, trash-strewn tower with winding hallways. A nearby church owned a shopping plaza called the Golden Rule, anchored by a grocery store that closed because neighbors couldn’t afford the food.
One block north, homeowners had used federal subsidies to purchase homes in Sursum Corda, Latin for “Lift Up Your Hearts.” Jesuits built the property, in part, for families displaced by the urban renewal plans of the 1960s.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) dispatched his city administrator, Robert C. Bobb, to work with the community to dream up a new neighborhood.
They created a plan that would preserve at least 520 units of low-income housing. The city and the housing agency would sprinkle those units throughout new townhomes and high-rises for middle- and upper-income residents. The area was bound by New York Avenue to the north, K Street to the south, New Jersey Avenue to the west and North Capitol Street to the east.
“It was the single greatest project of my career,” Bobb said. “And it was done the right way; it was community led.”
Bobb thought the plan was doable if the city kept it a priority.
Instead, former officials said the D.C. Council might have strained the effort by adding similar projects to the initiative: Barry Farm in Southeast, Park Morton in Northwest and Lincoln Heights and Richardson Dwellings in Northeast.
Then, the plans largely fell off the radar. Earlier this year, Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) started asking questions when she became chairwoman of the city’s economic and planning development committee.
She convened a public meeting in February, and four hours of testimony made plain the problems of New Communities.
Some Temple Courts residents noted that people moved as many as six times before finding suitable replacement housing. Barry Farm residents testified that they were being asked to stay in rat-
infested apartments while awaiting housing that’s barely underway. At Park Morton, the housing agency testified, the site isn’t large enough for more development. In the Lincoln Heights area, housing officials said they struggled to find interested developers.
Adrianne Todman, who has led the city’s housing agency over the past three years, acknowledged that progress on the plans hasn’t been “meaningful.”
Most concerning to Bowser, who announced in March that she is running for mayor, was the finger-pointing. No one had ownership of the project.
“Who’s in charge?” she asked.
Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins paused. He looked at his colleagues from the housing agency.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “the answer’s complicated.’’
Dews-Hall and her husband moved to North Capitol and O Street about 40 years ago. Originally from southwest Virginia, they came in search of careers. He became a chef, she a hairdresser. She recalls handing out trash bags with Marion Barry to neighbors, encouraging them to clean up. She knew that one day the neighborhood would improve.
After moving to Southeast to raise her four children, Dews-Hall returned to the neighborhood she loved. In 2003, she settled on the top floor of Temple Courts, in Apartment 1005.
She relished watching the Capitol’s fireworks from her window and admired the architecture of Union Station. She took the Metro from the nearby New York Avenue station to the Smithsonian to teach her grandchildren about life outside Temple Courts.
Her first Sunday back, she attended a Temptations concert and returned to a corridor cordoned off by police tape. It wouldn’t be the last time; she learned to clean up blood from stabbings with bleach and water. The neighborhood was full of vice. And children grew up fast.
One night, from outside the door, she heard the squeaky voice of a girl named Princess who cursed with a fluency beyond her age.
“I came out to tell her that was not the way that young ladies speak,’’ she recalled. When Dews-Hall opened her door, she realized that the girl, dressed in revealing clothes, was beyond her reach. “She had taken on the look of a grown woman.”
As New York Avenue commuters flew past on their way to the suburbs, the neighborhood cemented its isolation. To an outsider, it was a brick-laden labyrinth of shadows and silhouettes.
But residents understood the contours of the complicated layout. They say they had a tight-knit neighborhood where everyone knew each other. Families who raised children in Sursum Corda never left. For their children, growing up meant moving to Temple Courts.
“I know it sounds crazy if you don’t live there, but it was a community,’’ said Jacqueline Ellison. “People cared for each other.”
Ellison was 11 when she moved into the neighborhood with her mom, intent on a new life after they left a shelter for battered women.
Ellison spent her early years growing up middle class in Upper Northwest. She attended Duke Ellington High School of the Arts and dreamed of becoming a jazz singer. She learned piano and was teased for sounding white.
She was considering going to college full time when she moved into Temple Courts, Apartment 417. But she never wanted to be a part of the pattern she saw there: generations of black families, each one doing no better than the ones before. One day, she dreamed, she’d move back “uptown.”
“For many people who lived there, this was their ceiling,” said Ellison, 39. “They’d never seen a place better than Temple Courts. I did. I wanted to break through.”
On Jan. 23, 2004, a heinous crime rocked the city. A 14-year-old girl had been killed execution-style in her family’s Sursum Corda home. Investigators would learn that she had witnessed a slaying in Temple Courts, carried out by a 28-year-old man she considered a boyfriend. “You best not be snitching,’’ she was warned.
The girl understood and rebuffed police attempts to have her testify. But the killer was worried. He sought out a neighborhood heavy nicknamed “Frank Nitti,” for the Al Capone enforcer. The man broke into her home and killed her.
The girl was identified as Jahkema “Princess” Hansen.
Princess. The same girl whom Dews-Hall heard cursing outside her door months before.
“When I saw that little girl get killed, I started going to meetings with the tenant association,’’ Dews-Hall said. “But everyone there wouldn’t talk about what we needed to talk about. They were too scared.”
She had enough. So had the mayor.
Mayor Williams had a plan: Leverage the city’s bustling housing market to bring in new wealth. Developers were already flocking to the area, which was being rebranded as “NoMa.” He hoped to court those who would create buildings in which a third would sell at market rate. Another third would be for those who made 60 percent of the area median income. The taxes from those units could help subsidize places for impoverished residents already living there.
“Lawyers and doctors, in my neighborhood!” Dews-Hall said. “I wouldn’t mind them. I’m a doctor, too — a doctor of doing hair.”
As Williams’s city administrator held community meetings, Ellison saw the place sink deeper into a world of desolate hallways and decay. Bedbugs infested. Turf wars intensified. Elevators stopped working. Fires broke out in the middle of the night. Everywhere, there were big rats.
“Sometimes you look back and you wonder, ‘How was it ever allowed to get this bad?’ It was in such a state of, I don’t know, a state of horrible,” Ellison said. And she had more reason to be worried: A baby was on the way.
In late March 2007, a frustrated new mayor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), called a meeting at Temple Courts to discuss complaints about vermin. He lobbed the 65 attendants a choice: The city could fumigate the place, or residents could relocate while the city rebuilt it. Stay or go.
Dews-Hall recalls residents being torn. Could they really trust the government? Before this, there had long been talk of another “plan,” the urban legend about the District plotting to push out low-income blacks. The rumor was rooted in the 1950s and 1960s, when black residents were forced out of Southwest Washington with no chance to return. Residents in nearby Sursum Corda knew that story well; that’s how some families ended up there.
Dews-Hall was skeptical but she admired Fenty’s attitude.
“To kill a snake, you have to cut it off by the head,’’ she said. “This man made a hard choice, but he was tired of dealing with this.”
There was no formal poll or vote, but the majority agreed that Temple Courts was beyond repair. Some fought the decision, with no results.
In Apartment 417, Ellison was ready to go. Baby Jackson had been born, and he was already adjusting to the area’s odd rhythms. His mother kept extra bottles of milk in the fridge so he could be calmed when fires broke out.
Maybe, she thought, she could finally find that place uptown.
“I thought it would be best for my son,” she said.
The relocation cost $1.2 million. The city hired caseworkers to help 190 families find new apartments, place them in job training, help them boost their credit scores, sign them up for college courses. They figured those programs would help residents adjust to a more economically diverse neighborhood. Residents with certain criminal convictions or bad credit scores wouldn’t be invited back.
Dews-Hall kept her hairdressing gig. Ellison started going to the University of District of Columbia full time. By September 2008, everyone was gone.
Where the Williams administration saw opportunity, the Fenty administration saw hardship.
“It wasn’t as practical as it sounded,’’ said Neil Albert, Fenty’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “And it didn’t take a long time for us to figure that out.”
In 2007, the Fenty administration awarded the rights to develop to a group of well-respected builders, including W.C. Smith and Jair Lynch Development Partners. They estimated that the project would cost $700 million, mostly inprivate money. They planned 40,000 square feet of retail, 220,000 square feet of office space and more than 1,600 units of housing.
To do this, the city bequeathed five parcels of land.
But there weren’t really five parcels. One was Sursum Corda, where residents said they feared the new housing density. They also worried that they’d be pushed out of their homes, just like their parents and grandparents. No agreement was reached.
A second parcel was also off-limits — the District of Columbia Housing Agency. The city and the 750-person agency never came up with a plan to relocate so it could build housing for the people they serve.
The third parcel was Temple Courts. When the developers pulled the title for the property, they discovered that the land had a $3.9 million insurance policy issued by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The mortgage, signed in 1971, stated that only subsidized housing could be built on the land.
The city assured the developers that it would resolve the insurance issue. The Fenty administration didn’t and the current administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) hasn’t. The lot is being leased to a parking company for $15,239 a month.
Developers envisioned 535,000 square feet of apartments and townhomes on the property, but could build nothing.
“We no longer looked at programming for that site because it was unclear what we could actually build there,’’ said W. Christopher Smith, the chairman of W.C Smith. “So we focused on the other two sites.”
They could only find financing for one.
That project, just east of North Capitol Street on M Street, is set to be completed by year’s end. It features a rooftop pool, indoor basketball courts, community rooms — and $16.8 million of city funding.
Of the 314 units, 221 are market rate. An additional 34 are subsidized for the working class. Only 59 are reserved for the displaced families of Temple Courts.
That means less than a third of the building is affordable, not the desired two-thirds.
The Fenty administration approved the plan because officials were desperate for progress, Albert said. Smith added that it was “very challenging” during the recession to finance a building in which only one-third of the units would be sold at market rate. It is a challenge that continues today.
At some point, Smith said, the housing agency might have to create the thing it has been trying so hard to avoid: a new building solely for low-income residents.
The only group that completed a part of the housing plan was Bible Way Temple, a nearby church. In 2011, it opened the $15.7 million building for low-
income and working-class families, using about $1.9 million of city money.
“God blessed us,” said Yvonne Williams, the church’s head of the board of trustees.
When the building opened, Williams said the church began offering half of its 60 units to former Golden Rule residents, as it promised.
Only nine said yes. The rest were scared.
“They have praised us for building but are worried that the neighborhood hasn’t gotten much better,” Williams said.
Invitations were extended to the displaced residents of Temple Courts. Some said no because they liked their new neighborhoods. Others thought the rooms were too small.
Miss Mary rejected the offer, fearing this building might be a ploy.
“When the housing comes for Temple Courts, I hope to get inside,” she said. “Until then, I’ll stay here and walk up my stairs.”
Ellison and her son didn’t find a place she could afford uptown. She and Jackson were living in an apartment building in Anacostia when the church offered the invitation. Without natural gas for weeks, Ellison made Jackson’s dinner using a hot plate and microwave.
She agreed to move back.
Now, she wishes she hadn’t.
Inside her new building, Ellison has already smelled marijuana. Security, she said, is lax. Then there’s the view: the tree-lined metropolis drawn in the renderings is still just an illustration. All Ellison sees are parking lots, housing projects and fenced-off holes in the ground.
In March, 13 people were shot outside a nearby building. Last month, a man was shot and killed three blocks away.
“Uptown living” was supposed to come to her old area. Her new building is pretty, yet “it’s like I moved to a mini-Temple Courts,’’ Ellison sighed. “It feels like the beginning of the end.”
She yearns for all the amenities of the building that the Smith company is constructing, but she didn’t hear about it until she moved into her current place.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Ellison said.
Affordable-housing advocates made the same complaints. The city staff promised to be transparent, but the project’s Web site contains few updates. Information, from site plans to calls for proposals to funding cycles to progress reports, are hard to find. The council’s planning committee only gave cursory attention to the plan.
“We thought this plan was going to work,’’ former mayor Williams said in an interview. “But I don’t know why things haven’t happened.”
His administrator, Robert Bobb, who’s considering a run for mayor, acknowledged that he wasn’t aware of the zoning restrictions on Temple Courts. But he said that’s no excuse.
“I know Rome wasn’t built in a day, but this is a bit much,’’ Bobb said. “The city is moving at a snail’s pace.”
Former mayor Fenty did not respond to a phone call or an e-mail sent to his law office. Albert, his deputy, said their administration should have spent more time trying to build on the housing authority property.
Mayor Gray, who this year pledged to create or preserve $100 million worth of affordable housing by 2020, declined to comment. Gray’s deputy, Victor L. Hoskins, championed the progress they’ve made.
Two years into Gray’s term, a director was hired in April to oversee the New Communities Initiative, almost eight years into the project.
The tenant association of Sursum Corda is working with another developer to create a new plan that could satisfy longtime residents. In February, the city announced that it was looking for a master planner who will one day “refine” the area’s affordable-housing strategy.
Of the 37 active projects in the department’s portfolio, Hoskins called New Communities “the most difficult.”
“We are committed to this project,’’ he said.
The former residents of Temple Courts have heard such assurances before. They are out of their homes while the news ticker of NPR’s new building flashes onto the parking lot where they once lived. They had no choice but to start new lives, growing more skeptical of the good faith the city worked to broker.
Ellison’s baby boy is 5 now, tall for his age and talkative. She corrects him when he talks about a dog “that’s got big teeth.”
“He has big teeth,’’ Ellison tells him.
Jackson will do big things, she thinks. But when it comes to her neighborhood’s future, she has no certainty.
“In five years, I think this area will be very Caucasian; definitely not for the African American lower class,’’ Ellison said. “Sometimes I feel this was all a way to delay us from trying to move back. We were supposed to be excited about this project, but there won’t be a lot of excitement about everything if it ever gets done. We all just want a good, stable home.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.