Some of D.C.'s Poor Question Their Place in Housing Plan
Monday, May 16, 2005
From his window overlooking North Capitol Street, Jim Brown can see the rich people coming.
His view to the east is filled with cranes and construction workers and piles of rubble, all clustered around the newly opened New York Avenue Metro stop. To the north, little rowhouses that used to go for $87,000 now fetch $350,000. And to the west, new and rehabbed apartments are spreading like a rash. Brown hears that monthly rents are as high as $5,000.
That's 50 times what Brown pays for his two-bedroom apartment in HUD-subsidized Tyler House. Sitting in a wheelchair in his cozy and rapidly appreciating living room, Brown, 60, fears he'll be swept away by the rising tide of wealth.
"With all the development coming in, people see green. They see money," said Brown, who is president of the Tyler House Tenants Association. "Of course, they'll want the poor people out of here."
For years, advocates for the poor have accused D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams of neglecting people like Brown, sacrificing their modest homes to make way for more lucrative development. Now Williams (D) is fighting that image with an unprecedented plan to pour millions of dollars into nine of the city's poorest communities, preserving affordable housing while building healthy, mixed-income neighborhoods.
The New Communities initiative seeks to harness escalating property values by replacing bleak blocks of concentrated poverty with townhouses and apartments attractive to middle- and upper-income buyers. Profits would help subsidize homes for working-class families and improve the lives of the poor families who live there now.
Modeled on HOPE VI, a federal housing program targeted for elimination by the Bush administration, New Communities is being praised by national housing advocates, who call it an innovative and ambitious attempt to give the poor a share in the city's affluence.
"D.C. is almost unique with all that's happening in the real estate market. It's almost like a perfect storm," said Adrian G. Washington, president of the Neighborhood Development Co. and co-chairman of a city housing task force. "You have high land values. The city has a big budget surplus. Then you have this heightened political will because the mayor has been so beat up about being indifferent to the poor."
Last week, the D.C. Council approved about $60 million for New Communities. City Administrator Robert C. Bobb, who is leading the project, said the initiative will target the city's most distressed neighborhoods, where more than 20 percent of residents live in poverty, more than a third didn't finish high school and as many as half are unemployed. The list includes Barry Farm, Langston Terrace, Park Morton and Lincoln Heights, places that also suffer high rates of violent crime and are the focus of enhanced police enforcement.
City officials plan to work with community leaders, property owners, developers, private investors and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to reshape the physical environment and attract families with higher incomes. Those families would draw grocers and other retailers, creating jobs. Meanwhile, the city would improve neighborhood schools, provide health care and offer such lifelines as after-school activities, drug treatment and job training.
These strategies are not new. But Bobb argues that New Communities marks the first time the city has tried to attack several social problems at once, lifting the prospects of the people along with the condition of their homes.
"The focus is on housing, but the broader focus is on building human capital," Bobb said. "No one has ever put together a concept as comprehensive as this."