Some of D.C.'s Poor Question Their Place in Housing Plan

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

A pilot project is underway in Brown's neighborhood, a cluster of privately owned buildings with nearly 1,000 apartments wedged between K Street and New York Avenue NW, 10 blocks north of the Capitol. The area is home to the Sursum Corda cooperative, a run-down, tenant-owned housing complex where a 14-year-old girl was fatally shot last year, allegedly by drug dealers convinced she had witnessed one of their killings.

The neighborhood is home to hundreds of senior citizens and single mothers who typically live on less than $15,000 a year, according to community activists. Most depend on HUD for housing: The agency holds mortgages on their apartment buildings and provides Section 8 contracts to the building owners. Under the contracts, tenants pay one-third of their income for rent and HUD picks up the rest.

That arrangement, dependable for years, is now fraught with uncertainty. Some owners' Section 8 contracts are on a year-to-year basis, and owners can pull out with 12 months' notice. Also, one building or another is always failing HUD inspection, raising the threat of foreclosure, public auction and purchase by developers.

Ten years ago, developers might not have been interested. But now, residents can hear the thrum of the market. Some joke about their "$50,000 balconies" with views of the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome.

"I love my neighborhood. It's got all the amenities," said Diane Hunter, 51, president of the tenants association at Temple Courts, a 211-unit building on K Street NW that survived a foreclosure threat last year after Hunter organized protests. "All the children in this neighborhood learned to walk on the Capitol grounds. Every Fourth of July, I can see the fireworks from my window. . . . We are right in the heart of the city on property they want."

For several months, Hunter, Brown and other community leaders have met Wednesday mornings with Bobb's and other high-ranking officials' aides to lay plans for a June "charette," a community-wide working session with city-hired architects. The process is generating hope. But it is also generating fear and intense skepticism about the city's goals.

For New Communities to work, property owners will have to agree to renovate and rebuild and HUD will have to keep the Section 8 dollars flowing. But some owners have shown reluctance to cooperate, as has HUD, which last month foreclosed on Sursum Corda's mortgage despite the city's request for more time.

HUD officials declined to be interviewed but released a statement declaring their interest "in working with our communities across the country to improve and maintain the affordable housing stock."

Meanwhile, residents around Sursum Corda worry that New Communities is just another name for urban renewal, which swept thousands of people out of their homes 40 years ago.

Alverta Munlyn, who chairs the Wednesday morning meetings, remembers when the neighborhood was declared "blighted land" in the early 1960s. Residents protested, and the federal government funded construction of the 233-unit Sursum Corda complex, which became one of the nation's first federally subsidized housing sites. Its name is Latin for "Lift up your hearts."

"This was a very beautiful area. We won national awards. And the only reason it looks like it does now is because of a lack of concern by the city," said Munlyn, who owns a townhouse at the edge of the Sursum Corda complex.

Munlyn said she sees little need for another big makeover. And she worries that the sudden attention foreshadows another round of gentrification.

Tenant advocates say there's good reason to be suspicious. The city has promised to buy Sursum Corda, but a Virginia firm also is sniffing around. MGM Group LLC, a partnership of former Washington Redskins superstars Charles Mann, Art Monk and Darrell Green, has contacted the co-op board, Mann said. He declined to comment further.

Meanwhile, tenants at Golden Rule Apartments, a 184-unit tower on New Jersey Avenue NW, are being pressured to sign away their rights to the building. Bible Way Temple says it wants to legally transfer the property to a new corporate entity so it can use tax credits to pay for a major renovation. But the church has refused to name its investors, and tenants have hired a lawyer.

"We're very pleased the church says it intends to maintain affordable housing at the property, but we have questions about how long they intend to do so and with whom," said lawyer Elizabeth Figueroa.

Bobb said he will do what it takes to make sure residents are not forced out of the neighborhood. Unlike HOPE VI, which paid for demolition of some of the nation's most notorious public housing projects, New Communities guarantees one-for-one replacement of low-income units. Even during reconstruction, Bobb said, the city plans to keep residents in the area.

"Our whole goal is to preserve what can be preserved and then demolish what needs to be demolished," Bobb said. "We're not marching in there with grandiose plans. Our process is: 'Let's start with a clean slate. We'll design what your community needs by working together.' And before you get to the planning, you have to build trust."

But trust comes slowly in the weedy lots around Sursum Corda. Many residents say it sometimes feels as if the whole world has written them off as criminals and drug addicts.

Hunter, who is studying hotel management at the University of the District of Columbia and teaches preschool at the local community center, raised two sons in Temple Courts. One went to Catholic University and now coaches football there. The other works in maintenance for the Smithsonian Institution.

"When they say single mothers can't do anything, Section 8 is here to prove them wrong," she said. "We're willing to go along with whatever change they want to make in this building, as long as we can stay."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company