By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty plans to empty the troubled Temple Courts housing complex and relocate the 211 families that live there, a decision that angers some residents, who see the action as a retreat from the city's promise to rebuild the area without displacing tenants.
The District has hired a private company to help move tenants into safer, more sanitary apartments across the region while multi-income housing is built near the Temple Courts site, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Fenty (D) has assured tenants that they will be welcomed back and guaranteed spots in the new buildings at no additional cost.
But some in Temple Courts are fighting to stay in the rodent-infested, crime-plagued housing complex as the neighborhood is revitalized. Although many of their neighbors can't wait to leave, others say that if they relocate, it will be that much tougher to uproot themselves again when the new apartments are ready. And despite the mayor's assurances, many are skeptical that there will be a place for them in the future.
"When they tear down this building, we're not coming back," said Diane Hunter, president of the Temple Courts tenant association. "It's a lie."
Fenty calls the Temple Courts relocation a minor but necessary modification to the New Communities initiative, an urban renewal plan created by the administration of his predecessor, Anthony A. Williams. Temple Courts and the neighboring Sursum Corda housing cooperative are the first of several communities that will be rebuilt under the plan.
Under the adjusted program, tenants of Temple Courts will get vouchers allowing them to rent from landlords who accept the government subsidy. City officials expect that it will take as long as 18 months for everyone to leave Temple Courts. Planning and building the new housing is likely to take years.
In deciding to shut down Temple Courts before the construction begins, Fenty and his aides said the mayor heeded the will of the "overwhelming majority" of tenants.
The brown-brick buildings of Temple Courts have failed federal housing inspections for years. Rats and bedbugs have taken up residence in some apartments, and the stairwells smell of urine.
The building and its environs have been a magnet for crime. Temple Courts and Sursum Corda served as catalysts for the New Communities program, after 14-year-old Jahkema Princess Hansen was fatally shot at Sursum Corda in January 2004. Days earlier, she had witnessed a killing at Temple Courts.
Violence visited again 10 days ago, when a 10-year-old girl and two adults were shot outside Temple Courts on Memorial Day.
In its original form, New Communities included a "vital" principle known as "build first," which was designed to keep gentrification in check by keeping poor residents in place until multi-income housing was built around them.
The intended result: economically diverse neighborhoods where ghettos once stood.
"They are in the pathway of the next major development thrust," said former city administrator Robert C. Bobb, who was a key architect of the New Communities initiative. "It will be totally and completely gentrified in the next 10 to 15 years. It's what we were trying to protect against."
Bush Construction, which owns Temple Courts, said last year that it planned to opt out of its federally subsidized rent contract and turn its property into market-rate housing. The Williams administration decided to save the 211 affordable units by purchasing the building. The $22.5 million sale is expected to be finalized in coming weeks.
In addition to the temporary displacement of Temple Courts' residents, New Communities has encountered other obstacles in its early stages, leading some to wonder whether the program can work.
City efforts to move forward on rebuilding Sursum Corda have largely come to a standstill, after a developer that brokered a deal with the cooperative's tenant-owners demanded that it be allowed to build more than double the number of market-rate units.
And although the city has committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to remake Temple Courts, Sursum Corda and surrounding areas off North Capitol Street, council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said the project will need about $200 million more.
"This was a signature project under the previous mayor," Wells said. "It's up to the new executive to decide whether he will continue it as his signature project."
Fenty's departure from the "build first" tenet has fueled skepticism about his commitment to the urban renewal project. The mayor said he backs the initiative but opted to take his direction from the residents of Temple Courts.
Fenty called a meeting with tenants in late March, after receiving complaints from residents, through letters and phone calls, about rats falling out of the ceiling and bedbug bites that caused children to miss school. The mayor told the 65 who showed up that they had three options: stay at Temple Courts, move out temporarily so the vermin could be exterminated or receive Section 8 housing vouchers and leave.
Fenty then divided the residents into discussion groups and told them to come back with an answer.
Some who attended, including Wells, said most tenants at the meeting wanted to leave the complex. Others said the outcome was unclear and the method unscientific.
"How is 65 an overwhelming majority of 211?" said Tom Howarth, director of the Father McKenna Center, a social services organization at the nearby St. Aloysius Church and a member of the tenant council working with the city on Temple Courts' future.
Pollsters might not endorse Fenty's methodology that evening, but his supporters believe in his motive: to get the residents of Temple Courts out of their substandard building as soon as possible.
"We're living in uninhabitable and deplorable living conditions," said Wanda Clark, adding that she had to throw out much of her furniture because of a bedbug infestation.
Fenty visited the housing complex a few weeks ago, passing by doors spray-painted with graffiti and seeing mouse droppings.
Resident Kim Henson told him that she cannot sleep in her bedroom because a rat has taken it over. At other times, she said, the animal sits on her oven range. She is eager to accept a voucher and leave Temple Courts.
As the mayor's sport-utility vehicle pulled away, those who want to leave and those who want to stay started to argue.
Hunter and neighbor Mary Hall cautioned Clark and others eager to take the vouchers.
"I've been through urban renewal before," Hall told Clark. She pointed out that no one knew where they would end up and that Section 8 vacancies are hard to come by.
"I want to get out of here, too," Hall said. "But I want to go the right way."