The future of public housing in Alexandria has recently become one of the most controversial issues in the city. Last week, The Washington Post visited residents in one of those housing projects -- the George Parker Homes, or the Berg, as most call it. Clustered in the heart of Old Town, the Berg includes more than 300 residents, nearly all of them black and poor.
One woman, 41-year-old Robin Wesley, told a story of hardship, worry and fear caused by the recent speculation that the Berg might be sold. And it was a story we heard at house after house .
Robin Wesley inches down the sagging staircase and shuffles through two dingy rooms. The walls are pocked, paint and plaster chipping away; the linoleum is grimy and indistiguishable from the concrete peeking through the cracks.
Wesley, who heads a household of 10 people, points to kitchen cupboards covered with fabric because there are no doors. Water from a leaking sink drips into pots on the floor. Faded clothing is piled all over the kitchen, on the table, on chairs, on the floor, because there are no closets to hold them.
"Honey, for most people, this may not be the most beautiful spot in the world," says Wesley. "But for us it's a godsend."
The godsend: six cramped rooms and a bath, in a row of cramped houses on an otherwise fashionable -- and increasingly valuable -- corner of Old Town. For many an outsider, the 111 units in the red-brick housing project are a ragged contrast to the $250,000 plus townhouses -- protected by eight-foot walls -- surrounding the project.
Recent speculation that the city may be tinkering with the idea of selling the 40-year-old units has most Berg residents worried.
"You've got to understand, the city has got to understand, the city manager has got to understand, this is our home," Wesley says. "We just got nothing else."
These fears began rippling through the Berg a few days before Christmas. City Manager Douglas Harman had just reported to the City Council that a decision had to be made on whether to continue accepting federal funds for two of the city's oldest housing projects -- the Berg and the John Roberts Home, a similar project near the future Braddock Road Metro stop where land is assessed at $5.8 million. The 40-year-old mortgages, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, were about to be paid off, Harman said, and accepting more federal funds would require the city to maintain the units as public housing for 10 more years. Among Harman's suggestions was one called for selling the property and razing the housing project.
Three weeks ago, Baltimore developer Morton Sarubin offered to buy eight of the nine public housing projects in the city and provide new housing for displaced tenants.
Although the city recently reaffirmed its pledge to maintain at least 1,100 public housing units in Alexandria, residents of the projects are wary.
"My two oldest sons said they'd quit school and get a job so we could afford another place to stay. But I told them no, not to do that. I said I didn't know what we would do, but we'd cross that bridge when we came to it," said Wesley.
The Wesley household is typical of many families in the Borg, where 80 percent of the households are headed by women whose incomes average less than $6,000 a year. Nearly half the residents are children; 47 percent of the households include either an elderly or disabled person.
Wesley, who says she hasn't seen her husband in more than 10 years, supports her family of 10 -- including seven children, ranging from 12 to 23, and two grandchildren -- on $428 a month in federal assistance and $274 in food stamps. Her rent totals $139 a month. She cannot work because she suffers from arthritis and severe diabetes.
"It's hard, yes it's hard," she says, "but I feel lucky. I'm better off than I ever was."
When Wesley came to the Borg 14 years ago, she was 6 1/2 months pregnant and there were no beds to sleep on.
"We slept on the floor, we didn't mind. I had been living in one room on South Alfred Street with five kids and moving into the Berg was the best thing that happened to me since I was married . . . I never had a whole house before we moved here."
City officials have insisted -- through legislation and discussion -- that no decision to sell the property will be made until alternate housing is found. But Wesley, like most residents, says she does not believe the promises, and, that anyway, it is the sense of community that makes the Berg irreplaceable.
"It's the poor black woman who is being dumped on again," says Wesley. "At times, when I'm talking to them (city officials) I get the feeling we're just like trees that happen to spring up out of the ground that can be easily uprooted -- we're just there and not really important. We just happen to be living on valuable property.
"God, how I wish we could get it through to them (city officials) that we are human beings -- that we are people."
Although most of the residents object to any move, Wesley said it's difficult to rally residents to protest.
"You've got to remember this is the South. And a lot of people remember the old days when most of the landlords were white. They remember being warned not to testify against things, because if they did, they were told they would be evicted.
"They think that if they stir something up here, the same thing will happen. They just want it all to go away. They're afraid to come out.
"Others, they just say, 'Hell, why bother to fight? The white man is only going to take it away anyway.'"
From the road, sheets and faded psychedelic prints billow from clotheslines at the Berg. Children screech as a football tumbles through the air. Screen doors slap the wind. Neighbors stop to say hello and pass on the latest news.
"People help each other out here," Wesley says. "We take in each other's wash if it's raining. We babysit each other's children. Our kids have grown up here.
"I try not to cry too much when I think about this whole thing. But sometimes I just look out the window and wonder what's going to become of all of us.
"I just can't tell my children we might not have a place to stay."