This job burns you out," said Jasper Burnette, 34-year-old acting manager of the Barry Farms public housing development. "You con't show many successes. Usually I manage by crisis -- a refrigerator will go down, pipes burst, toilets overflow and I have to send somebody out to fix it. Work on the other problems is delayed over and over. I can't plan. I'm always on the run. Staff morale is low, absenteeism is high."
Situated at the western edge of Anacostia, Barry Farms is home to 1,000 adults and 2,000 children living in 444 two-story brick rowhouses and one apartment building. Built in 1942, the houses are packed into six acres between the B & O Railroad tracks, I-295 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. Most families are headed by women on full or partial public assistance with rent payments that range from zero to $326 a month, based on 25 percent of a family's income. The average family size is 6 persons.
Barry Farms' problems are numerous. Bottles, cans, empty bags, paper and assorted debris litter the curbs and alleys. Screen doors are torn or broken and above the small porches, the canopies are dilapidated or missing. Inside the apartments there are gaping holes in walls and ceilings; flaky plaster, rusting gutters, wheezing refrigerators and run-down gas ranges need to be replaced; floors need repair; stopped-up sinks and toilets need unstopping; and grubby grass needs cutting.
Similar conditions, Burnette said, exist at Sheridan Terrace, a smaller public housing development about a half mile away which he also manages. Burnette, who has a backlog of 110 service calls on his desk, knows that collecting rent will remain one of his most difficult tasks as long as the tenants have something to complain about. And complain they do, though many tenants also admire Burnette. "Isn't it nice to have a manager you can beat up," said tenant Jean Stryjewski with a laugh.
"This place is monstrous," Burnette said, speaking of Barry Farms. "You just can't house 400 to 500 families in just six acres and expect the property to hold up. . . . Kids put a lot of wear and tear on the land and the buildings. And there's a lot of flooding; water bangs up against the buildings and the structure begin to sink and rot," he said. "We just don't have enough manpower, money or supplies to take care of all the problems."
Two years ago, while he was still an aide to the manager of Barry Farms, Burnette said he anguished over his inability to significantly improve life at the projects. Burnette felt compelled to visit a psychologist, he recalled.
"I've been to a shrink on a couple of occasions," he said. "I used to put in a lot of long hours and I took my work home with me. I just got severely depressed. It got to be very hard to get up and come to work. Seeing the work that was done one day destroyed the next left me without a sense of accomplishment.
"We bricked up the windows of six boiler rooms in Sheridan Terrace. The next day, they had already been vandalized. The kids ripped down the windows. nI started doing this a lot," he said, twisting his face into a frown and rubbing the wrinkles on his forehead with two fingers of his right hand.
Burnette said the psychologist made him realize he must learn to expect very little progress in his job and to accept failure. Now, Burnette gets to work at about 7 a.m. each day and leaves around 5:30 p.m. As he heads back to his home in Upper Marlboro, he said, he tries to be satisfied if he has made even a dent in the formidable barrier of problems.
It's the middle of the week, the middle of the afternoon and the sun is burning. Burnette is taking one of his daily walks through "the Farms," talking to residents, listening to complaints, checking on work he assigned to his men earlier in the day, wondering why everything takes so long. Down the street, a feisty 4-year-old boy with a hatchet is whacking away at a telephone pole --"Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!" Four other children encircle the boy, watching the chips of wood as they fly. Burnette yells, "Hey man, hey, hey! Come here." The boy stops chopping. "Where's your mamma?" Burnette asks, grabbing the hatchet. "In the house," the boy says. "Tell your mamma I have it; I'll give it back to her tomorrow ."
Burnette said there is no single explanation for the dilapidated condition of Barry Farms, which is owned by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development and operated by its Property Management Administration.
Sidney Glee, acting director of PMA, said, "I can understand very well what Burnette is talking about. Being a public housing manager can be very discouraging." It costs from $5000,000 to $600,000 to operate Barry Farms each year, Glee said. "I would like to see Barry Farms totally rehabilitated. It suffers from years of neglect." Last year, Glee said, Mayor Marion Barry allocated $9.9 million for improving public housing, but none of it went to Barry Farms.
The mayor, he said, has proposed that Barry Farms receive $14.4 million in federal capital improvement funds in 1982 for extensive rehabilitation work. i
"In the past," Glee said, "the problems were patched up or the repair work wasn't done at all. That's why places like Barry Farms are in such a deteriorating state."
Burnette recalled several instances of shoddy or incomplete construction work during the past two years. "We (PMA) hired a contractor to rewire 415 houses. The contractor never finished the work. . . ." Holes drilled through baseboards, walls and floors have not been sealed, he said.
In three other cases, he said, contractors were hired to install new windows, repair porch canopies and replace ceilings. In come cases, he said, the work was done poorly or the contractor defaulted. "In most cases," he said, "we've withheld payment."
But Burnette does not lay all the blame on the contractors.
"Our department doesn't have enough money for new supplies. We have a severe lack of supplies, equipment and materials and some of what we do have is in need of repair. Our major appliances are refrigerators and gas ranges. The refrigerators are old. They lack freon and their compression is bad, which causes them to work harder and break down, especially during the summer months."
The residents too are to blame, he said.
"In low-income areas, you don't have the civic responsibility that you have on the higher economic scale. Usually, when there's overcrowding and not enough to eat and you can't see a way out of the situation, you tend to not care for your children or your environment and you become self-destructive. The upkeep of your home slacks off . . . the self-motivation deteriorates, and that's reflected in the deterioration of the property," he added.
"The public housing mentality gets passed down from generation to generation. Everything comes early here: sex, crime, behavior patterns. Teen-age girls have babies and look forward to getting their own public housing. The cycle for most families has been to live in public housing and let someone else do for you until the house falls in. It becomes a way of life. . . . Why? I don't know. Poverty is a very tough cycle to break."
On a Sunday evening, the front stoop at 1141 Eaton Road SE, a two-story, three-bedroom Barry Farms rowhouse, is crowded with three teen-age mothers, their children and a few friends. Twelve people live there. tPhyllis Best 19, who has a two-year-old daughter, tells a reporter about living conditions in the development. "The houses ain't no good," she says. "Everything is connected. When one thing goes out, everything else goes too. "First it's the sinks, then the toilets. They leak onto the floors and the walls. We've got holes in the walls and we got mice too ."
Litter is sprinkled across the almost barren front yard and along the street curb. Why doesn't anyone clean it up? the reporter asks. "Ain't no use in cleaning it up. Because as soon as you clean it up, people on other streets come around and dirty it back up," Best says. "The (vending) trucks come through here all the time and everybody buys something and drops the trash on the ground. So why clean it up ?"
Across the street is the home of Artelia Smith, mother of five, who has lived in Barry Farms for 10 years. A colorful cluster of shubbery adorns her greasy front yard. She talks about the rest of the unsightly surroundings. "A lot of people have a hard time growing grass out here because a lot of kids play in the yards," she said. "A lot of them feel that as long as their houses are clean and decorated on the inside, the rest can go to the dogs. I know that the place gets trashy sometimes, but you've got to live somewhere. I just go on and live the best I can and try to keep where I live as clean as possible. "
Jasper Burnette , a tall and muscular former body builder, grew up in Shaw, near 12th and W streets NW. He was graduated from McKinley High School in 1964 and attended Howard University for two years. He is married and has four children.
During high school, Burnette's interest in social work eventually led his to Saints Paul and Augustine Catholic Church in Northwest where he volunteered to help nuns and priests provide social services. "Our goal was to help improve the quality of life and restore hope," he said.
Seven years ago, Burnette sought a job with the old National Capitol Housing Authority, now called the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). He began as an aide to the manager at Barry Farms. Burnette earned $14,622 a year for coordinating cultural activities. In his six years as an aide, he helped a group of Barry Farms youths form the now-popular Junkyard Band, helped the resident council curb street-corner gambling, held houskeeping workshops and helped families avoid eviction.
For little more than a year now, he has been acting manager, and according to Glee, is due to be promoted to manager "in the next few weeks." When his promotion arrives, said Glee, he'll get a raise to $17,888 with retroactive pay for the time he was acting manager.
Burnette has a staff of 23, including laborers, painters, mechanics and clerical workers. Keeping them motivated is a major chore. "It's difficult to discipline or reward employes," he said. "Promotions are almost nonexistent. After so long, there's no incentive, just no incentive for them to care about their work."
As acting manager, he concentrates less on social services now and more on the nuts and bolts -- collecting rent, giving orders to his staff, evicting tenants and catching flak for the inadequacies of the system.
The D.C. Landlord Tenant Court doesn't make it any easier for him to collect rent, Burnette said. "I don't think we get the support from the court we should be getting; we lose most of our cases. The judges have got to know the condition that public housing is in and they must know the events that have led up to it being in the shape that it's in. We need the rent money to improve the conditions."
Burnette said that each month, about 20 percent of the residents withhold their rent. Presently, he added, he has 72 court cases involving nonpayment of rent.
Despite his problems, Burnette appears to be on good terms with the tenants. Dorothea Ferrell, 50, president of the Barry Farms Resident Council, said, "He does the best he can and he has a very good reputation. He works closely with us.
"He tries to explain things that are happening on our property and why the problems continue to exist," said Ferrell, who has lived at Barry Farms for 25 years. "The people see him as a good manager. They don't fault him, they fault the housing administration for not having adequate supplies and personnel to do the work. He definitely needs more help out here."
Because Burnette doesn't expect any big changes at Barry Farms, he keeps trying an old strategy: moving families with yards that look like miniature sandlots next to families who keep their green lawns neatly trimmed: "I try to foster peer pressure by moving a poor housekeeper next door to a good housekeeper. Sometimes it works, sometimes rivalries are created."
Rivalries also are created when a woman allows an "illegal occupant," usually a boyfriend, to move in with her family. When a neighbor reports the violations to Burnette, he has to go tell the man to leave. That's a tough job, but Burnette said he has never gotten into a fight with a tenant or a boyfriend.
But he has had some heated confrontations with tenants who don't want to pay their rent. One of the longtime mechanics on Burnette's staff said, "People will abuse him. They use profanity. They'll say, 'You haven't done so and so in my house; my roof needs fixing; I need a new refrigerator.' He has to be cool about it. The average person would blow his top. But he stands there and takes it with a smile."