Another child was murdered, in another neighborhood, so the police are gone from Sursum Corda.
In January, soon after the murder of 14-year-old Princess Hansen, D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey assured residents of the housing project just off North Capitol Street in Northwest that "we're in this for the long haul." Sursum Corda would get lots of extra attention to root out the open-air drug bazaar that thrives there day and night.
For a month or so, the police were there nearly round-the-clock. But that was winter, and this is spring. On three visits in the past 36 hours, I found no police and at least 12 dealers doing a brisk business (as always, suburban license plates dominate). Not one of the first 15 residents I asked recalled seeing police do anything but roll through in recent weeks.
So the police are gone. Next, the residents, too?
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which says its mission is to "increase access to affordable housing," proposes to strip Sursum Corda and its neighbor, the Temple Court apartments, of their subsidies and evict the tenants. The buildings have failed inspections, which gives HUD the right to foreclose, which in turn would allow the owners to pay off their mortgages and flip the properties to market-rate units, adding them to the wave of gentrification now sweeping Washington's core.
The tenants cannot believe their ears. "This is HUD making the rich man richer," says Alverta Munlyn, a dynamic veteran of decades of activism in the neighborhood. "They are rewarding owners for not maintaining their properties."
The city says it will try to fight off the feds; the District also wants to redevelop the properties but proposes a mixed-income community, not the market-rate apartments that the HUD move would produce.
"We're already mixed-income. We're not all on welfare," says Diane Hunter, president of the tenants association at Temple Court. "It's not $60,000 people but good working-class folks. We don't need any more mix."
"We've heard this before," says Annie Holbrook, president of the Sursum Corda Cooperative Association. "They move us out, and we don't get back in."
On that, Temple Court's owner agrees with his tenants: Andrew Viola, vice president of Bush Construction Corp., says no developer could make a profit at that downtown site if a large number of units were set aside for the poor. If HUD forecloses, Bush would pay off its mortgage, wait for the feds to evict the tenants, demolish the building and put up market-rate units.
Viola says his company did not intentionally fail inspection; Bush tried to maintain Temple Court, but "it was always tough. People urinate in the stairwells. People intentionally broke the elevators so the drug traffic could come and go as they pleased without having to go past the guard."
Viola is far from blind to the problem: "Where are people supposed to go? HUD told us they could start evicting people by June. They'll give them vouchers and send them someplace else. Where is this someplace else? It doesn't exist. But we've sucked it up and maintained this property for years. We didn't make money. Don't we at some point deserve the opportunity to do something other than take losses?"
Longtime residents say they are being punished for the city's failure to clean out the drug market. "Every night at 9:15," Munlyn reports, "two long limos appear at First and M streets, and they beckon every night to the dealers on the corner. They don't live here."
HUD spokesman Lemar Wooley says the agency is "working on a solution with the owners and the [D.C.] Housing Authority." The agency justifies itself to tenants by saying it does not want them living in unsafe conditions. How sweet.
"They're counting on us to be high, drunk, whatever, but a lot of us have our eyes open," Hunter says.
It's hard to live in Sursum Corda and not see a conspiracy.
"The police are gone," Munlyn says. "You've got a principal at the elementary school with a fake degree, and you leave her there. [The District schools have made no move against Walker-Jones Elementary Principal Wilma Durham, whose phony doctorate I reported on last month.]
"So you don't care about educating the children. Now you're talking about taking away our houses. If that's not a plan, what is?"