The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. breaks ground on long-awaited Barry Farm redevelopment

Construction crews before a groundbreaking ceremony for The Asberry in D.C. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Paulette Matthews, 63, watched discerningly on Monday as D.C. government officials celebrated the redevelopment of Barry Farm, the historically significant Southeast community where she lived for more than two decades before she was forced to move away.

Matthews is among hundreds of Barry Farm residents who were relocated as D.C. pursued revitalizing the impoverished area. And as vice president of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, she has fought to preserve Barry Farm’s integrity and to ensure the residents who left would be able to return, as promised.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and others reiterated that commitment while breaking ground on the redevelopment, conceptualized by the D.C. Housing Authority more than a decade ago as officials sought to break up concentrated poverty in areas with distressed public housing. In a nod to Matthews and others who had fought to protect the community, Ward 8 D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D) opened his remarks on Monday by stating: “It’s been a long time coming.”

Twelve years ago, “there were a lot of residents who were feeling afraid, insecure about what would happen and would they be able to come back,” White said. “Today, we are making a promise that you will be able to come back.”

The Barry Farm redevelopment begins in earnest this month with the construction of the Asberry — a mixed-use building set to be completed in early 2024 with 108 affordable housing units for people 55 and older and 5,000 square feet of commercial space — along Sumner Road SE. The city has thus far allocated $43 million for the entire Barry Farm redevelopment, which is slated for completion in 2030.

D. C. public housing residents are angry they will now be forced to move for redevelopment

Barry Farm emerged as a settlement community for formerly enslaved Black people after the Civil War. Facing a dearth of affordable housing for residents in the 1940s, the National Capital Housing Authority used eminent domain to develop part of the community into some 444 units of public housing. The community blossomed even more, and residents at the time played active roles in the civil rights movement and desegregating schools; it was there in the 1980s that the D.C. go-go group called the Junkyard Band formed — further solidifying the neighborhood’s rich history.

The conditions of those public housing units faced increased scrutiny into the 2000s and the District developed a plan to transform the site into a mix of townhouses, market-rate apartments and replacement public housing units for low-income tenants through the New Communities Initiative.

But the demolition and proposed construction have been the source of intense battles over historic preservation and displacement in the rapidly gentrifying District.

In 2018, the D.C. Court of Appeals sided with residents who said the zoning commission’s previous approval of the project did not sufficiently address concerns about displacement. And in 2020, one year after hundreds of families had moved out of the Barry Farm dwellings ahead of demolition, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board agreed to preserve five buildings from the original complex, though residents originally sought for the designation to cover 32 buildings.

“The Barry Farm community is a significant part of D.C. history, so we must continue to tell the story and preserve the history and take care of our longtime residents,” Bowser said Monday. “Over the years and throughout this development, that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Matthews has been among the most vocal advocates for the community as the redevelopment project took shape. Even before she moved to Northwest Washington three years ago, she and her neighbors also did not feel confident about the city’s assurances that they could return.

“Around 2014, 2015 when they started talking about redevelopment, we were going to a lot of meetings and what they said didn’t always make sense,” said Matthews. “It was like getting on a merry-go-round and never getting off.”

On Saturday, Matthews was among a group of about three dozen advocates and former residents who spent the afternoon commemorating Barry Farm’s past, including now-razed sites where former landmarks once stood — and construction will soon begin. Matthews and others have said they’d like Barry Farm’s new buildings to be developed concurrently, rather than piecemeal, so more former residents can take advantage and potentially reunite with their neighbors.

The finished Barry Farm project, officials say, will yield a mixed-income community with at least 900 affordable housing units, 380 of which will be reserved for previous residents. Another 100 units were built less than a half-mile away.

Thirty-three of the Asberry’s units will be available at 30 percent of the region’s median family income (MFI), which is about $42,700 for a family of four and just under $30,000 for one person, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development. Forty-four percent of the building’s units will be priced at 50 percent of the MFI; 21 units are at 60 percent and 10 units are set at 80 percent of the MFI.

The nonprofit Preservation of Affordable Housing Inc. and the D.C. Housing Authority are co-developers on the project. DCHA Executive Director Brenda Donald said her agency has a team dedicated to keeping track of where relocated families live and will work to ensure residents are placed into units that meet their families’ size and needs, which may have changed since moving away from Barry Farm.

“Some of us lived here most of our lives and we are excited and ready to return. This opportunity to be in a new community gives us a better life for all families,” said Barry Farm resident Darlene Jamison, who spoke at the groundbreaking event. “This is a dream come true for all of us.”

On Saturday, Matthews and advocates with the D.C. Legacy Project and Empower D.C. came to the razed land that once contained a portion of the Barry Farm dwellings, to reflect on the past. Among them was Sarah Shoenfeld, who wrote the nomination for the Tenants and Allies Association that would go on to preserve five of the community’s buildings as historic landmarks.

In the coming months, the D.C. Legacy Project will troubleshoot maintaining the historic site as new buildings rise around it. But concerns about housing affordability for Anacostia residents remain, especially as development continues. Shoenfeld stared toward the recently-completed Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, which stretches over the Anacostia River to connect the nearby Barry Farm neighborhood to Navy Yard, home to Nationals Park and myriad luxury apartments.

“You look across the bridge and you can see everything that’s coming this way,” Shoenfeld said. “They’ve done a lot of work to try to mitigate the displacement pressures. But there was a really tightknit community here that has been dispersed to places all over the city, and that is not going to ever exist again.”