As chairman of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, Detrice Belt already knew about the District government’s jacklegged housing scheme, called the “New Communities Initiative.” Word gets around about a scam that brazen:
Promise public housing residents a new life in “mixed-income communities.” Demolish the public housing complex. Renege on the promise. Repeat.
Four public housing complexes had been targeted for redevelopment when the program began in 2005, including the 444-unit rowhouse-style Barry Farm in Southeast Washington. There’s no question that the complexes are run-down, and the neighborhood has been plagued by crime. But by now, three of the projects should have been completed with a total of 1,500 public housing units incorporated into new mixed-income housing developments.
So far, each of those projects has stalled, and only 490 of the promised units have been built. That wasn’t a housing plan. That was a gentrification sting.
Except that when a mark discovers he’s being played, the con game is usually called off. Not so with this one.
D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4), who heads the council’s housing and economic development committee, declared last month that public housing residents living on New Communities sites “have been sold a bill of goods.”
And yet, even as she spoke, city housing officials were filling out demolition papers for the razing of Barry Farm. There hadn’t been an urban dispersal plan like this since the urban removal movement in 1960s.
The only difference now is that black people are in on it. At least the middle- and upper-middle-class ones. Where white developers and city officials engineered the concentration of public housing east of the Anacostia River, black city officials, lawyers and developers have joined with white developers to engineer the dispersal of low-income blacks into the suburbs.
Of course, poor people are getting a raw deal no matter what city they live in.
Nationally, from 1997 to 2007, the demolition of public housing has displaced nearly 240,000 people — 192,000 of whom are African American, according to an analysis of federal housing data and research by Derek Hyra, director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University. He calls the numbers “a very conservative estimate.”
Still, that’s a significant disparity. In 2000, only 46 percent of public housing residents were black. “A very small percentage of displaced public housing residents returned to the newly created mixed-income neighborhoods that replaced the razed distressed public housing stock,” Hyra said. “Unquestionably, their physical living environment will be upgraded. However, there is mounting evidence that in the short run, mixed-income communities have not substantially improved these residents’ lives.”
Belt, a dental assistant, didn’t need a researcher to tell her that. Earlier this year, she and about 50 other Barry Farm residents teamed up with community organizing group Empower DC. Along with a couple of pro bono lawyers and a zoning expert, they began showing up at D.C. zoning commission hearings on Barry Farm. At one of the hearings, she heard Tamika Smalls, a former public housing resident, try to persuade the commission not to approve the development scheme. She said she was an emergency medical technician but couldn’t find work because she had no permanent address. She said that she and her three children lived in a van.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, tear down Barry Farm and let’s put up some houses and condos,’ but what they don’t understand is that those people are going to have to go through what I’m going through,” Smalls said. “We are homeless.”
The D.C. zoning commission tentatively approved the Barry Farm plan at a hearing last week. Now, the National Capital Planning Commission has to sign off on it. A hearing has been set for Nov. 6. If approved, the plan goes back to the city zoning commission for final approval.
That would give the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association maybe two more chances to talk some sense into the decision-makers. This is not to say that Belt’s group speaks for everybody in Barry Farm.
There are about 600 families living there — including 554 adults, 427 children and 135 teens, 145 disabled residents, 31 seniors and six veterans, according to the D.C. Housing Authority. The average annual income is $14,000.
To hear District officials tell it, at least 32 percent of them can’t wait to move. Among all residents, the city says, the main reason for moving would be to find better-built housing in a safer place. Fine.
But the chances of the development plan making that happen are slim to none — despite what D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) promised at a zoning hearing in June.
“I want to tear Barry Farm down,” Barry told the five-member commission. “And out of that will be an oasis in the desert, a phoenix rising in affordable housing, with market-rate housing, homeownership.” He added: “We have guaranteed every resident who wants to come back a place at Barry Farm.”
That was then, this is now:
A city-commissioned analysis of the New Communities Initiative, released last month, found that the program is at least $200 million short of funds. The report recommended that the city no longer “guarantee” that every displaced resident get a new unit. The very concept of an equally proportioned mixed-income development was termed “overly optimistic.”
Talk about a sting.
What makes this kind of herky-jerky deception even more appalling is that Belt has a vision of a new Barry Farm that trumps anything in the so-called master plan currently on the table.
The homes would be rebuilt while the residents stay. The social network that holds them together by a thread — that frayed but did not break despite all of the awful things that the District has done through the years — will be healed and strengthened.
The rejuvenation of Barry Farm will not depend on a park being in the middle, something called for in plans for the new mixed-income community. It will be rooted in history — Barry Farm was settled by newly freed slaves in 1867 who bought the land, built their homes and created a community in the true sense.
In Belt’s vision, that rich history is recognized not with a proposed street sign honoring the past but a way of life for future generations.
Of course, the New Initiatives plan for Barry Farm remains in play. Developers will bulldoze a lifesaving social network that they call a slum and then pass off a cluster of new empty shells as a community. You have to hand it to them, though: It takes a lot of nerve to play the old “urban revitalization” game when everybody can see the “urban removal” card up your sleeve.
Next: The history of Barry Farm.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/courtlandmilloy.