On a hot, hazy Saturday afternoon, members of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association gathered for their monthly meeting outdoors, in the shade of a large oak tree, across from the place many of them used to call home. Their community center had been boarded up, along with many of their homes, but that wasn’t going to stop them from meeting.
“Stay strong, tell everybody we are still fighting to keep our homes,” said Detrice Belt, chairman of the association. Across the street from the meeting site, two yellow hydraulic excavators were parked next to piles of debris — rows of homes that had been reduced to rubble.
“Even though you see all of the demolition, it’s not a done deal,” Belt said bravely.
Barry Farm was a historic black community, built on land settled by newly freed slaves after the Civil War. One hundred and fifty years later, in a rapidly gentrifying Washington, a baseball stadium and a soccer stadium have been built not far away. And residents in the tightknit but troubled public housing complex have watched as the area around them has become part of what is known as an urban “entertainment zone.”
The District has sought to attract the “creative class,” meaning college-educated millennials of economic means. At the same time, city officials have worked to raze and redevelop troubled public-housing complexes and replace them with residential development that would create mixed-income communities.
Supposedly a win-win for low-income residents and millennials alike.
But what was pitched to Barry Farm residents as an urban-renewal dream has become more of an urban-removal nightmare.
Just a few years ago, Barry Farm was home to about 444 units. Now, only 80 or so remain.
Redevelopment plans called for the creation of 344 units for low-income residents. That’s 100 fewer. And many of those units were designed to be smaller, holding a smaller number of people.
This spring, the D.C. Court of Appeals invalidated the developers’ plans, saying residents’ concerns had not been taken into account. City officials came off as clueless during testimony from a city planner at a D.C. Zoning Commission hearing.
As the court said in its ruling: “For example, when asked about ‘the demographics of the people who live at Barry Farms now,’ a [representative from the planning department] stated, ‘I don’t know.’ Similarly, when asked ‘what kind of gentrification pressures a project of this magnitude and change in economics will bring to those currently living at Barry Farms, as well as onto the surrounding Ward 8 communities?’ the . . . representative stated, ‘I’m not sure exactly what you’re trying to get at.’ ”
The court called that “a gap in knowledge.” But willful ignorance was more like it, since residents have been telling city officials for years what the impact would be.
This month, several organizations representing other D.C. public-housing residents joined a $1 billion federal lawsuit alleging that the city’s housing policies favor millennials over low-income black residents and contribute to a pattern of racial discrimination.
Ari Theresa, the attorney who filed the complaint, cited several studies about what happens when efforts to grow a “creative class” get out of hand — including increased racial segregation and a lack of affordable housing.
“How do you take human lives that have become deeply rooted in a community and start moving them around like a potted plant?” Paulette Matthews, a Barry Farm resident, said at Saturday’s meeting.
Robin Diener, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, in Ward 2, also attended in a show of moral support.
“We continue asking the city to find places to put affordable housing in Ward 2, and we get no cooperation,” Diener said. “They look the other way. But I want to say that we are with you. We have to stay united. I’m just so sorry this is so hard on you. It’s just not fair what you are going through.”
Barry Farm residents say they would like to be involved in developing a new plan, “included in all decision-making,” Belt said. Like everybody else, they would like to live in a safe, clean community.
They want the new public-housing units to be affordable. And if development is truly going to be “mixed income,” they want the same rights as higher-income residents.
“No second-class citizenship” for low-income residents, Belt said.
They want an end to displacement, which is often carried out with callous disregard for the enormous hardships it causes.
The inability of the city to meet the needs of Barry Farm residents, or those in the Near Buzzard Point neighborhood in Southwest, stands in stark contrast to how well officials meet the needs of developers.
As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute noted in a study released last month, “DC heavily subsidizes private development, but asks little in return.” Billions in tax breaks and subsidies — and for what?
“Many of these projects are advertised to taxpayers as having important economic benefits for the DC community: jobs for residents and increased tax revenue that encourages spending in the economy,” the report said. “But promises about job creation and economic impacts do not always translate into realized economic activity, and the city does little to track outcomes, let alone hold subsidized developers accountable.”
Instead of just trying to attract a “creative class,” the city might show some creativity itself. Why couldn’t the city just sell Barry Farm to the tenants and give them the same half-billion-dollar subsidy and tax breaks that other developers get?
They don’t have to live next to some wealthy person to have a sustainable community. They need money — and the means to earn more of it.
Instead, all the city can offer is fear and uncertainty.
“Your friends get forced out, and you never hear from them again,” said Dee Dee Washington, who used to live in Barry Farm before receiving notice last year that she had to leave. “They get relocated to one place, then that place gets gentrified and they have to move to another place, and after a while they are just gone.”
Belt, who is among the last of the Barry Farm residents, said she was anxious about the prospect of getting a 90-day eviction notice.
“I will fight it, but to get one is very scary,” she said. “But for now, I’m still standing here and telling people to hold on to your power. Stay in your home.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.