D.C. housing officials want to demolish or renovate a third of the city’s public housing portfolio, partnering with private developers to remake 14 public complexes that currently offer some of the worst living conditions in the city.
More than 2,600 families are living in units considered in “extremely urgent” condition because of problems including lead, mold, vermin infestations and extensive water damage, D.C. Housing Authority officials said.
The agency’s plan to tear down or improve those complexes over the next decade is likely to spark anxiety for many of those residents, who fear being pushed out of a rapidly gentrifying city or finding that rehabilitated housing, once finished, does not include spaces for them.
The complexes, now federally owned and managed by the Housing Authority, would no longer be owned by the federal government. Private companies could come in to redevelop them into mixed-income or affordable housing, and some residents would get government housing vouchers and have to find a landlord to accept them.
“They have to do something. The question is: How do they do it in a way that minimizes disruptions and accounts for people’s very real housing needs?” said Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “Once you talk about redevelopment on a massive scale, it’s really scary.”
Ten of the complexes would be demolished or gutted, while four would be substantially renovated, starting as soon as October. A late $24 million infusion to the city budget would be used for the renovations.
In all, housing officials say they need $770 million from private and government sources to fix or replace the 14 complexes. Local officials say that residents are living in dangerous conditions and that the federal government has not provided funding for major capital upgrades.
The Housing Authority is convening community meetings at affected buildings starting next week.
“We have to be truthful, honest and transparent that it’s not going to be an easy road,” Tyrone Garrett, executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority, said this week. “It’s going to require a resident to be inconvenienced due to some type of rehabilitation in their building, or it may require actual relocation for a period of time.”
Housing authorities across the country have been confronting the challenges of dilapidated public housing, as federal funding shrinks and the government increasingly relies on private landlords to provide affordable homes through programs such as Section 8 vouchers.
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent letters to local authorities signaling plans to reduce the public housing stock by more than 100,000 units and suggesting several mechanisms to do so.
The D.C. authority is opting to seek federal permission to demolish or renovate the public housing complexes it has targeted. The process also requires approval from the local housing authority board and proof that buildings are beyond repair.
If the federal housing agency approves the city’s plans, tenants could be relocated starting in late 2020.
The complexes that would be partly or fully demolished are Benning Terrace, Fort Dupont Dwellings and Addition, Stoddert Terrace, and Woodland Terrace in Southeast Washington; Garfield Senior and Terrace, and Kelly Miller Dwellings walk-up units in Northwest Washington; Langston Terrace in Northeast Washington; the Greenleaf complex in the Navy Yard area, for which the city is already accepting redevelopment proposals; and Richardson Dwellings, which is slated to become a mixed-income development.
Details on what would replace them will depend on proposals from private developers and the city’s ability to secure financing.
Housing advocates say the process carries risks for residents, including no legal guarantee that they can return to a similar unit, the possibility of new eligibility requirements and the loss of large units or those accessible for people with disabilities.
Displaced residents would be eligible for vouchers, but it can be difficult finding landlords willing to accept them in a housing-strapped city.
Deborah Thrope of the National Housing Law Project said there’s a long history of governments failing to prevent displacement when renovating low-income housing across the country, including the federal Hope VI program, which was intended to transform public housing complexes into mixed-income developments.
“It was a disaster. They lost thousands of tenants in that process, in many of these deals, because they didn’t have the right protections in place so tenants knew when and how and where they could return,” Thrope said. “Understandably, the residents are fearful of what lies ahead.”
Housing officials say they aren’t trying to abandon public housing and want to ensure residents have homes to return to, although that could mean using a voucher outside the city.
“It’s not our intent to displace anyone,” Garrett said. “It’s our intent to improve their conditions.”
Garrett said the housing agency is trying to avoid flooding the city with thousands of displaced residents at once with public housing renovations. Relocation would be gradual, and the authority is exploring options to relocate residents in buildings with many vacancies or in temporary modular facilities.
“I don’t want to create any type of panic,” Garrett said. “Remember, this isn’t going to happen overnight, and no one is going to move immediately.”
The complexes that would be substantially renovated but not demolished or put to market are Judiciary House in Chinatown, LeDroit Apartments and the Kelly Miller Dwellings townhouses near Howard University, and Langston Addition in Northeast Washington.