Over the years, at community meetings on the District’s plan to tear down Barry Farm, a dilapidated public housing complex in the poorest part of Washington, Paulette Matthews has never hesitated to share her concerns about the redevelopment.
The night of June 28 was no exception.
With demolition work finally set to begin this summer at the aged, half-vacant dwellings, Matthews and other residents joined developers and D.C. officials for a meeting about Barry Farm that quickly unraveled into a verbal free-for-all.
The evening’s agenda had envisioned a polite gathering in the multipurpose room of an Anacostia school, followed by breakout sessions at which tenants would be updated on the “relocation and reentry” process for 513 residents who, the city says, will be temporarily displaced during months of construction.
But as frustration and worry among tenants boiled over — mainly about the impending forced move — the carefully drafted agenda was abruptly discarded and residents united in peppering officials with queries and challenges.
The disorderly meeting at the Excel Academy Public Charter School seemed a metaphor for the District’s ambitious but troubled New Communities Initiative, a neighborhood revitalization effort targeting four areas of the city that has progressed at a glacial pace, and sometimes languished, for more than a decade.
A major element of the plan involves razing and replacing Barry Farm, a complex dating to World War II that has long been an eyesore in Ward 8, the District’s most impoverished precinct.
“I have some questions!” Matthews, 58, shouted from the back of the room as moderators tried to organize about 40 people into breakout groups to discuss the move, the design of the new project and the menu of social services available to residents.
Despite assurances from the city that they will be allowed to move back, Matthews and others fear that once they leave their Barry Farm apartments, they will be kept out for many years or permanently because of construction slowdowns or stricter residency screenings at the new, much larger mixed-income complex.
“Let her finish!” someone yelled, after Denise Robinson, a project manager for one of the developers, had interrupted Matthews, asking her to hold her inquiries until later.
“We’ve got to keep control of the meeting,” Robinson warned, standing near a stage. “Now, I’m not being disrespectful, but —”
“You are!” a loud voice cried. “You need to let her speak!”
“Unacceptable!” another declared.
The New Communities Initiative was born in 2005 and grew up on drawing boards over the next three years. Planners reasoned that by eliminating concentrated pockets of poverty, centered on public housing, they could ease crime, joblessness and other socioeconomic ills.
By 2008, the plan called for razing four tumbledown apartment complexes in the city and building bigger, modern developments in line with the New Urbanism concept, featuring open, walkable green spaces and an array of amenities. The complexes would include not only replacement public housing but also other types of affordable apartments as well as market-rate rental units and condos for sale.
But more than a decade after the initiative was conceived, none of the projects is even close to being finished.
One of the initiative’s early, much-touted principles was “build first,” meaning that existing public housing tenants would not suffer the profound disruption of being temporarily relocated far from home. Instead, they would live on or close to the redevelopment sites while the new communities were built around them. But build-first was easier said than done.
A consultant’s study in 2014 found that the New Communities Initiative was hampered from the start because officials had failed to fully consider potential issues involving financing gaps and unpredictable changes in the real estate market. The build-first idea also was a drag on the initiative, as was the post-2007 global economic crisis.
“Starting off with really unreasonable expectations just set us up for a lot of problems, like failed timelines,” said Kimberly Black King, chief development officer for the D.C. Housing Authority, which oversees public housing.
Nevertheless, another housing official said, the initiative has gained momentum in recent years and is nearing a milestone with the impending demolition of Barry Farm, once notorious as an epicenter of violence during the city’s worst periods of crime.
“For the first time in New Communities’ history, we actually have significant development movement at all four of our sites,” said Angie Rodgers, who manages the initiative in the office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
A developer was recently chosen to raze the Park Morton public housing complex, in the Park View section of Northwest Washington, and construct a larger, mixed-income replacement, Rodgers said in an interview.
Because the build-first model will be used there, she said, the project “is set to be the first full-scale public housing redevelopment in the country that we’ll do without displacing any of the residents from the neighborhood.” The complex now houses about 140 families, she said.
She said the build-first concept also will be employed at the Lincoln Heights and Richardson Dwellings public housing site, near the city’s eastern tip. About 230 families live there now.Rodgers said the city is on track to issue a “request for proposal” this summer, seeking a developer to handle that project.
The original New Communities mixed-income project, largely still in the paperwork stage since 2005, is slated for land once occupied by the crime-ridden Temple Courts and Golden Rule housing complexes , close to what is now the gentrified NoMa neighborhood, near Union Station. A full build-first model hasn’t been used at this site, known as Northwest One. Before the 250 old apartments were demolished, the low-income residents were given vouchers to help pay for affordable private housing elsewhere in the city, while the redevelopment plan languished.
Development stalled partly because of a land-use restriction, but that problem was resolved in 2013. The city last year sought proposals from would-be developers. Rodgers said officials hope to make a decision this summer.
The city announced last September that the build-first approach would be too expensive and time-consuming for Barry Farm, and that residents would be either temporarily moved to public housing units scattered around the District or would be given rent-subsidy vouchers to help pay for nonpublic affordable housing.
“We came to this decision almost a year ago, and our communication with residents about it has been very clear ever since,” Rodgers said.
But not much about the New Communities Initiative tends to go as planned.
As the dialogue grew loud and testy in the school multipurpose room, D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) took the microphone, trying to restore order.
After scuttling the breakout sessions — residents insisted on staying together — White said calmly, “Go ahead, Ms. Matthews, finish what you were saying.”
“I have a question and I have a statement,” declared Matthews, who has lived in Barry Farm for 21 years. To begin with, she said, she fears that the project will grind to a halt, for financial or other reasons, while residents are living in far-flung places across the city, waiting to return.
Robinson, the project manager, seemed mildly exasperated.
“We came out to a meeting of Barry Farm residents on September 14 — so all the way back in September — to let them know the results of our inquiry into whether a build-first option was possible,” she reminded the audience. “We told residents at that time that it was not possible, and that everybody was going to have to temporarily relocate from the site. And we’ve been saying —”
Matthews cut her off, and the two began talking over each other, their voices rising as Robinson pleaded: “Wait a minute! Let me —”
Then White stepped in again to lower the volume.
“That’s just more excuses!” another woman yelled, dismissing the idea that the build-first concept is not feasible.
“We cannot accept this! We want you to know, as residents, we want to stay here in Barry Farm!”
Rodgers said that based on conversations with numerous Barry Farm tenants, the residents opposed to the plan at the meeting are in the minority.
Management of the new complex will be overseen by one or both of the developers that have partnered with the Housing Authority. To dispel concern that the new manager might impose a tighter screening process for returning residents, in terms of their credit and rent-paying histories and any past legal problems, the authority has enacted a rule that the process cannot be any stricter than the current one for public housing.
There are 444 apartments at the site, about 200 of which are occupied by 513 people, according to the Housing Authority. The other units are vacant because in recent years, in anticipation of the redevelopment, the authority has not accepted new tenants.
King, the authority’s development officer, said the rebuilt complex will have 1,400 units, including 344 for public housing tenants. An additional 100 public housing apartments already have opened, and are occupied, at two new complexes nearby. The rest of the redevelopment, more than 1,000 residences, will be a mix of nonpublic apartments for low-income tenants and market-rate rental and ownership units.
The relocation process, set to begin this summer, is expected to take about 18 months, King said. As the tenants start leaving, construction will commence, she said. If all goes as planned, she said, the first phase of the project — about 550 housing units at a cost of about $150 million — will open in 2020 and be completed in 2022.
In that two-year span, King said, the relocated tenants will be allowed back in.
“Any time people are being moved out of their homes, not certain if they’re going to come back, there’s going to be distrust,” White said after the meeting. “Trust is earned. You’ve got to say what you’re going to do, and then make a practice of doing what you say.”
So Matthews will have to wait and see.
“Promises, promises,” she said. “We all know anything can change.”