A years-long fight over planned redevelopment of the District’s Barry Farm public housing complex landed in federal court Tuesday as residents alleged in a lawsuit the project’s design is not suited to low-income people with children.
The D.C. Housing Authority has been planning for nearly a decade to raze the dilapidated complex in one of the city’s most impoverished areas and build a larger, more attractive residential community. The new complex is set to include replacement public housing units, meant for low-income tenants with federal rent subsidies, along with higher-priced, market-rate apartments and townhouses for sale.
At issue is the planned mix of apartment sizes among the replacement public housing units. In the lawsuit, tenants’ advocates contend the new project will offer fewer multi-bedroom apartments than were available at the old Barry Farm.
They allege the city wants to reduce the number of low-income tenants with children to make the redeveloped complex more attractive to market-rate renters and buyers.
“With each development project” in the District, “communities are displaced and new upscale housing created for higher income residents,” the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs said in a statement. “The redevelopment of Barry Farm will exclude more than 150 working and low-income families by decreasing the number of family-sized units,” meaning apartments with two to six bedrooms.
In the gentrifying District — where affluent newcomers have driven up real-estate values and spurred construction of numerous luxury residential high-rises — the dearth of low-cost multi-bedroom apartments, especially four- and five-bedroom units, has been a major contributor to the city’s affordable housing shortage.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington by the lawyers’ committee and by the major law firm Foley & Lardner, also accuses the housing authority of being slow to respond to maintenance problems at Barry Farm. It alleges authority does not want to invest money in decades-old buildings that are due to be torn down.
The plaintiffs allege the housing authority and its contractors are violating the federal Fair Housing Act and the D.C. Human Rights Act. Asked about the allegations, a spokesman for the authority said in an email the agency “cannot comment on a lawsuit we haven’t received.”
At a news conference Tuesday, tenants’ advocates said they want a judge to order the inclusion of more family-sized apartments in the project and compel the housing authority to improve living conditions at Barry Farm until the site is completely vacant.
The 444-unit complex, just east of the Anacostia River in Ward 8, is already about half empty, because the housing authority in recent years has not accepted new tenants, in anticipation of the redevelopment. With demolition and construction set to get underway soon, officials said, they plan to temporarily relocate about 500 people who are still living in roughly 200 apartments at the site.
The housing authority has said all Barry Farm residents are guaranteed the right to return when the replacement units are ready. Under the current plan, the redeveloped complex will not be suitable for all the displaced tenants, the lawsuit says.
Tenants’ advocates said by their calculation, the replacement apartments will include many more one-bedroom units than Barry Farm has now and far fewer apartments in the two- to six-bedroom range.
“The District has become the sixth most segregated city in the nation,” the lawyers’ committee said, calling it a “phenomenon largely driven by the redevelopment of low-income housing for high-income residents.”
And, the group added: “The residents of Barry Farm who have lived in the neighborhood for decades and built a community here are being forced out with few options to stay within the District.
Affordable family-sized housing is limited in the District and is concentrated in a few neighborhoods that are economically and racially segregated.”