The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion There can be no racial equity in D.C. when Black and Brown families are being displaced

Brookland Manor is a sprawling, Depression-era housing complex in Northeast Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Minnie Elliott is president of the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association.

I am an 83-year-old great-great-grandmother and president of the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association. As a civil rights activist, I marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and in the years since, I’ve organized with many others for welfare rights and housing justice in D.C. Sadly, instead of relaxing and enjoying what we helped build, we seniors are forced to fight once again for the futures of our children in this city.

If you drive east on Rhode Island Avenue NE, away from downtown D.C., and make a right on Saratoga Avenue toward New York Avenue, you’ll come upon our community, a group of white and yellow garden apartments. This Brookland Manor apartment complex, consisting of 535 units across 19 buildings, is the last remaining community with more than 100 affordable four- and five-bedroom family units in D.C. Brookland Manor is home to hundreds of low- and moderate-income people of color — mostly Black families.

Brookland Manor’s “problem” is our proximity to the busy Rhode Island Ave. Metro stop, the Giant/Home Depot shopping center and the new high-rise buildings popping up along the Rhode Island Avenue corridor. This makes Brookland Manor very attractive for the dense redevelopment pushed by smart-growth lobbyists and developers alike. Please look closely at Brookland Manor; we are a bellwether for how the District develops and deals with the displacement of its low- and moderate-income Black and Brown people.

On one side is the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), supported by our Ward 5 council member, Kenyan R. McDuffie (D) and others, allied with MidCity Financial, the owner of Brookland Manor. The District has approved MidCity’s request to redevelop the property into high-rises, going from 535 units to 1,760 — quintupling the property value — and gifted the developer a $47 million tax subsidy on top, similar to what they did at the Wharf. In exchange, the project significantly reduces the number of affordable units, stripping away virtually all the four- and five-bedroom units and providing no assurances that voucher-holders will be able to return. You don’t have to take my word for it. McDuffie commissioned a study on the need for large family units in D.C. which found that MidCity’s plan would harm families, yet he continues to support the project.

Make no mistake: There can be no racial equity in D.C. when greed is allowed to displace Black and Brown families, and the D.C. government is funding displacement at Brookland Manor.

Our community began to suffer as soon as MidCity’s new owner, Eugene Ford Jr., began pushing the new redevelopment in 2015. MidCity undertook a concerted effort to remove as many Brookland Manor residents as possible despite public promises (never in a guarantee enforceable by law) that no one would be displaced. MidCity filed dozens of predatory evictions over fines as low as $25 after the redevelopment plan was proposed. The community was told the newly hired private security guards were there to protect us, but it soon became clear that they were there to harass us and create causes to evict us by citing us for “infractions” such as leaning on fences or standing in the grass. Our common spaces, including the swimming pool and the playground, were fenced off. Overnight, Brookland Manor became a gated community meant to make life here uncomfortable. We can’t even use the grass outside of our front doors where we pay rent. Our parents have been told our children can play on the sidewalk or by the street. A mother whose son, an honor-roll student, died by suicide was evicted while she was grieving, allegedly for “criminal activity.”

This abuse is all part of MidCity’s attempt to rationalize the impossible lie, willingly accepted by McDuffie, that no one will be displaced by a project that destroys affordable housing. People have already been displaced.

When the Brookland Manor planned unit development (PUD) came before the zoning commission, hundreds of us showed up to oppose the plan. I testified that it could be a win-win — provided the existing 535 units were maintained at current size and subsidy in exchange for the lucrative density increase. Instead, the zoning commission, chaired by Anthony Hood, who used to live in our neighborhood, sided with MidCity, refusing even to require a “no-displacement” pledge. We had no choice but to file a lawsuit appealing the commission’s decision. On Thursday, after more than a year of waiting, the Court of Appeals sided with the developer and the District to greenlight our displacement. This shows just how disposable poor Black and brown people are under current policy. But our fight is not over.

What is happening at Brookland Manor is happening all across the District. Bowser is giving our tax money to private developers, and now 50,000 Black people are missing from Chocolate City. More will follow unless the new council members step up, because the older ones have really disappointed us. I pray that our people will open their eyes and souls and rise up for housing as we did for go-go. Our jobs and homes are disappearing — the music won’t matter if our families have no future here.

To say density will save us contradicts the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown Washingtonians, including Brookland Manor residents. Now, the mayor wants to double down on her build-more, displace-more approach with the changes she’s proposed for the District’s Comprehensive Plan. As I’ve testified, this includes reducing legal appeals by softening language throughout, making upzoning virtually automatic, and cutting out community input and planning. In fact, MidCity proposed future upzoning changes at Brookland Manor in the Comprehensive Plan, despite the fact that the PUD already grants upzoning, presumably to take advantage of these workarounds.

Brookland Manor is a line in the sand. If the government’s decision to fund the displacement and prolonged abuse of Black and Brown families is allowed to stand, “racial equity” in D.C. is nothing more than a political smokescreen.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this op-ed: Children misunderstood the word but got the idea

Lisa Wise: Housing justice is a basic human right

Michele Steeb: Family homelessness in D.C. is growing

Kirby Vining: Are the proposed changes to D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan already out of date?

Yuliya Panfil: Gentrification in the D.C. area pushes people from homes and away from transit