D.C. Residents Discuss Future of Affordable Housing

For more than a decade, neighborhood revitalization in the District has been synonymous with neglect and displacement of low-income tenants. As communities east of the Anacostia River increasingly grapple with that reality, a group of residents and organizers have set out to analyze and tackle its key causes.

That effort continued during the People’s Right to Housing Mini-Assembly, one of three events intended to educate residents about displacement and prepare them to collectively fight those involved in the dispersal of longtime Washingtonians. The two-hour event attracted former Barry Farm residents and those from other pockets of Southeast concerned about the future of their precarious living situation.

“Developers’ plans don’t look like they’re in our favor. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to manage businesses,” said Detrice Belt, chair of Barry Farm Tenant and Allies Association (BFTAA). and one of nearly 30 participants at the People’s Right to Housing Assembly, hosted by ONE DC at the Black Workers and Wellness Center on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast.

Last year, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in Belt and BFTAA’s favor, saying that the D.C. Zoning Commission didn’t include an adequate number of affordable units on the site where Barry Farm stood, or take into account the hardship that the move would inflict on residents.

Since then, BFTAA and the D.C. Housing Authority had been in talks, including a meeting that had been scheduled to take place this week. On Saturday, Belt and a multigenerational group of women gathered around a large sheet of paper where they jotted notes about their unsafe living conditions and the people they believed to be involved in the dilapidation of their dwellings.

Belt expressed a desire to ensure that revitalization plans met the needs of families.

“There are smaller rooms [in the apartments] and more density,” she said. “[The people who used to live in Barry Farms] are scattered all across the city. We can’t get in touch with them and it’s hard to get them here. This was already a mixed community and that’s what the developers said they wanted.”

Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE DC), an advocacy group in the city, counts right to housing as one of 10 principles on its People’s Platform. The People’s Right to Housing Mini-Assembly preceded a citywide People’s Assembly scheduled for October, and a ONE DC Freedom School where residents will collectively study displacement and create a popular education agenda to organize against negligent landlords, developers and elected officials.

“It’s important to get everyone who showed up to the mini-assembly into our Freedom School where folks want to delve deeper into the issues of landlord neglect and displacement by force and understand why it’s happening to longstanding Washingtonians,” said Patrick Gregoire, ONE DC right to housing organizer.

Increasing property values, rent and taxes have been implicated as key causes of the removal of more than 135,000 families from more than 200 District neighborhoods since the turn of the century. The Office of Planning released a map that showed a dearth of affordable housing in the more affluent parts of the District, including Wards 2 and 3, through a combination of restrictive zoning, historic preservation rules and lawsuits from neighbors.

Last week, the D.C. Housing Authority revealed plans, to be approved by its board of commissioners, under which a quarter of its affordable housing stock would be removed from federal government control and more than a dozen buildings demolished or revitalized. More than 8,000 units had been identified as severely damaged and of great health risk to residents.

Seniors have suffered the most in those conditions, said one woman who attended Saturday’s mini-assembly.

“The government has failed [people who live in] low-income housing,” the woman said. “There has to be collaboration to make it better. I pay market-rate rent, which is not easy. Senior citizens have been left behind in affordable housing. My Social Security check may not be like yours. I’ve been a homeowner, but I don’t know if I could do it in the District.”

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