Once completed, a redevelopment project 15 years in the making will bring mixed-income housing on the site of the Park Morton apartments, a community that Ward 1 residents have affectionately called “640” for decades.
Since the D.C. government, DC Housing Authority (DCHA) and developers solidified the deal in 2007, hundreds of families have left Park Morton and moved to other dwellings across the D.C. metropolitan area.
The nearly two dozen families who remain recently moved into other apartments while developers demolish another portion of Park Morton to make way for new buildings.
However, one of the apartments within the complex in the queue for demolition hasn’t been torn down yet. Shonta’ High, the sole occupant, said she refuses to leave unless provided a voucher. She’s currently embroiled in a legal battle with DCHA.
As president of The Council @ Park Morton, High created the Park Morton Equity Plan with input from residents. Facets of the plan, released in early 2019, included 30% equity in the redevelopment for residents who opted in, a legally binding right-to-return policy for Park Morton families and a self-sufficiency package with matched savings programs and development support for resident-owned businesses.
High said the D.C. government, and D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) in particular, not only prevented the full implementation of the Park Morton Equity Plan but accelerated the demolition of Park Morton apartments to move forward with a project once stalled because of insufficient funds.
“We were trying to create true self-sufficiency. The DC Housing Authority has a ‘self-sufficiency’ program but they aren’t using it in a manner to truly help residents get off government programs and become middle and upper-class citizens,” High said.
“This is what the equity plan means,” she said. “We were diverse at Park Morton. With apartments [priced at] 50 to 80% average median income (AMI), you’re pushing us out. Some of us are in Ward 1 but we’re all scattered [across the District].”
Once completed, Park Morton will have 542 units, a third of which will be replacement housing for Park Morton residents. The other two-thirds will have income restrictions with workforce housing also set aside for returning Park Morton residents. Units originally designated as market rate now serve as affordable housing units at 80% AMI.
Per a DCHA resolution, residents who have lived in Park Morton since 2007 can return if they choose. Nadeau secured $300,000 for a matched savings program while DCHA expressed a commitment to help residents form a co-operative.
In speaking about the Park Morton Equity Plan, Nadeau said it couldn’t have been totally included in the redevelopment because it came out well after the D.C. government, DCHA and private developers finalized plans for Park Morton.
The Park Morton redevelopment counts among several projects under the District’s New Communities Initiative through which severely dilapidated subsidized housing becomes redeveloped into mixed-income communities. The Initiative strives to maintain the number of available units through one-for-one replacements. It also attempts to prevent displacement through “build first” where developers erect new housing before tearing down dilapidated dwellings.
Initially, the Park Morton project had three phases. During the first phase, “build first” would take place with the construction of replacement housing at Georgia Avenue and Columbia Road in Northwest. Subsequent phases would focus on apartment buildings on Park Road in Northwest and the Park Morton cul-de-sac.
Early on in the development project, “build first”’ would be delayed after a lawsuit stalled construction of replacement housing at the site of the former Bruce-Monroe Elementary School. Throughout the years, as more Park Morton residents accepted vouchers and moved elsewhere, a growing number of apartment buildings in the community became empty. That, in part, paved the way for the demolition of several Park Morton apartment buildings.
A former Park Morton resident who requested anonymity said they couldn’t wait to move out of Park Morton. Two years ago, they accepted a DCHA voucher after growing frustrated with the violence, drug activity and loitering that kept them up at all hours of the night.
Their departure marked the end of a 50-year experience.
“There’s so much on that street [and] too many bad memories,” the former resident said. “I could cope with some of the problems but in the end it got to be unlivable. Nobody could control anything. There were people coming on the property making it bad for everybody else.”