As she enters her sixth year as a public housing resident, Chearie Phelps-El remains resolute in staying in the dwellings she’s come to appreciate, especially since the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) placed her beloved Greenleaf Senior Apartments in Southwest on a list of buildings to be gutted and redeveloped within the next few years.
Phelps-El said anxiety about where she would live during the redevelopment compelled her to other organizers from the Right to DC campaign in two protests at DCHA headquarters earlier this month. She and her neighbors also attended a meeting where they spoke to DCHA officials and developers involved in the process.
“I live with seniors and people with disabilities who don’t have the time to look for a place. We want to stay in our area,” Phelps-El said as she explained other concerns, such as the availability of family-sized units in the new building and whether developers would eliminate the presence of lead in the soil, like what Greenleaf residents read about in a letter last year.
“The people in these 14 properties getting displaced aren’t elite enough [for city officials],” she added.
Many of DCHA public housing properties — estimated at more than 6,000 units — are in the throes of rodent infestation, lead and mold contamination, infrastructural deficiencies and plumbing problems that have elicited tenant complaints for years and rumblings about overhauling affordable housing. In addition to redeveloping these buildings, DCHA’s plan would remove a quarter of its housing stock from under the control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a federal agency criticized for its ongoing divestment from public housing.
Unable to rely solely on local and federal funds, DCHA has partnered with private developers for this endeavor. This has sparked fear of permanent displacement among tenants in some of the buildings marked for redevelopment. Even with DCHA’s majority ownership, the conversion of these properties to mixed-use and affordable housing units has raised some eyebrows, especially among those who say criteria based on a skewed average median calculations disadvantage those with the most need for accommodations.
When revealing their plan earlier this year, DCHA officials reportedly said they strive to temporarily relocate no more than 400 families every year during the redevelopment of the 14 properties. They also noted that residents would also receive vouchers and have the right to return to their residence.
In October, DCHA’s plans for four buildings — Kelly Miller Residences, LeDroit Apartments, and Judiciary House in Northwest, and Langston Additions in Northeast — had been put in motion with $24.5 million allocated in the new fiscal year. With the proper funding, 10 other properties — including Garfield Terrace in Northwest, and Stoddert Terrace-Fort Dupont, Benning Terrace, and Woodland Terrace in Southeast — will experience a similar fate.
Overall, DCHA’s plan affects more than 2,600 units and costs more than $2.2 million for what housing authority officials call deferred maintenance costs. This is the first phase of a 20-year public housing overhaul also intended to preserve 27 additional properties.
Since DCHA’s July announcement, officials have met with residents of its properties. Some scenarios, like that involving the Stoddert Terrace-Fort Dupont community, compelled tenants to think about purchasing their building, a process outlined in the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.
Longtime Stoddert resident Karen Settles called it the ideal opportunity for residents.
“Change is going to happen but it should be with the vested interest of the people who spent their lives [in these buildings] as a community. There are too many backroom decisions being made without the voice of the people,” said Settles, a former Ward 7F ANC commissioner who has lived in Stoddert Terrace for more than 40 years.
“When they announced we were one of the 14 properties, the meeting was confusing and not that informative,” she added. “When they came back, they said no application had been made. We’ve been under that impression since, but the [transfer of ownership] remains to be interpreted.”