Nathan Brown, a fourth-generation Washingtonian and former resident of the Temple Courts housing complex, joins D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and other government leaders as his daughter Jade cuts the ribbon to celebrate the opening of the apartment building constructed in the same spot more than a decade later. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)
Nathan Brown, a fourth-generation Washingtonian and former resident of the Temple Courts housing complex, joins D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and other government leaders as his daughter Jade cuts the ribbon to celebrate the opening of the apartment building constructed in the same spot more than a decade later. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

Gwen Devore has been waiting to return to her neighborhood for more than a decade. Her family — and more than 200 other households — had to move elsewhere in 2008, when the city decided to tear down Temple Courts, a deteriorating public housing complex near NoMa.

Gwen Devore, a former Temple Courts resident, stands in the apartment she hopes to occupy with one of her three grandsons.

Devore, 65, joined other former Temple Courts residents and a long list of high-profile political leaders Dec. 19 for an official ribbon-cutting at a new building on the spot. The new mixed-income building, called “The Rise at Temple Courts,”* has already welcomed 25 returning residents. It marks a long-overdue win for the New Communities Initiative, a city government plan launched in 2005 to rehabilitate public housing sites via complete redevelopment.

“We are making good on our promise,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said at the ceremony. “We’re also celebrating how community development should be done: with the input of the community, more than five hundred residents worked with planners, architects, development advisers and D.C. government officials spanning several administrations.”

Devore has stayed involved in the process for years, organizing with other former residents and affordable housing advocates from the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN). After years of pressure, organizers secured government agreement on a key demand: that spots reserved for former residents include not just leaseholders but also their children.

Last month, Devore was able to set two of her grandsons up in a unit reserved for returning families. But she said she herself has been stuck in a confusing back-and-forth with the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) for months, trying to use her housing voucher to move into her own unit.

“I’m very thankful on the one hand, and I’m pissed on the other hand,” Devore said after the ceremony.

These past few months awaiting final confirmation have been especially frustrating, Devore said, because she has already been waiting for over a decade.

When the city demolished the Temple Courts complex, providing housing vouchers to residents, officials promised residents that a fully rebuilt development would welcome them back. The site became Northwest One — one of four neighborhoods slated for redevelopment under the New Communities Initiative. But Northwest One, along with the initiative’s other sites, struggled to overcome legal and financial obstacles and made very little progress for years. 

“My mom and [other] former residents organized for the promise and the right to return, but after every year passed, after the mayoral administrations changed and more affordable housing was knocked down throughout the District, it seemed like just another empty promise,” said Nathan Brown, another former resident, speaking at the ribbon-cutting with his daughter Jade standing beside him. 

Brown, a fourth-generation Washingtonian, has spent years spearheading organizing efforts alongside WIN. Now, he’s chosen not to take an apartment at The Rise — nearly 15 years after his family had to leave Temple Courts, the 38-year-old father of three has started pursuing homeownership. Still, he said he felt proud that the new building has finally opened its doors to former residents. 

“This building is more than just a building,” Brown said. “It is a memorial to those who lost this neighborhood. It is a statement that native Washingtonians will not be displaced. It is a physical representation of what everyday people can do when they have a vision and when they organize.”

At the ribbon-cutting, Bowser acknowledged that the New Communities Initiative has taken too long and said that her administration is working to streamline and improve the process. She also praised the work of other officials attending the ceremony, including D.C. Council’s Housing Committee Chair Anita Bonds (D-At-Large).

The day after the ribbon-cutting, the Council voted to fully overhaul the DCHA Board of Commissioners. The day after that, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) revealed his proposed committee assignments for next term, which included removing Bonds as head of the housing committee and placing her in charge of a new committee focused on executive administration and labor.

Both Bowser and Bonds supported the passage of the bill that effectively dismantles the DCHA Board. So did Brenda Donald, DCHA’s executive director. 

“I basically need three things: I need an amazing team, I need resources, and I need a supportive board. I have two of those three things right now,” Donald said.

The change in DCHA oversight comes in response to longstanding failures in maintaining public housing units, which came under increased scrutiny following a scathing report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) published this fall. 

The New Communities Initiative requires the redevelopments to include one new affordable housing unit for each one lost in taking down the original public housing complexes. In addition to 65 apartments reserved specifically for returners, The Rise includes 85 other dedicated affordable dwelling units, alongside 70 market-rate units. 

So far, 105 affordable housing units have been filled, according to the building’s leasing consultant, Jaelyn Crumbley. But the process of navigating assistance programs remains a frustrating obstacle for many. 

“It’s like having to get approved for an apartment twice,” Crumbley, 24, said in an interview. “It’s just a lot of forms and back and forth. And then just so many moving parts.”

After the ribbon-cutting, Crumbley had the chance to show Devore the apartment that she expects to move into with her grandson in January. Inside, winter sunlight streaked in from the windows, illuminating bright new countertops and carpets. But without the lease in hand, Devore remained skeptical when asked if she was excited about the place. 

“I’ll be excited when I have the key,” she said. 

*For the purposes of transparency, this writer has been associated with residency at The Rise at Temple Courts.

Kayla Benjamin

Covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine writing stories...

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