Residents Fight to Save Low Income Housing By Madeleine Fletcher

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In the midst of the District's low-income housing crisis, thousands of public housing residents, mostly African-Americans, are facing involuntary displacement because of several federally-funded HOPE VI redevelopment projects. "Improving the living environment for public housing residents" is the stated purpose of HOPE VI, which stands for ’Homeownership Opportunities for People Everywhere." However, based on recent nationwide statistics compiled by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), only 12.5 percent of original residents have been moved back into HOPE VI communities. Low-income housing advocates say that families in greatest need are more likely to be left out because of the way the HOPE VI process is designed and implemented.

D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) was recently awarded a $35 million HOPE VI grant to redevelop Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg Dwellings, a public housing community of 707 units adjoining the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington. A fact sheet distributed to residents on the day of the announcement vaguely promised "the opportunity for current residents to return to the redeveloped community," that "the level of relocation effecting families will be determined by the public planning process" and that "no person or families need think about relocating any time during the next twelve months." Stephen Davis, a resident at Carrollsburg, was skeptical of the city's intent to return low-income residents to the site. He said that the daily struggles of his fellow residents to shelter, feed, and clothe their families are not bringing big dollars to the city. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has characterized the area where Davis resides, which has convenient Metro and bus access, as "one of the most valuable pieces of property on the East Coast, five minutes from the Capitol."

At the press conference announcing the award, Mayor Williams publicly reaffirmed the city's commitment to "one-to-one" replacement of demolished public housing units. However, a closer look at the HOPE VI application reveals that the existing 707 very-low income units will in fact be replaced by 417 low-income units, the remaining subsidized units being for moderate-income housing. Only 340 low-income units will actually be at the current site, while another 77 units will be relocated off-site, 65 of them to a former garbage transfer station, a site that the application acknowledges may have contaminated soil. Further diluting the availability of subsidized housing to truly needy families, the application states that so-called "low-income" units will be subject to a rent ceiling applicable to families with an income as high as $51,360, while average annual income for current residents is $7,942. Families with incomes as high as $68,480 will qualify for subsidized homeownership.

In his rap entitled "Gentrification," Brian Green-White, a Carrollsburg resident, referred to his community as "a poor black”hood destined to be torn down“ and to the project as "a war on the poor." He wrote:

My community lacks unity that's truly a fact
But politicians won't run us out of our ”hood like that
Not going out without a fight I'm throwing blows with all my might
If not, I'll look up one day and have nowhere to stay at night.

Residents Organize

In a recent letter to HUD secretary Mel Martinez an organizing committee called "Residents and Friends of Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg Dwellings" demanded a suspension of the HOPE VI project pending substantive changes, including a switch to new developers selected by residents, and an alternative plan to revitalize the community that would avoid displacing the residents from their jobs and schools. They wrote: "We are fighting to retain badly needed low-income and very-low income housing on site for all of our residents who are currently eligible for public housing, at current rent guidelines, and we do not want to lose our long-standing, close-knit community to unscrupulous developers."

They went on to write that complete demolition and rebuilding was not necessary, that many buildings were structurally sound and that renovations had recently been made. Keeping renovation costs down, they felt, would ensure that the renovated housing units would remain truly affordable for current residents. Says Davis, one of the signatories: "We want to fix HOPE VI so that it works for us, not against us."

The organizers appear to have support from their community. They were able to collect signatures from 67 percent of the current 405 households in town homes and walk-up apartments. Similarly, in a poll of 76 residents the organizers conducted in early August, over 85 percent of respondents said they were not in favor of the plan and were willing to join an eventual lawsuit to block it.

Residents feel betrayed by the fact that a community development corporation (CDC) is being formed to represent them, but without public discussion or vote. Although project manager Paul Rowe seems well informed about the CDC, no information has been provided to residents about its structure, membership, and by-laws, or even when and where it meets. The CDC will be empowered to negotiate with developers on behalf of residents, but because of the secretive way it is being set up, it may not democratically represent the residents or be accountable to them.

Public Officials Make Empty Promises

The limited extent of relocation help to be provided was revealed in a letter DCHA sent to each resident in July: "When DCHA decides on a date to demolish your unit and you are eligible for Relocation Assistance, you will be given advisory services, including referrals for replacement housing and at least 90 days advance written notice of the date you will be required to move." Providing "advisory services" falls far short of providing actual housing. The current plan to relocate the residents amounts to forced displacement, and will effectively render many residents homeless. Some residents would be issued "Section 8" vouchers, which would take them out of public housing and make them search for a federally-subsidized unit on the private market. However, Section 8 units are at critically low levels in the District, with 16,434 families already on the waiting list. Over half the people given a voucher are unable to find housing prior to its expiry date. Even after a unit is found, the landlord can refuse to renew the lease after one year, and the search has to start all over again. The remaining residents would be relocated to other public housing developments or to unsubsidized housing. However, public housing in the District is 98 percent occupied, leaving only about 140 units available, and an existing waiting list of 11,097 families.

In a recent letter to one of the resident organizers, Larry Dwyer, the DCHA director of planning and development, stated: "DCHA cannot guarantee that every single resident of the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg neighborhood will come back to the new community, this is a matter of individual choice." The use of the word "choice" masks the fact that many families in financial distress will be prevented from returning by strict screening criteria, including credit history and five-year rent payment history. Application fees and substantial downpayments are other obstacles. Few residents realize that even if they are among the few to make it back, payment guidelines are not as flexible as for public housing, where rent is adjusted at 30 percent of gross income. A family who returned to subsidized housing at the redeveloped Ellen Wilson property learned that the hard way: although their income substantially declined since their return, they remained locked in a higher income bracket and had to continue making payments at a higher level than they could afford, or lose their home.

Returnees to HOPE VI units face HUD's more restrictive Family Self Sufficiency (FSS) requirements. FSS requirements require residents to participate in training and employment programs, which are often of untested and unmonitored quality. Residents can be evicted if they fail to make demonstrable progress, which places them at the mercy of potentially arbitrary decisions by others. FSS requirements are widely discredited by affordable housing advocates as discriminating against people with very low incomes.

A Bad Deal For D.C. Taxpayers

The project should ring alarm bells for the average taxpayer because of the massive diversion of public money and land to private developers. Demolition and relocation costs will total $6.5 million. The privatization of public land is an aspect of the proposed project that has so far escaped public attention. DCHA will use the proceeds of the land sale to build subsidized housing on what will become private land. Much of the land will be used for building market-rate homes, and office buildings providing over 600,000 square feet of office and retail space.

Another $1.8 million of taxpayer money will be used to buy up over two dozen private homes and locally-owned small businesses, "if necessary by eminent domain." Eminent domain refers to the overriding right of government to take possession of private property for a public purpose. However, in this instance, private homes and locally-owned small businesses will be turned over to large-scale private developers.

The total input of public funds will be $89.8 million, including $34.9 million in federal money and $54.8 million in city money, with an additional $98.6 million in tax-exempt bonds. Outside evaluation of the project by the Howard University Center for Urban Progress may be compromised by the fact that much of the data will be controlled by DCHA and developers.

The credentials and accountability of the proposed developers, Mid-City Urban LLC, The NOAH Group, LLC, and Edgewood Management Corporation, which all operate out of the same Silver Spring office, are questionable. The co-founder of Mid-City Urban, Scott Nordheimer, is a convicted real estate felon who also owes the D.C. government $18,121 in unpaid back taxes, according to a recent article in The Common Denominator. Edgewood Management Corporation was mentioned in a Baltimore Sun article as the target of a planned lawsuit, because of its abysmal performance record ranging from "a lack of security to poor maintenance to safety hazards and shoddy construction."

Michael Kelly, executive director of DCHA, also has a questionable track record. He has said he wants to work with residents at Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg, yet he was recently named as defendant in a lawsuit by public housing residents in New Orleans, who are fighting to hold the housing authority he headed there accountable for promises made. During the time Kelly headed the New Orleans housing authority (HANO), HANO did not satisfactorily administer its HOPE VI grants and failed to significantly improve housing, according to HUD's Office of the Inspector General. "If HANO were a Section 8 landlord, HUD could prosecute it for failing to provide housing that meets contract standards," the report said.

Fix or Stop HOPE VI?

Residents at District properties affected by HOPE VI are contemplating lawsuits to protect their rights, building on other lawsuits filed against HOPE VI projects in Miami, New Orleans, and elsewhere. In Boston, public housing residents won a negotiated agreement that earned every displaced resident one of the new units, ensured that two thirds of the new units would be for people earning less than 30% of area median income, and gave residents enough power to block any plans they disagreed with. Jay Rose of Greater Boston Legal Services, who referred to HOPE VI as "government-funded gentrification," cited their campaign slogan, "People who lived there during bad times should get the benefit of the good times." He noted: "Residents refused to move out and demanded jury trials for each eviction."

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http://washingtonpeacecenter.net/pla_residentsfighttosave

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“Residents Fight to Save Low Income Housing By Madeleine Fletcher,” Arthur Capper, accessed July 16, 2018, https://arthurcapper.omeka.net/items/show/69.