Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In just under two weeks, the D.C. Council will take a final vote on whether to finance $56 million dollars’ worth of a long-planned redevelopment along Rhode Island Ave. NE. 

The project, tied up in a months-long appeal that has stalled redevelopment, would bring about 1,800 units of housing and 180,000 square feet of retail to over 20 acres of land in Ward 5, just half a mile from the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.

And in the fight to stop it, it’s Minnie Elliott against the world. The longtime Brookland Manor resident and tenants’ association president, who filed an appeal against the project last year, maintains that it would negatively affect existing residents of the neighborhood and potentially displace dozens of low-income tenants. She has articulated these concerns since 2014, when the developer first pitched the project.

“They can wine and dine you,” Elliott said at a November meeting of Brookland Manor’s tenants’ association, referring to affordable housing developer MidCity Financial Corp., which is behind the planned redevelopment, “but if you want to speak up, you’ve gotta fight for your rights. This fight is everybody’s fight.”

At the meeting, where about two dozen people––mostly older black women, and a healthy smattering of toddlers swaddled in puffy coats––munched on sandwiches and potato chips, Will Merrifield, an attorney at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who represents the tenants’ association, is gauging how many people are interested in canvassing the Council before its vote.

“How naive were we to think MidCity couldn’t just [snap] and get $56 million?” Merrifield says to a chorus of yeses. 

The development would triple the density of the existing Brookland Manor complex, which sits southeast of Rhode Island and Montana avenues NE and holds a cluster of apartment buildings. The buildings currently contain 373 federally subsidized units through the project-based Section 8 program and 117 market-rate units where tenants use rental subsidies dispersed by the DC Housing Authority. (Project-based subsidies are tied to the physical units themselves, while tenant-based vouchers allow tenants to keep their subsidies even if they move.)

A bill Mayor Muriel Bowser introduced to the D.C. Council in early October would allow the city to help fund the Rhode Island Ave. project, dubbed “RIA,” through tax increment financing, or borrowing against future tax receipts that it would generate.

But Elliott and a contingent of other residents, along with advocates at Justice First and the  Legal Clinic, say that MidCity has not sufficiently proved that the project would not displace some of Brookland Manor’s tenants. 

In its second-stage approval for the project, the D.C. Zoning Commission noted last year that MidCity “committed that a minimum of 265 units in this project will be deeply affordable and reserved for existing residents.” (“Deeply affordable” housing typically means housing within reach for families earning around 30 percent of area median income, around $33,000 for a family of four in D.C.) Of those units, MidCity will reserve 200 in one apartment building, Building B, for seniors-only housing. Another apartment building, Building A, will “initially” host the other 65 “for other current residents of Brookland Manor.” A separate clause in the Commission’s order mandates that “there shall be at least 373 units covered by the Section 8 contract.” 

But the order states that 40 of the deeply affordable units will only be “temporary,” and that “over time … those 40 units will transition to market-rate units.” Some residents, including Elliott, worry about what that transition from deeply affordable to market rate will mean for the families living in those units.

And while the Zoning Commission has written that it “does not believe that any displacement will occur” from this or other issues, it writes that “if it does, the Commission finds that it is acceptable given the quality of the public benefits of the Project.” 

Complaints about the project run the gamut, including allegations that Mid-City’s numbers for rehousing the existing income-restricted tenants don’t match up, that this lack of foresight could result in displacement, and that even precluding these issues, there isn’t a long-term covenant to protect the affordability of dozens of these units. 

To this, the Zoning Commission wrote that MidCity “has convincingly demonstrated that at this phase of the redevelopment there are a sufficient number of units to meet this commitment.” Jamie Weinbaum, MidCity’s executive vice president and RIA project lead, as well as the former director of D.C.’s Office of Zoning, which oversees the Zoning Commission, calls these concerns “old tropes”––“frankly,” he says, “there are always concerns that come with development, [like] gentrification and displacement. … For whatever reason, this project became an example [when people] talk about gentrification and displacement.”

The Brookland Manor tenants’ association also claimed last year that MidCity attempted to engage in a campaign to reduce the number of tenants living at Brookland Manor before redevelopment began, so that there would be fewer tenants in need of relocation. They presented these claims to the Zoning Commission, stating that residency at Brookland Manor declined from 503 to 438 occupied units. (A Washington Post investigation from 2016 found that MidCity sued to evict residents about 370 times between January 2014 and March 2016.)

The Commission punted responsibility for adjudicating this claim, writing that doing so “is not within the Commission’s jurisdiction.”

The Zoning Commission, MidCity, and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie all emphasize that the dissatisfied party is smaller than the number of tenants who support the project. They point to the 180 Brookland Manor residents who signed onto a “letter of support” for MidCity’s plan, and the dozen who spoke in support of the project at a public hearing in mid-November. 

Through a spokesperson, McDuffie says in a lengthy statement emailed to City Paper that “a small number of opponents have been effective at garnering negative news coverage of this project … and a single litigant suing the developer,” but that he “must weigh their concerns against the more than 180 Brookland Manor residents who signed letters of support during the first zoning case and over 300 residents who have advocated for the start of construction on this project.” (There is more than just a single litigant. International law firm Covington, along with Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, filed a complaint in 2016 against Mid-City for the development; the class-action suit, which is ongoing, alleges that the RIA project discriminates against residents’ “familial status” by not providing enough four- or five-bedroom units.)

McDuffie and MidCity also argue that the developer has done due diligence by committing to set aside more total affordable units, and more deeply affordable units, than is required by an inclusionary zoning order. Inclusionary zoning laws require only 8 to 10 percent of new units to be affordable in new developments.

And in what might be the first time someone has thanked gentrification, the Zoning Commission writes that someone submitted written testimony “remarking on improvements in crime reduction and positively anticipating a ‘more gentrified culture.’” Weinbaum declined to comment on the two cases against Mid-City, saying that he would not “opine” on ongoing litigation.

“I think that there’s another story here that’s the more important story,” Weinbaum tells City Paper. “Those are talking points Will [Merrifield] has been pushing for a while now. The story is, we made an investment in project approved by the Zoning Commission. [We’re going] one-for-one on all the affordable housing. It was codified in two different zoning orders. … the story here is that this can be a model for a mixed income community.”