Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

The public eye turned, at least for a moment, to Barry Farm during a roundtable At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds hosted last Thursday. Redevelopment plans for the 444-unit public housing complex in Southeast have languished under the city’s leadership for over 12 years.

Officials across a handful of local agencies have long hoped to turn the sprawling complex of apartment units, operated by DC Housing Authority, into a mixed-income development that includes hundreds of market-rate units and retail space alongside its public housing offerings. 

That plan is wrapped into the New Communities Initiative, which aims to revitalize four distressed neighborhoods across the city. But it hit yet another roadblock when, in April, the D.C. Court of Appeals vacated the Zoning Commission’s approval of a plan to redevelop Barry Farm. Just one month later, the city withdrew its Planned Unit Development applications for the site from the Zoning Commission.

The Housing Authority has pushed ahead with plans to abate and demolish the property anyway, and has given the remaining Barry Farm residents two options: Move into another public housing property in D.C., or accept a federally-funded housing voucher, which subsidizes much of a tenant’s housing cost but requires them to secure their own unit on the private rental market. But both options have flaws, tenants and advocates say. 

The public housing waiting list in D.C. is tens of thousands of people long, and Barry Farm residents say they’re worried they either won’t find a unit, or will be forced to live in an unclean, unsafe building. (DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett, however, testified that DCHA has units available for any Barry Farm family that chooses this option.) Vouchers present a different challenge, with tenants testifying that landlords deny them leases simply for being voucher holders, a practice called “source of income” discrimination that’s illegal in D.C.

Barry Farm residents, many of whom have complained for years about the deteriorating quality of their apartments, and shared concerns that they’d be displaced during the renovation, hoped that the Council’s Thursday roundtable would provide clarity about the status of the project.

But those hopes were likely dashed from the outset, when Bonds opened the roundtable with a warning that would set the tone for the nearly 4.5-hour hearing. “Up front it should be understood that the executive witnesses today will likely be unable to answer certain questions about next steps with specificity,” Bonds said, “simply because they are in the process of deliberating about how to move forward based on the results of a court case.”

For nearly two hours, a panel of councilmembers––including Bonds, At-Large Councilmember Robert White, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White––tried to extract specifics from DCHA’s Garrett and NCI Director Angie Rodgers about the city’s plan for Barry Farm.

Public witnesses, largely residents of Barry Farm, spent another two and a half hours describing the emotional and physical volatility of their time living at the property.

In that spirit, Robert White asked Garrett and Rodgers whether there are any “salvageable parts” of the city’s initial plan to develop Barry Farm, after referring to the current state of the project as “a worst-case scenario.” He didn’t receive a concrete answer. 

“DCHA is simply reevaluating its next steps,” Garrett told the crowd at the outset, emphasizing that one of the authority’s main priorities is finding suitable housing for the remaining 90 families at Barry Farm, a figure that reflects a roughly 80 percent vacancy rate. Garrett says that DCHA’s “optimistic” goal is to have the property totally vacated by the end of October, though 20 families have not decided whether they want a voucher or to remain in public housing. 

Rodgers acknowledged that the city has “work to do to respond to the concerns of the court,” referring to the D.C. Appeals Court decision, but adds that abatement work will begin this summer, with demolition (which will take about one year, she says) to follow shortly afterward. 

The councilmembers’ lines of questioning were, at times, uncomfortably pointed. 

Trayon White told the government witnesses that he had three main concerns: “Why the resident relocation plan has continued when the status of the project is uncertain,” “why the lead developer has changed, and the ramifications,” and the status of “the current plan” for redevelopment.

He pushed Garrett and Rodgers particularly hard on the issue of apartment sizes, a topic that polarized city officials and Barry Farm residents during initial rounds of planning for the site’s redevelopment. 

“I’m also concerned about D.C. saying, ‘We have a vision for affordable housing.’ Yet we have a project like Barry Farm that’s owned by DC Housing Authority, yet we’re yielding less amount of units than what was there before. This should have been an opportunity to build more, real affordable housing on this particular project to ensure that we’re truly addressing the housing crisis in the District,” White said. 

The panel devolved into inaudible cross-talk over his assertion that D.C. is planning on building fewer affordable units at Barry Farm. “One thing you said under your breath, I heard you say under your breath, ‘That’s not true.’ I was trying to get clarity on what part is not true,” White told Rodgers.

“The part about us building less housing on the site than there’s there now,” she replied. 

But White became frustrated after Garrett and Rodgers could not immediately tell him how many units of each bedroom size DCHA plans to build at the property. “How many five-bedrooms do you have currently on the property?” White asks again. “How many six-bedrooms do you have? How many four-bedrooms do you plan on bringing back to the property? In the last plan, what was it? What about five-bedrooms? How many five-bedrooms were in the last plan?” 

The public witnesses became agitated and began heckling the government witnesses, while White fired back: “This is basic information. We should have, or somebody on our staff should have that coming to this hearing.” (A staffer brought these figures to Rodgers, who read them at a later point in the roundtable.)

White pressed the government witnesses on other community concerns that have long plagued discussions about the site’s redevelopment.

Onlookers become similarly upset during a line of questioning about the secured funding for Barry Farm. “Do we have the money for this project, and have we ever had the money?” Trayon White asks Rodgers, following it up with: “It’s a simple question.” 

Rodgers confirmed that the city has dedicated funding for the first phase of development, but said, “We’re talking about budgeting that’s eight to 10 years out. We can’t say definitively that the Council is going to dedicate money to us eight years from now.” 

The Council has since vacated for a two-month summer recess, though Bonds secured a commitment from Rodgers and Garrett that officials would provide bi-weekly updates “on conversations about the Barry Farm project, the relocation plan, financing, infrastructure, demolition … and any other aspects of planning as it related to Barry Farm.”

In the meantime, its remaining families prepare to move out of their homes.