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Until she receives official identification from the D.C. Housing Authority, Charlotte Butler is No. 161.
The number identifies her as a resident of Barry Farm. She received the ID on May 29, the day the D.C. Housing Authority officials inspected her home in the 432-unit complex in Southeast for needed repairs. They gave her the temporary card and told her to get her picture taken at the recreation center. Butler, who has been a public housing resident for two years, never before had to have an official card identifying her as such.
Her middle son, 19, also got a card. Her oldest son, who’s 21, left for a job interview that day. Butler says she doesn’t plan to press him into going through the motions.
“He has a District of Columbia ID,” she says—a driver’s license—and added: “I really don’t know what they were thinking about.”
DCHA spokesperson Dena Michaelson says the agency’s guards and officers will use the IDs to monitor who’s on the property, especially if there’s an incident on site. In an e-mail she writes: “The benefits are for the residents, particularly those who don’t have driver’s licenses.”
Some two months later, Butler, who has a D.C. driver’s license, still hasn’t received her formal DCHA card, and she hasn’t once witnessed officers asking to see temporary IDs. Yes, Barry Farm needs greater security, she believes. But these identification cards amount to another strange and useless attempt at control, she says.
“What was the purpose of having those IDs, and then they’re not doing anything about it?” she asks.
The ID program isn’t confined to Barry Farm, says Michaelson. Starting in September 2006, the housing authority began coordinating special one-day inspections. Residents, who are supposed to be present for the walk-through, are also told about the IDs. The agency also invites representatives from several city agencies to speak about their services.
“It gives us a good feel for how much work needs to be done within a property,” Michaelson says about the inspections. It also give DCHA reps a feel for who is living in the units and who should be living there, according to residents’ leases. “It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck moment,” she says.
Only a handful of properties, including Park Morton and LeDroit Apartments in addition to Barry Farm, have actually gone through the inspection/ID program, says Michaelson. The properties are picked on a need basis: If they have a sizable amount of maintenance problems and crime concerns, she says, they go on the list, adding that the program requires a lot of resources and probably won’t hit every public housing site in the city.
On inspection day, according to residents of Barry Farm, people in red shirts walked through their homes. For 15 to 30 minutes, they took notes about missing doors and doorknobs, leaks in the ceilings, creeping mold, tiles that are loose and cracked—the usual litany of dilapidation.
Housing authority officers milled about, as well. Some entered the units; Butler says one stood outside her door during the inspection but never came inside.
After tenants signed off on a sheet noting problems, they were told repairs would be made soon. DCHA officials then instructed residents to get their picture taken as part of the new ID program.
Michaelson says the IDs will be distributed at the Barry Farm recreation center on Aug. 11. As for the repairs, DCHA has a 21-day average response time, she says, but comprehensive inspections tend to create more work . In that case, the wait “might be 30 work days,” she says. Any problems deemed dangerous or life-threatening—like a hanging wire—should be fixed within a day.
That doesn’t seem to be the case in Cheryl Marshall’s unit on Eaton Road SE. There are large holes in the kitchen and the bathroom ceilings where plaster, drywall, and, according to another resident, a lot of bugs have fallen through. Light fixtures are completely rusted.
Marshall says three inspectors spent about 30 minutes there during the May 29 inspection. They didn’t fix anything that day, and no one from DCHA has returned since.
“I didn’t hear anything else,” she says. “We just got our little cards,” she says, later adding the cards don’t really bother her.
“The reason I think they’re doing it is because of [the violence and police checkpoints in] Trinidad,” says Ereka Fields, 16, sitting with her friend Nicole Redd, 16, on a step outside one of the complex’s many drab brown houses.
Both girls agree that Barry Farm has calmed down relative to its past violence. “You probably heard a few gunshots this summer,” says Fields, but in general “everything has been fun. It’s been very chill.”
“Southeast is so hyped-up,” Redd says, adding: “There should be security, but not that much, because people will feel that people are invading their privacy and they can’t do the things they want to do if the police is out all on their back.”
Johnny Barnes had a similar thought. Barnes is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, National Capital Area office. After receiving a tip from a resident, he decided to attend two community meetings about the inspections and the ID cards.
“It struck me that this was another example of the government placing expediency—in their view of the rule of law—above the rights of residents,” he says.
Barnes says he wasn’t aware the program existed at projects besides Barry Farm until asked about it by the Washington City Paper. To him, the program sounds like one more manifestation of a creeping surveillance culture in D.C.—not unlike the Trinidad checkpoints and the Safe Homes Initiative, a proposed plan that would allow police to go
door-to-door asking residents for permission to search their homes for weapons. He’s still sussing out the program, speaking to residents, listening to their concerns, and trying to learn more about the IDs. A lawsuit is neither on nor off the table, he says. First, he has just a few questions:
“What’s going to be in the database of these cards?…Who will have access to that information? What other information will be embedded in the card? Will persons outside of the government have access to the information? Will persons be required to provide their Social Security numbers?”
Residents in Barry Farm wonder about police involvement. In an e-mail, Michaelson writes that the D.C. Police Department “had nothing to do with the ID program.” I.D. Systems, Inc., a private firm, was contracted to make the temporary IDs and follow up with permanent cards. Later on, she writes: “Our housing officers are not collecting data or making background checks.”
Still, it’s easy to see why people might be confused.
On the morning of the inspections, Charlotte Butler left her home at 8:30 to walk her son Malik, 7, to Birney Elementary School.
She expected a very bureaucratic day where she’d hang around for hours, waiting for a few officials to weave their way to her door. Yet outside, it seemed something more dramatic was brewing.
Along with DCHA officials and other government workers, Butler encountered cops—both from the D.C. Police Department and the housing authority—in bulletproof vests. By Sumner Road, she saw officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as some cops with dogs, she says.
“We had to walk through all of that.…My son said, ‘Mommy, what’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘It’s supposed to be an inspection,’” Butler says.“It just threw me. I was, like, why in the world are they coming like this?”