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At another time in D.C.’s political history, Edith Boyer’s problems might have been solved with a phone call.
In November, the apartment the 86-year-old rents in Thomas Circle’s Town Terrace West was sold to a new owner who planned to convert it into a condominium. Boyer, who qualifies for publicly subsidized housing, asked the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) to place her in the James Apartments, a subsidized building for seniors right across N Street NW from her current residence. She had lived near Thomas Circle for 40 years and did not want to leave. But Boyer wasn’t at the top of the waiting list for an apartment in the building, so the DCHA made a counteroffer: an apartment in the DCHA’s Capitol Gateway Estates building, at 58th and Blaine Streets NE, or another at Edgewood Terrace, at 6th and Edgewood Streets NE. Boyer declined both.
The manager of the Town Terrace West, Charlene Hodges, called a number of D.C. government agencies requesting that they pull strings to get Boyer into the James. She reached Carolyn Long, a longtime constituent-services staffer in the office of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. Long was sympathetic to Boyer; she had taken in her aging aunt for the last four years of her life. “I don’t usually take stuff like this home, take it on a personal level,” she says, “but this is different.”
These days, Boyer isn’t as prominent around Thomas Circle as she once was. She retired from nursing work a decade ago, and many of the friends she made during her four decades in the neighborhood have passed away. She’s still recuperating from a small heart attack a few months ago, so she hasn’t been going to church much. Watching Law & Order, Dr. Phil, and The Young and the Restless takes up a lot of her time, though she usually leaves her apartment a couple of times a day to pick up a meal from the carryout, go to the bank, or just to sit in an armchair in the lobby.
“Hi, honey,” she calls out to a girl running toward the elevator ahead of her mother one day. She might not know all her neighbors’ names, but everyone greets her back.
While Boyer would prefer to stay in her current apartment, she could handle a move to the James, both she and her friends say. She has friends who live there, and nearly everyone she knows is within a few blocks. Her church, the National City Christian Church, is right around the corner. And despite poor eyesight, she knows the neighborhood well enough to navigate it comfortably. A move across town, Boyer says, would mean the end of her independence.
“She’s familiar to the drug stores, the grocery stores, the reasonably priced restaurants,” says Chuck Barrick, the owner of a locksmith shop where Boyer used to come to chat and exchange small gifts on the holidays. “To uproot her, at this stage in her life—it would devastate her.”
Hodges says the outcome might be even worse: “She really doesn’t have any type of family at all but her church members and the people who work in the building….If they take her out of this neighborhood, she’s not going to live long.”
Without a destination in mind, Boyer has been preparing to leave since April. She won’t let a visitor see the mess in her apartment but claims to have already packed the “odds and ends” into boxes in preparation for a move. “After 21 years [in this apartment], I’d started thinking I was settled,” she says. Worrying about where she’d live, she says, “put me in the hospital. I know it.”
Long and Schannette Grant, Evans’ deputy chief of staff, brought the problem to the councilmember’s attention. He, in turn, discussed the situation with DCHA Director Michael Kelly on at least three occasions this spring.
Evans was not the only influential figure Boyer had looking out for her. Encouraged by a battery of advocates from her church, her building, and the neighborhood at large, an impressive array of government agencies and public figures started picking up phones to ask the DCHA why it couldn’t get Boyer across the street. According to the housing authority, a partial list of those who have recently enquired about Boyer’s future includes the District’s Council on Aging, mayoral Chief of Staff Alfreda Davis, the office of a high-ranking official in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, WRC-TV’s Tom Sherwood, and two reporters from the Washington Post.
Adrianne Todman, the deputy chief of staff of the DCHA, says the agency responded to all requests on Boyer’s behalf with an explanation of the rules for its waiting list and a polite no. Because DCHA housing is in short supply, she says, “I spend a good portion of my day talking to people who have equal or far greater needs. There are mothers with three children living on the street, and I have to say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t help you.’”
That’s not how interagency politics used to work, says Long. “I remember when [former Mayor Marion S.] Barry called…they would jump over their desks to make sure it happened,” she says. “There used to be a certain type of respect for institutional politics. There is none now.”
Should the housing authority not have a change of heart, all parties involved in the sale of Boyer’s apartment say they’ll do what’s necessary to keep her in the neighborhood. Last week, the seller and buyer of Boyer’s unit agreed to push off closing the sale until mid-September, according to Yigal Rappaport, a real-estate broker involved in the deal. Should Boyer need more time than the buyer can afford to give, Rappaport says, he’s made an offer to buy the property himself and let Boyer continue under the terms of her current lease. “The way I see it, it could be anybody’s mother,” he says. “There’s enough money going toward real estate right now for some of it, time to time, to go toward something nice.”
Could the DCHA have solved Boyer’s problem with a little more flexibility? Not without returning to some bad habits, Todman says: “There was a reason this housing authority went into receivership. It was a troubled agency due to some political reasons and some mismanagement….It is a different housing authority. And that has been positively acknowledged by almost everyone who knew what the old housing authority was like.”
It might have been good politics for the DCHA to finagle Boyer an apartment in the James, Todman says, but the agency had no choice but to refuse on the grounds of precedent and principle. “There are 50,000 households on the housing authority’s waiting list. If you do for one, you have to do for the other 49,000,” she says. “If going to [public officials and] the press guaranteed access to housing, what’s the point of having our rules?”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Pilar Vergara.