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Lawyers and communists are helping clean up the Park Morton Housing Project. So why are residents divided over the efforts?

The smell of bug spray is unmistakable, and its pungency catches in the throats of the six people in Jane’s apartment in the Park Morton Housing Project. Despite the oppressive odor, cockroaches run through the apartment as if they owned the place, seemingly unfazed by the aerial assault.

Jane’s four children and her cat chase the vermin around. Jane calmly steps on any that get close enough to her foot, smearing them between the floor and her shoe to make sure they’re dead.

“This is not a proper fit for nobody to live,” she says, gazing at plaster falling from the walls.

Jane’s lived in the Park Morton Housing Project in Northwest for 12 years. And she’s complained about conditions in the complex for nearly that long. Rats have invaded along with roaches, and Jane says that the apartment would be overrun without her cat. Rusty pipes spew brown water when the faucets are turned on. In the winter, Jane uses her oven to heat the apartment.

Things aren’t much better outside, where an active drug trade holds sway. One loiterer ascends the staircase and stuffs a suspicious-looking plastic bag beneath the radiator. Another one counts out a handful of dollar bills to a skinny woman. They all talk and laugh loudly, and despite the fact that Park Morton houses a police substation, residents say that the dealers and assorted hangers-on are rarely troubled.

“We can’t get in our own apartments,” observes Jane. “We got to crawl over people. You shouldn’t have to live like that.”

Jane doesn’t want her real name in the paper, citing the possibility of retaliation from the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) and local dealers. But after years of complaints to DCHA went unheeded, she and other residents—urged on by the Communist Party of the District of Columbia—fought back against the agencies that oversee Park Morton’s squalor. In the spring of 2000, they filed an anonymous “John Doe” lawsuit against the DCHA, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in D.C. Superior Court, asking for $10 million in damages.

The residents’ legal crusade gained momentum when D.C. law firm Hogan & Hartson picked up the case on a pro bono basis in November 2000. They refiled the suit on Dec. 22, 2000, on behalf of the Park Morton Residents’ Council (PMRC) in U.S. District Court. Hogan & Hartson dropped Williams from the suit and scaled back the demands from a multi-million-dollar figure to basic improvements in living conditions at the complex. In spring 2001, HUD also was dropped from the lawsuit.

Park Morton residents, however, are divided about just what they’ll get out of any potential settlement with the DCHA. In fact, a split has developed between some of the residents who originally filed the suit and others who support the new approach taken by Hogan & Hartson.

PMRC President Marie Whitfield has taken a leading role in the suit’s refiling and the scaling back of its demands. She says that the residents were polled before Hogan & Hartson refiled the suit and that their complaints echoed those made by Jane. But Whitfield says that residents expressed an interest in better living conditions rather than the $10 million demanded in the original lawsuit.

“If they would have went for money, it would have dragged on, and we still wouldn’t have a wholesome place to live,” says Whitfield. “The residents that wanted money should have gone and got their own lawyer.”

Whitfield says that she has held meetings to keep people apprised of the developments in the case and has received few complaints.

Jane disagrees with the new approach. Safer, renovated housing is fine for those who’d like to stay at Park Morton, but she’d rather have cash to relocate to a bigger and better apartment and as compensation for her years of living in squalor. She believes that Whitfield and other residents have ignored the concerns of those who originally filed the lawsuit, asking for trivial improvements in the complex instead.

“[Whitfield’s] talking about tiles on the hallway floor,” says Jane. “What’s tiles going to do [with] how we living?

“Hogan & Hartson, they don’t listen to me—they listen to her,” Jane concludes. “If it wasn’t for me, she would have done nothing.”

Court documents filed earlier in the case on behalf of the plaintiffs reiterate Jane’s complaints of drug dealing and a state of general disrepair at Park Morton, alleging that “the Park Morton community has become a dangerous, drug infested place in which residents live in squalid conditions.” A DCHA brief filed in response is an almost blanket denial of responsibility by the agency for the conditions at Park Morton.

The case was sent to mediation early this summer in an effort to avoid a jury trial, and none of the parties to the case or their lawyers would comment on the status of those talks to the Washington City Paper. On Oct. 9, however, lawyers from Hogan & Hartson and the DCHA did appear in U.S. District Court to state that they had reached an agreement in principle but needed time to work out the details of the settlement.

One of the odder aspects of the case is the curious championing of the housing complex’s cause by the Communist Party of the District of Columbia.

Scott Johnson hasn’t spent much time at Park Morton since 1996, when he distributed the Communist Party newspaper, People’s Weekly World, at the complex. Johnson and other party members used to go to Park Morton about once a month. Even then, they witnessed people selling drugs or gambling with, as Johnson puts it, “fists full of dollars.” Some of these same people would threaten or harass the workers as they distributed the newspaper.

Johnson and his comrades stopped distributing the paper at Park Morton, but they did continue to trumpet the plight of the residents and their own cause, as well—issuing a steady stream of press releases and comments on the case. Johnson says that the group sympathizes with the people of Park Morton and that their case is illustrative of his party’s platform.

“All housing should be public housing,” Johnson says. “All housing should be affordable, safe, and secure.”

In a paper titled “On Solving the Illegal Drug Problem,” which Johnson calls the “philosophical background of the case,” an anonymous scribe wrote, “In combating the drug problem, Park Morton residents have called the police and participated in their tenants association. Some have also addressed the bigger picture in order to better combat illegal drugs. They subscribe to and read the communist newspaper, People’s Weekly World.”

Eventually, a sympathetic local lawyer, Toby Terrar, helped residents assemble the initial lawsuit. Terrar says that asking for a sum of money—as the first lawsuit did—was a way of ensuring that the DCHA would respond to concerns not only at Park Morton but also at other troubled public housing complexes around the city.

“The only way D.C. government does anything is through money,” Terrar says. “If they win a $10 million lawsuit, every housing project would be up to code.” Like Jane, Terrar says that he doesn’t believe that the end product of mediation will benefit residents in the long run.

Whitfield disagrees. She believes that the housing project has gotten safer and more livable in recent times and that it will only get better because the DCHA will have to go back before a judge.

“I’m almost certain that we’ll get the things we ask for,” Whitfield says. CP