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Do HUD’s rehab grants breathe new life into public housing or simply evict current residents?

When Leonardo Wood talks about the HOPE VI program, many of his fellow residents in the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg housing projects pay close attention. Wood argues that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s grants to local housing authorities for the rehabilitation of public housing amount to

eviction notices for him and his Southeast neighbors.

Along with several other concerned residents, Wood has circulated two petitions opposing a HOPE VI application by the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) to redevelop the Capper/Carrollsburg projects. Thus far, the petitions have attracted the signatures of 280 tenants.

HOPE VI grants invite opponents such as Wood because the accomplishment of the program’s primary aim—”revitalizing” distressed public housing—often means that residents are permanently displaced from their homes.

Wood’s fight against HOPE VI in Capper/Carrollsburg has been an energetic, door-to-door campaign. The application submitted by the DCHA is a voluminous document that was too costly to reproduce in full, so Wood copied portions and distributed them to residents personally. He says he feels “blessed” to be able to speak out against the program on behalf of his neighbors.

A July 24 town-hall meeting organized by Wood drew a number of the complex’s disabled and senior-citizen residents, as well as many of its families. Several speakers urged residents to organize and fight against the demolition and revitalization of their buildings.

“We are not here to cause controversy and confusion,” Wood said at the meeting. “We are here to give residents a clear understanding of their rights and options.”

The Capper/Carrollsburg projects are located on the edge of Capitol Hill, directly across from the Navy Yard. Formerly an area that boasted only Navy buildings, bus yards, and a few nightclubs, the neighborhood has become a magnet for new office buildings and promised mixed-use development.

The area’s burgeoning construction has placed Capper/Carrollsburg near the top of the District’s urban-revitalization list. “This property is wedged between a lot of municipal developments—the M Street corridor, the waterfront, and the southern tip of Capitol Hill,” says Arthur Jones, director of public affairs for the DCHA.

HUD and the DCHA aren’t the only proponents being fought by Wood and others who dispute the plans for Capper/Carrollsburg. A rift has emerged between opponents of the application and the three resident council presidents of each of the complex’s respective units: Mary Barrett (Capper Family), Sylvester Copeland (Capper Senior), and Yvonne Clarey (Carrollsburg).

In a June 22 letter to HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, all three council presidents declared their “wholehearted” support for the HOPE VI program. They added, “Despite what others might say, we can assure you that a majority of our residents support this HOPE VI application and the promise of revitalization.”

Wood says that the resident council leaders signed on to HOPE VI because of a “misunderstanding of what the program really means for residents.” He argues that the DCHA has been able to “divide and conquer” the complex’s residents and their leaders, but he holds out hope that the wave of tenant opposition that he has created will cause the three presidents to reconsider

their support.

At least one resident council president shows no signs of doing so. “I don’t really know too much about [HOPE VI], but I support it,” says Barrett. “There are some problems with it, but they can be worked out.”

The HOPE VI program has created controversy because of differing views on exactly what kind of revitalization it achieves in public housing.

The program was created based on recommendations made by the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing early last decade. The commission proposed a plan to eradicate severely distressed public housing and released it—ironically enough—at Capper/Carrollsburg in May 1992. The commission’s plan advocated public-housing revitalization in three general areas: physical improvements, management improvements, and social and community services to address residents’ needs. HOPE VI—then known as the Urban Revitalization Demonstration—was created by HUD and initially funded in 1993.

The plan stressed the importance of resident consultation and assistance throughout the revitalization process, but HUD changed the direction of the HOPE VI program in 1995, favoring demolition over rehabilitation and rebuilding projects. Congress also removed the provision requiring a 1-to-1 replacement ratio for displaced residents and allowed the low-income housing to be replaced by mixed-income units. Local housing authorities were also urged to seek out developers from the private sector.

Since the program’s inception, HUD has awarded HOPE VI grants to 130 housing authorities in 34 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The average yearly HOPE VI appropriation has totaled $500 million—approximately $4.5 billion total over the nine years of the program’s existence. According to HUD, almost 97,000 severely distressed public-housing units were demolished from 1993 through 2000, with a total of only 61,000 revitalized dwellings having replaced them. The Bush administration requested $550 million for the HOPE VI program in its 2002 budget.

For its part, the DCHA does not see its HOPE VI projects as confirmation of the fears voiced by Wood and other critics.

“Most of the concerns and allegations surrounding HOPE VI are a result of misinformation,” says Jones. “People aren’t being moved out and made homeless.”

The HOPE VI track record in the District, however, is decidedly mixed. Four previous HOPE VI grants applied for by the DCHA have been approved by HUD. The Ellen Wilson Homes (now the “Townhouses on Capitol Hill”) and Valley Green/Skytower Apartments (now “Wheeler Creek”) were the first two revitalizations.

“In these cases, the issue of moving folks out and bringing them back was moot, because they were largely vacant,” observes Jones. He points out that the Ellen Wilson Homes were vacant for eight years prior to their HOPE VI makeover and that the eight families who lived in the mostly vacant Valley Green/Skytower Apartments all reside in the new Wheeler Creek development.

The two other HOPE VI projects in the District—the Frederick Douglass/Stanton Dwellings and the East Capitol Dwellings (formerly the city’s largest public-housing development)—have posed a more complicated dilemma. Jones admits that both developments involve the “careful and meticulous relocation” of residents. In the case of Douglass/Stanton, Jones says that the DCHA has kept track of where each former resident has been relocated, and the agency is already providing classes to displaced residents who want to become homeowners.

“We keep track of people. We give them Section 8 vouchers,” he says. “It’s not a case of ‘Get out. Here come the bulldozers.’”

Wood takes the opposite view, saying that the HOPE VI displacements at Douglass/Stanton were precisely what led him to oppose the Capper/Carrollsburg proposal. “I became aware of HOPE VI as a resident of Frederick Douglass. My mother lived in Ellen Wilson, and I’ve also seen family members in Stanton Dwellings and Stoddard Terrace deal with HOPE VI displacement. I’ve seen HOPE VI break up a lot of close-knit families.”

Carl Messineo, a lawyer with the Center for Community Change’s Partnership for Equal Justice, argues that the 1-to-1 ratio provisions cited by Jones are misleading. “Current residents make, on average, $8,000 a year,” observes Messineo. “It is not truly 1-to-1 housing unless current residents can afford to move back. They are taking 100 percent low-income housing and replacing it with retail space and market-rate units.”

The DCHA’s HOPE VI application for Capper/Carrollsburg reveals that the number of senior/disabled on-site units will be reduced from 297 to 200. Low-income-family units will drop from 410 to 190. Current residents will be relocated until the development is completed, and families that are ultimately displaced by the HOPE VI revitalization will be transferred to a vacant DCHA unit or receive a Section 8 voucher. (The current waiting list for a DCHA unit is 11,097 residents, and the Section 8 waiting list stands at 16,434 residents.)

“Does the city actually want to reduce its number of low-income-housing units?” wonders Messineo.

Consultant Wayne Sherwood believes that housing-authority officials have their hands tied by HOPE VI. Sherwood was the research director for the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, one of the three largest national public-housing lobbies, from 1981 to 1995, and he observes that “the only housing authorities who get this money are the ones who agree to HUD’s terms.” Sherwood believes that even housing authorities that want to rehabilitate existing public housing are forced to fall in line with HUD’s vision for such complexes. “If HUD has $500 million each year in discretionary grants,” he says, “you have to be nice to HUD.”

Even the public-information period for the Capper/Carrollsburg HOPE VI application has become a dogfight. HUD requires a yearlong period of community consultation as a condition of any application, but Wood argues that residents have not been adequately informed.

“We feel that the housing authority didn’t give residents an understanding of what HOPE VI really means for us,” says Wood, who also argues that the yearlong process has been truncated. “It’s almost like they said, ‘They won’t understand it in a year, so

we’ll just push it through in three months.’ They have capitalized on residents’ lack of understanding.”

Jones thinks that DCHA has met the public-information provision. “HUD requires community support,” says Jones. “An application couldn’t survive the HUD threshold without that support. It’s there.”

The Capper/Carrollsburg application will be decided upon in the next 60 days. Jones remains confident that the application will be approved, but the application’s opponents are not giving up. Several HOPE VI applications in other parts of the country have been approved but not implemented, because of lawsuits filed by residents.

“The city thought that no one would speak out, and they have been taken aback by our stand,” says Wood. “It is time to take this process out of the hands of politicians and city officials and put it back where it belongs—in the hands of the people.” CP