Get our free newsletter

As another D.C. housing project faces the city’s wrecking ball, residents feel like consulting a Magic 8 Ball.

Louise Maxfield and Deborah Lewis have lived side by side in East Capitol Dwellings, the city’s largest public housing development, for close to 17 years. And for most of that time, they have voiced similar complaints about their living conditions at the project, which stretches between the 5700 and 5900 blocks of East Capitol Street SE.

Lewis says she has a hard time keeping her kids away from the violence. Maxfield complains that the neighborhood is steeped in drugs. Both have spent years feeling fed up with the D.C. Housing Authority’s (DCHA) failure to make repairs to their homes. Maxfield, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, says it’s always been this way. “Nothing’s changed since 1968,” she says.

At this point, you’d think Maxfield and Lewis would agree about pretty much any scheme to radically change the place. And they might, if not for one pesky detail: In several months, Maxfield and Lewis, along with everyone else occupying the project’s 577 units, will be forced to pack up and move out. If that’s not something to test your faith in fix-it schemes, then nothing is.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded the DCHA a $30.8 million HOPE VI grant to demolish three public housing developments—East Capitol Dwellings, Capitol View Plaza, and Capitol View Townhomes—as well as Capitol View Plaza II, a private building that has been foreclosed by the Federal Housing Authority.

With the help of private developers, the DCHA plans to replace the buildings with a mixed-income residential community of rental and owner-occupied housing. It also plans to designate a commercial site consisting of office space, a grocery store, a bank, and other retail outlets. According to housing authority plans, locals like Maxfield and Lewis are supposed to find other public or Section 8 housing until the new developments are finished by the end of 2005.

But even after they make peace with a temporary relocation, residents who do the math may find themselves a little dubious about their long-term future: A total of 1,107 units are coming down, 92 units are being rehabbed, and only 555 new units are going up. Of those, the vast majority will be affordable and market-rate units for rent and sale. Only 196 will be public housing rental units—almost half of them reserved for senior citizens.

According to Larry Dwyer, the DCHA’s HOPE VI redevelopment coordinator, just 250 of the 750 residents of units scheduled for demolition will be able to return to what will be called New East Capitol. “We’re forecasting that, in addition to moving into public housing rental units, some families will be able to move into the tax-credit rental units,” he says. The remaining families will be given the option to move to other public housing or take Section 8 vouchers into the private market.

The city says it’s not just pushing folks onto the street willy-nilly. Architects of the plan say all residents will take part in “family self-sufficiency” programs, designed to increase income and job opportunities. Each family will be assigned a case manager, who will help family members locate day care, literacy and education programs, substance-abuse treatment, and other support services. The program administrators will also work with the private contractor assigned to help relocate the families.

Such services are supposed to be an integral part of HOPE VI overhauls. But delivery has been rocky. And at East Capitol Dwellings, the jury is still very much out.

“They’re not building this for us,” says Maxfield. “They could use the money to fix the places up, not tear them down. They’re just kicking us out because they want the property to build a Giant and a mall and housing for other people. Not us.”

On this subject, Maxfield and her neighbor disagree. “I want my kids to live in a better environment,” says Lewis. “It won’t get any better around here until they tear it down.”

To understand why major redevelopment schemes divide people like Maxfield and Lewis, it helps to look back at a half-century of D.C. housing history. In the ’50s, much of Southwest Washington—then among the city’s poorest, toughest sectors—was razed in order to build a future world of racially and economically integrated housing. The urban renewal plan, city leaders declared, would be a model for the rest of the country.

The new Southwest, though, had space for only a fraction of the people involuntarily displaced from the old neighborhood. For many of those residents—heavily poor and African-American—the temporary relocation, across the Anacostia River, became a permanent exile. Urban renewal of the old Southwest helped create many of the pockets of poverty in today’s Southeast.

Fifty years later, HOPE VI is the government’s latest next best thing. It began in 1993, after the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing labeled 6 percent of America’s public housing—nearly 86,000 units—”severely distressed,” meaning plagued by chronic poverty, crime, and mismanagement. HOPE VI funds the demolition of uninhabitable projects and the construction of revitalized housing.

“Even if they were to be well-managed, warehousing people in camps for the poor is not an ideal environment,” says Arthur Jones, a spokesperson for DCHA receiver David I. Gilmore. “HOPE VI provides a mixed community that accurately reflects society. Poor people will be able to live in a quality environment and see two-parent families and decent schools.”

For all the social planning built into the scheme, authorities this time around have at least tried to work with some of the folks whose lives are part of their new-world blueprint. The residents council at East Capitol Dwellings gave its blessing to the plan, as did many residents who attended regular meetings over the past year. To hear proponents tell it, a veritable social-welfare state of services will be made available to former residents who want them.

But even the boosters aren’t pretending that the scheme won’t have any costs. “I estimate that 25 percent of the residents will be able to return,” says Curtis Watkins, president of East Capitol Center for Change, which operates programs for neighborhood youth. “They’re really going to benefit from this. They’re going to become homeowners and have opportunities to increase their income. But the vast majority of people don’t know what’s going on and haven’t participated.”

And the potential benefits come with some very real current frustration. The program has struggled with the myriad small chores that are necessary to pull off a big demolition without leaving people out in the cold.

Last August, for instance, the DCHA received a $29 million HOPE VI grant to revitalize the Frederick Douglass and Stanton Dwellings housing developments. Since then, Frederick Douglass, which consists of 300 units, has been cleared out and will soon be demolished. Yet plans to begin a self-sufficiency program for former residents have been creeping along in fits and starts. And those residents have had difficulties locating new places to live and paying to move.

“HOPE VI has been a total bust here,” says Clarice Dudley, a former resident of Frederick Douglass, who currently lives in public housing in the Barry Farms neighborhood. “There’s no lists of available public housing or real places to go that accept Section 8.”

In fact, the city ranks fourth on the National Low-Income Housing Coalition’s ranking of places where residents have to spend the greatest portion of their income on housing. There are currently 8,000 names on the DCHA’s public housing waiting list and 12,786 on the Section 8 waiting list. And as the economy booms, plenty of landlords are opting out of the subsidized-housing program altogether.

Dudley and others claim that they have been cheated out of the relocation money they were supposed to receive. The DCHA had hired MTB, a private contractor from Texas, to relocate the residents. According to federal law, those residents being relocated from units with three rooms of furniture should be paid $550, those living in units with four rooms of furniture should be paid $650, and those with up to seven rooms of furniture should be paid $950. Dudley, who lived in a unit with four rooms, was paid $300 by MTB. She says that all the residents living in two to six rooms were being paid between $300 and $550. When she appealed to DCHA, its Office of Fair Housing found that she had been underpaid and sent her a compensation check for $255.

“It was found that she was undercompensated,” says Dwyer. “We’re looking into the rest of the cases and urging residents to come forward with complaints. After looking at some of the records, it appears that there were more errors than just one.”

Dudley cites the mix-up as yet another thing the agency has botched as it has rushed to process its HOPE VI grants. “We don’t have any lawyers,” she says. “We can’t get nobody to fight the battle for us. Everybody’s sold out or bought out.”

“The people who are being pushed into Section 8 are not prepared, and the self-sufficiency program is not up and running,” says Brenda Graham, the president of Frederick Douglass’ residents council, who initially supported the plan. “Stumbling blocks have been thrown in our way. We don’t have office space or materials. They haven’t given us technical assistance. At the rate they’re going, we’re going to be worse off than we were living in the dilapidated old buildings.”

So far, though, enough people seem willing to bear the painful parts of progress for HOPE VI to remain something politicians rally ’round. “It brings more than just hope,” Mayor Anthony A. Williams said in a prepared statement when the East Capitol grant was first announced, on Aug. 4. “It brings the reality of new homeownership opportunities, new jobs, and a new future to the people of the community.”

“The bottom line is that change hurts,” says Angela London, an advisory neighborhood commissioner whose district includes much of East Capitol Dwellings. “But sometimes you have to bite the bullet in the short term to reap the benefits in the long run.”

That’s just the kind of argument that leaves old-timers doubtful. “D.C. was the origin of urban renewal,” says Dudley. “We were the original guinea pig. They moved everyone out of Southwest in the 1950s, then scuttled the plan. Where HUD got ‘revitalization’ from, I don’t know. It’s like all urban renewals—nothing but displacing people and instituting the rich. There will never be an urban renewal where everyone can be accommodated.” CP