Alice Stewart doesn’t remember the former Ellen Wilson Dwellings as the hellhole people often describe. She moved to the Capitol Hill public housing complex in the late ’70s with her young grandson, after severe asthma forced her to quit her job as a live-in housekeeper at a home in Northwest Washington. At the time, Wilson was a fully occupied project where hundreds of people lived in a handful of buildings that spread like brown Legos across the southern edge of Capitol Hill.
For a time, the story rolls out like so many flickering, nostalgic images in an old feel-good movie, when things were simple, good, true. Stewart kept her row house at 763 7th St. SE spotless. Her neatness spilled outdoors, where she planted grass and flowers in the courtyard out front. The white picket fence came from a local five-and-dime, lining her world in domesticity. It didn’t take long before housing honchos took notice of her tidiness. “I wasn’t there for more than a month before I got a certificate for being a good housekeeper,” says Stewart. She still has the slip of paper she received from public housing officials more than 20 years ago.
The intervening decades have made the images even sweeter. Summers at Ellen Wilson meant cookouts and card games, Stewart recalls. She and her neighbors sipped iced tea on their stoops in the evenings when the heat inside was too stifling.
The plot, however, got complicated in the mid-’80sthe warm summer on Stewart’s front porch inevitably gave way to an autumn of decay. The apartment buildings on the other side of the property started to crumble. Crime moved in to stay. Stewart says that she, her grandson, and the others in her horseshoe of row houses began to keep to themselves. Public housing officials finally decided to shut the place down in 1988. She still thinks it was a misguided decision.
“There was nothing wrong with those houses,” says Stewart, a wiry 65-year-old whose voice still has a squeal of youth. “But they moved us out anyway.”
Stewart and her grandson were one of 129 families who vacated the Ellen Wilson Dwellings that year, according to D.C. Housing Authority figures. Most were placed in other public housing complexes or given vouchers to find apartments elsewhere in town. Stewart and her grandson moved around to a couple of complexes before finally settling into a two-bedroom unit in Highland Dwellings, a public housing complex east of the Anacostia River.
Their diaspora was all in the name of progress. At the time Ellen Wilson was evacuated, the housing authoritythen called the Department of Public and Assisted Housing (DPAH)planned to rehabilitate the dilapidated buildings and bring the tenants back. But the housing authority itself fell into disrepair, and the bold plans for re-making Ellen Wilson were lost in all the chaos.
A 1992 lawsuit filed on behalf of poor families on the District’s waiting list for public housing prompted the D.C. Superior Court to appoint a special master to review the agency. The 1994 report deemed the agency “deplorable,” citing scores of public housing units vacant, rents uncollected, and nonexistent inspections and maintenance work. Public housing advocates cheered in 1995, when the housing authority was finally placed into federal receivership.
But while city officials turned their attention to reviving the agency, Ellen Wilson tumbled into a long, icy winter. The block darkened. Buildings flaked away under harsh weather. Crackheads, squatters, and several thousand of the city’s rats moved in as the only occupants of Stewart’s former block.
It didn’t take long for Capitol Hill residents to tire of the scarecrow version of Ellen Wilson. And they didn’t wait for deliverance from above. In the early 1990s, about a dozen of those neighbors formed a partnership called the Ellen Wilson Community Development Corporation (CDC), teaming up with local architect Amy Weinstein, Georgetown-based developer Telesis Corp., and Corcoran Jennison Cos., a real estate group out of Boston. With a $25 million grant from a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program known as HOPE VIan acronym that stands for Homeownership Opportunities for People Everywherethe group set out to build the city’s first mixed-income housing cooperative, renaming it Townhomes on Capitol Hill.
Scheduled for completion this summer, the new development is an accomplishment by many accounts: It’s a successful product of a grass-roots effort, an architectural masterpiece, and certainly an improvement over the wasteland it replaces. In the celluloid story, it’s the happy endingspring is back on Stewart’s block.
The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t end with the revived blooms of springtime. The new Townhomes project may be a modern-day Utopia, but most of the poor families that used to live in the old Ellen Wilson will never set foot there. Of 134 total units in the new development, only 33 of those are reserved for the lowest-income families who make up the majority of public housing tenants. That’s not nearly enough to house the 129 families who used to live in Ellen Wilson. Organizers say former Ellen Wilson residents were given first priority to move into the new development, but after 10 years, they could locate fewer than half of the previous tenants.
But chances of getting into the Townhomes project weren’t much better even for the former residents still in the housing authority’s Rolodex. Informational meetings dragged on for months. The application rigamarole could be just as long, with a stringent screening process that included a credit check, a look at criminal records, and a home visit. Folks who wanted to move into the new place also had to fork over a considerable down paymentor “share price,” as it’s called in co-op lingowhich could amount to as much as triple a month’s rent.
In the end, only 11 families who used to live in Ellen Wilson will move into the new development.
Alice Stewart isn’t one of those 11. With a monthly Social Security income of $500, Stewart says she couldn’t come up with the cash for a down payment on a one-bedroom unit$339. “They told us we’d be the first to move back, but they didn’t tell us we’d have to pay all this money up front,” she says. “It looks like we’re not going to get back there now.”
This isn’t the first time the plot of land once occupied by the former Ellen Wilson Dwellings has served as a stomping ground for reformers………………….
The block of land where Ellen Wilson used to stand was called Navy Place in the late 1800s, home to middle-class families who wanted to live close to the booming Navy Yard. They built houses in neat rows and stables for their horses, bringing to Capitol Hill the first wave of the white middle-class population that would dominate the area in the decades to follow.
But a hidden community was tucked away in the shadow of middle-class families’ homes at Navy Place. In the side streets and alleyways behind those structures, poorusually blackresidents raised their families in makeshift houses known as alley dwellings. The buildings lacked plumbing and security, and were seen as a breeding ground for crime and disease by the outside community. James Borchert’s Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, & Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 tells another story of life in the alleys. He describes the settlements as coherent and textured communities, where close-knit families clung together however they could.
But when high-profile personages like then-First Lady Ellen Wilson looked in on the alley dwellings in 1914, they saw only urban pathology. According to a historical study compiled by EHT Traceries Inc., a Chevy Chase, Md.-based research company, Wilson’s deathbed request to pass legislation abolishing alley dwellings is credited with bringing the first flock of do-gooders to the block of land. They got started by starting over.
In the late ’30s, the Alley Dwelling Authority tore down the alley dwellings and replaced the structures with 18 buildings for low-income renters, naming them after the former first lady. But the replacement buildings were for whites only; the black families who had lived on the block previously were not welcome. They were told to move into one of the few public housing structures being built for African-Americans in the city or find their own housing, according to the Traceries study. For those black families that had lived in the alley dwellings, their role in housing reform and improvement of the Capitol Hill neighborhood was a simple one: Their job was to disappear.
At the time they were built, the new Ellen Wilson structuresdesigned by Arthur B. Heaton, who created some of Cleveland Park’s fancier houseswere lauded as spacious, garden-style apartments. A 1940 Evening Star article called them “modern, sanitary homes for white families in the lowest income groups.”
Black families finally gained access to Ellen Wilson in the 1950s, after a series of Supreme Court decisions prompted District officials to integrate public facilities.
As the ’50s turned into the ’60s, the histories of the Ellen Wilson project and the neighborhood around it diverged drastically. Starting in the ’60s, Capitol Hill saw an influx of middle-class white families looking for the shells of historic old homes they could renovate and make their own. Many bought the houses of black families in the area and then poured money into renovations and upkeep.
Meanwhile, maintenance dropped off at Ellen Wilson, which was becoming increasingly populated by African-American families. In the early ’70s, the city demolished five buildings of the complex to make room for the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, which charged right through one corner of the block, according to the Traceries study. The highway brought in dirt and noise, while creating at Ellen Wilson’s southern edge the kind of dead-end no-man’s-land that attracts crime. Oversight and maintenance of the structures dropped off in the ’70s as the housing authority became increasingly troubled.
Stewart’s rose-colored memories notwithstanding, the deck was already stacked against Ellen Wilson by the time she moved in. And after Stewart and her neighbors left the complex, the history got even uglier.
Jim Simpson moved into a row house on 6th Street SE, right next to the Ellen Wilson property, in 1988, right about the time it was vacated. Drug dealers and prostitutes soon replaced the other tenants, says Simpson. Aside from the crime, he recalls seeing whole parts of the buildings go by in some looter’s stolen shopping cartfirst the aluminum windows, then plumbing, then copper wire. “It got to the point where it looked like Beirut after the bombings,” says Simpson.
A band of squatters moved in to call the place home, staying so long that they started to claim occupancy, says Simpson. He’s known in the neighborhood as “Landslide Simpson” for his 1992 close-call race for advisory neighborhood commissioner against Richard Wesley, a homeless man who had been squatting in the abandoned Ellen Wilson project for several months.
Wesley wasn’t the only squatter to cause a fuss in the neighborhood. In the fall of 1992, several dozen squatters and local veterans staged a five-day protest on the Ellen Wilson property, urging authorities to turn the buildings over to them for their own renovation and use. “We called it a siege,” says Simpson. “We had helicopters flying overhead for 24 hours. It turned into a circus.”
The protest peaked when Cecil Byrd, executive director of the National Association of Concerned Veterans and an organizer of the standoff, stood on a six-story smokestack for several hours, descending only after authorities promised to meet with his group. In a Washington Post article at the time, Byrd was quoted as saying: “It was beautiful up there….You could see the entire city. But if you looked down closer to here, you could see all the trash and all the rats. This is the capital of our nation, and something needs to be done.”
That’s the kind of rhetoric that brought the do-gooders back to Ellen Wilson. Again, they got started by starting over. The buildings would be torn down and paradise would be erected in its place, but only a few of the displaced would return.
Moving to Capitol Hill is like moving to an incredibly small country whose national values include loyalty, self-sufficiency, and multiculturalism. And woe to those who would get in the way. Depending on the day, the enemy may be a local con artist or dirty streets or too few after-school activities for children. It’s an elusive, shape-changing beast, but in the Capitol Hill mind, the enemy is always lurking, threatening the stability of the tightknit community. As a neighbor, you’re expected to suit up for battleor find somewhere else to live. “[Y]ou didn’t move to Capitol Hill. You joined,” wrote Sam Smith in his 1974 book, Captive Capital: Colonial Life in Modern Washington.
In the ’60s, for instance, when the National Park Service threatened to down several trees to make way for a new grid of sidewalks in Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park, neighbors flocked to the rescue, threatening to form human chains around the beloved trees. The Park Service finally backed down, building boxes around the trees at irregular spots in the park’s walkways. “Capitol Hill refused to accept the notion that the city was dying. It fought for better schools, more recreation space, more frequent trash pickups, and an end to the discrimination in the delivery of public services,” Smith wrote.
In the ’90s, trigger-happy Capitol Hill activists set their sights on the abandoned, crime-ridden Ellen Wilson buildings. “In this community, we’ve always prided ourselves on dealing with our own issues and being proactive, so that’s what we decided to do,” says Richard Wolf, a retired NASA attorney who’s lived on Capitol Hill since 1964.
Long involved in neighborhood politics, Wolf was among the first to start making phone calls and rallying neighbors around the Ellen Wilson issue in 1990. The group started meeting informally, often at the nearby Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, says David Perry, another early organizer. Early on, the group hired consultants and other housing specialists to offer advice, their fees paid out of the pockets of neighbors in the group and a $10,000 grant from a neighborhood supporter. Informal meetings soon led to the formation of the Ellen Wilson CDC and the partnership with Weinstein, Telesis, and Corcoran Jennison.
The CDC couldn’t persuade the cash-strapped D.C. housing authority to pony up the dough for its proposal, so it went to HUD instead. Its plan: A “limited equity cooperative,” where residents would buy a share of the development and pay a monthly fee. Higher-income families would pay a greater share of the overall cost, subsidizing lower-income families and, it was hoped, eliminating the need for ongoing funding. The new development would also provide residents with a community center and support services such as job training and computer classes. Another 13 to 20 market-rate houses would be built on the site, financed by private funds.
The plans delighted HUD leaders, who granted the group a hefty amount through HOPE VI. But there was a catch. Because D.C.’s was on HUD’s list of troubled housing authorities, the local agency could own the land but could have nothing to do with management of the development. So the CDC appointed Hyattsville, Md.-based McHenry/TAG Inc.a property-management firm formed specifically for this projectas “alternate administrator” to oversee the development and do the job the housing authority had already failed to do.
The CDC had money in its pocket, but faced scores of neighbors unhappy with its proposal. Most complained that the plan just wouldn’t work. Middle- and higher-income families wouldn’t want to live in a mixed-income setting, subsidizing the poor families next door, they said. Without enough higher-income families to offset the poor ones, some claimed, the project would revert to its previous incarnation.
As neighbors bickered over just how many poor families were too many, housing authority receiver David Gilmore took it upon himself to make the decision. At a meeting in September 1995, he essentially told neighbors to stuff it. Gilmore said he liked the plan and it was time to move ahead. “I thought it was absolutely tragic to leave the site empty,” says Gilmore today. “At some point a promise was made to these folks, and at some point we needed to keep it. We couldn’t keep it if we didn’t build it.”
The next spring, Gilmore was joined by then-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros and former Mayor Marion Barry to mark the start of the demolition of the Ellen Wilson buildings. The three waved small yellow flags as a work crew toppled the smokestack that had once served as Byrd’s perch. As crews continued the destruction of the buildings over the next few weeks, Gilmore would later remark with glee, according to the Post, “Man, it’s coming down like match sticks.”
The earnest neighbors of Capitol Hill had won the day. The project that had haunted nearby homeowners was reduced to rubble. But in the dust, anyone who did a very simple bit of math might have figured out that not everybody came out a winner. Mixed-income, lower-density housing meant a more livable blockbut it also meant fewer places for poor people. A group dominated by middle-class homeowners had crafted a plan to transform a frayed piece of the housing safety net to something both more creative and more limiting.
Of the 134 units in the development, the majority67are reserved for higher-income tenants, with a family-of-four income figure of between $36,150 and $90,735. Another 34 are for four-member families making $18,075 to $36,150. Only 33 of the 134 spaces are reserved for traditional low-income residents of public housing, four-person families making below $18,075.
Most of the 129 families who were living at Ellen Wilson in 1988 when the buildings were vacated simply won’t have homes in the neighborhood. It’s a persistent downside of housing “progress”: poor families displaced when the city promises something betteronly not for them. The families who lived in the alley dwellings found out how the story ends. Now, so have the former residents of Ellen Wilson.
Architect Amy Weinstein is in the driver’s seat of her gray Volvo, a car we have spent nearly 25 minutes searching for because she forgot where she parked it. Weinstein doesn’t have time for those sorts of details. The daughter of an architect, she started her own firm in 1982. Today her Dupont Circle office has eight employees and plenty of business. Office tables and shelves are cluttered with plans and photographs. Framed awards line the walls. Weinstein may not have a mind for parking, but when it comes to architecture, she knows how to mix bricks and vision.
A drive with Weinstein is a rolling Trivial Pursuit game, riddled with factoids about urban design in the District. As we drive, she chatters easily about the pattern of street names in the city, about hidden columns in federal buildings that guard against terrorist attacks, about why there are lines of trees along some local streets and not others. But ask her about the newfangled Ellen Wilson mixed-income-community concept, and she clams up. “Whenever I’m asked about income mixes, I always tell people to ask the developers,” she says. “My expertise is architecture, getting things built, putting them through review boards.”
We arrive at the new Townhomes on Capitol Hill on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Construction workers still toil on parts of the complex, but most of the houses are already built. They rise out of the mounds of dirt and piles of lumber. Freshly painted and lined with bright-red brick, they look too new and neat to be realmore like a movie set than homes for real people, let alone HUD-funded housing. “I wanted to design something different and sit back and see if it’s successful,” says Weinstein. “No one is going to say the architecture is in the way.”
As we walk through the development, Weinstein assures me that time will give the buildings the weathered look of their neighborhood counterparts. “My goal from Day 1 was to rebuild the site so that it looked like the rest of the neighborhood,” she says. Like the plots of land around the development, the series of row houses follows a familiar design of city housing: wide streets, a row of trees, a wide, usually brick sidewalk, a grassy yard, and elaborate metal staircases leading to front doors. Houses mirror the Victorian-style architecture of the neighborhoodan eclectic look that combines other styles and innovative detail work.
But Weinstein says she was working with a tight budget. To create this insta-Victoriana while maintaining costs, she mixed design elements, using only five building types but crossing those with 32 facades to create a feel of endlessly varied buildings. Color also differs: 17 different shades for mortar, eight hues for windows, 16 different brick colors. On one stretch of the development, similar building types are lined one after the other, but painted with alternating colors. “We wanted to make it look like different families had lived in the buildings and painted them different colors,” says Weinstein. “That’s what happens in most neighborhoods.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be Victorian if there weren’t a little “wretched excess,” says Weinstein. With that in mind, she’s tried to add exquisite detail to the development, but through affordable processes. Using computerized cutting, for instance, Weinstein created a series of brackets to support the cornices of buildings. The pieces all have similar plumed ends and cut-out shapes, but are varied in their combinations of decoration.
Weinstein also employed “special-shaped bricks” (the actual architectural term), an element she uses in many of her buildings. On a series of three buildings, for instance, bricks with a circular edge are stacked neatly on top of each other to line windows with what appear to be thin columns. At the top of the buildings, near the cornice, the same brick is stacked in an alternating pattern. The effect is of a checkerboard, where light and shadow work as a simple, inexpensive ornamentation.
But Weinstein was trying to do more than create a community that fits seamlessly into the neighborhood around it. She was also trying to build distinct and separate living spaces. Unlike most public housing, each of the units has its own door that opens onto a public street. (The partnership built two new city streets through the block as part of this project.) Two-thirds of the units have their own private courtyards. “So much of public housing is being torn down, and certainly high-rises are to blame,” Weinstein says.
So far, at least, neighbors on all sides of the project are talking about Weinstein as if she’s Capitol Hill’s version of Frank Lloyd Wright. Last May, the American Institute of Architects honored Weinstein for the urban design of the new Townhomes on Capitol Hill. “My mission has been successful because I’ve removed architecture as a factor in terms of ‘Will this work?,’” she says. “The real test is when people move in….That’s when they move from houses to homes.”
Sallie Dancy is one of the chosen ones. She moved to the District from Tarboro, N.C., on July 4, 1964, staying with a sister the first few years she was in town. In 1968, she moved to a one-bedroom apartment in the Ellen Wilson Dwellings with her young son. When her son grew and needed a room of his own, the two moved to the Carrollsburg Dwellings, a public housing complex nearby. She’s been there ever since, except for the time she was temporarily relocated to another complex on Barnaby Street SE for 55 days, when the housing authority promised to renovate her Carrollsburg unit. “I know exactly how many days, because I counted every one,” says Dancy. “I couldn’t wait to leave.”
No one needs to tell Dancy about the problems with the District’s public housing. She knows the system all too well. Besides being a resident, she’s also been president of the residents council for both the Ellen Wilson and Carrollsburg complexes and thus has had plenty of interaction with housing heads. “All they did was make promises, and nothing ever did happen,” she says. Dancy was just as skeptical when members of the Ellen Wilson CDC approached her to join the board of directors in the early ’90s. “When they first started talking about it, I thought it was something that would never happen,” says Dancy. “Because I been there, done that, heard that before.”
But this January, Dancy, who manages a senior citizens program part time for Friendship House, a nonprofit organization in her area, was one of the first tenants to move into the new Townhomes on Capitol Hill. Her two-bedroom, two-floor duplex has creamy, lush carpeting, new tiles and cabinets, central air conditioning, and a security system. “I dreamed of this house,” says Dancy. With her solid part-time job, Dancy was able to pass the employment and credit screenings and come up with the $429 down payment to move into the new project. Her work with the Ellen Wilson CDC probably didn’t hurt her, either.
But few former residents are as lucky as Dancy. Media coverage crows about Ellen Wilson’s low-cost charma February Washington Business Journal article praises the project for providing a yuppie couple from Rosslyn a safe home in the citybut few articles mention the site’s former tenants.
Partnership organizers say their first priority is to return former Ellen Wilsonites and others in the nearby Carrollsburg and Arthur Capper complexes to the new development. But nearly 11 years after the old project was closed, it would be difficult for any housing authority to track down former tenantslet alone the troubled agency in the District. “It was not easy to find them all,” says Arthur Jones, a spokesperson for the housing authority. “This just all scattered in the wind in 11 years.”
There are records, Jones assures. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re up to date. The housing authority recorded forwarding addresses for tenants when the buildings were vacated, says Jones, but didn’t necessarily track people’s moves. “People are private citizens. They don’t work for us,” he says. “Much of our outreach was meant to locate as many as possible.”
That wasn’t very many people. Of the 129 families who vacated the Ellen Wilson project in 1988, the partnership could locate only 47 addresses of former tenants still in public housing when they started their outreach efforts in 1994, says a McHenry/TAG employee working with housing authority numbers. In August 1995, the partnership sent letters to those 47 addresses, telling former residents of an informational meeting about the new development. Only 23 former tenants showed up at the meeting in September 1995.
In 1996, the partnership again sent letters to the same 47, urging them to keep in contact with the development. Meanwhile, work on the project fell behind. It wasn’t until the summer of 1998 that the partnership held several other meetings, some to further inform residents, some to offer guidance on the application process. Twenty-six former tenants attended the meetings. Of those, 24 later applied to the development.
Stan Vosper, a HUD spokesperson, says that the department requires local officials in charge of HOPE VI projects to make every effort to track families displaced through their projects, but admits that the process is not one of the program’s strong points. An audit by the department’s inspector general released last December says the same, urging HOPE VI organizers to work harder to serve residents displaced when buildings are razed. “Yes, we think we could do a better job of tracking people,” says Vosper. “The federal government hasn’t always been the best landlord in the world.”
But Clyde McHenry, president of McHenry/ TAG, doesn’t worry about people who slipped through the cracks while the housing authority tumbled into receivership. He says that those other tenants simply found other living arrangements. Some likely bought houses or moved out of the District, he says. “Nobody is throwing anyone out on the street,” he says.
Of course, they’re not exactly moving them onto their old block, either. Dancy, for one, doesn’t mind the change. She says she’s not bothered that so few of her former neighbors have returned to the new development. Frankly, she doesn’t have much time for them. “It shouldn’t make them angry,” she says. “What was done, they did to themselves.” If tighter space for low-income families and higher standards mean that a few poor families don’t make it into the new development, then that’s all for the better, she says. “[Before], they just let anyone and anything move in there…. [This] way you can eliminate the people who cause the problems.”
The new Ellen Wilson’s architecture may be all about old-time simplicity, but to get a chance to live in that promised land, you’d better get very good at jumping through the hoops of modern-day bureaucracy. Unlike most public housing complexes, the new development has a stringent screening process, which checks prospective resident’s landlord complaints, credit history, and employment track record, says Ryan Bettez, regional marketing director for Corcoran Jennison. There are also a required home visit and a criminal background check.
Bettez wouldn’t elaborate on what crimes would keep someone out of the development. “Essentially, they’re checking on a person’s social behavior,” says Bettez, who directs me to Corcoran Jennison Regional Property Administrator Sandy Kendall. Kendall is also vague on details, but offers assurance that there are some “set guidelines” about what sort of crimes would bar individuals from the complex. “We don’t generally give that information out,” she says.
Prospective tenants also have to back up their applications with cold, hard cash. It costs $25 just to apply. And before moving in, residents also have to make an up-front down payment. The figure varies based on the size of the apartment and the tenant’s income level, but lower-income tenants have to pay a figure that ranges from $339 to $470or about three times monthly rent. A small sum for many, the figure could be a considerable amount for someone already struggling on a tight budget.
“More than a month’s rent?” says Linda Couch, legislative coordinator for the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). “I couldn’t afford to pay more than a month’s rent [in a down payment]….I think it’s prohibitive for some people to have to do that.”
Bettez is quick to point out that many of those applicants backed out on their own at the last minute, although he’s not sure of the numbers. He adds that the screening process and required fee are “pretty standard, industrywide.” Standard in private industry, but not for public housing.
Of course, that’s what the new Ellen Wilson is about, says HUD’s Vosper. Listen to him long enough and you’ll see that they’ve not just taken the decay out of public housingthey’ve taken a lot of the public out, too. “It’s not like they get a key and we say, ‘Here’s a place to live for the next generation,’” says Vosper, who adds that tenants must also sign a five-year contract with the housing authority. The agreement says that in exchange for a place to live, tenants must maintain economic self-sufficiency or take part in “support services,” like job training and courses in life skills. Requirements apply only to public housing tenants, and are tailored to the individual, says Vosper. “HOPE VI asks more of people who live there,” says Vosper.
If HOPE VI programs fan out across the country as planned, public housing that now resembles Good Times’ high-rise Chicago will start to look a lot more like The Andy Griffith Show’s front-porch Mayberry. Started in 1993, the program is a HUD effort to change public housing policy of the past, which housed the poorest of the poor in warehouse-style apartment complexes. HOPE VI programs seek to replace some of the country’s most troubled buildings with communitylike settings, providing more services to residents and integrating them with the outside neighborhood, says Vosper.
Besides Ellen Wilson, HOPE VI programs include a $40 million project in Milwaukee, which includes 80 new units scattered all over the city, and a nearly $50 million development in Baltimore, which razed 907 units at Lafayette Courts to be replaced with new rental and homeownership units. “[HOPE VI] has become our premier program,” says Vosper. “This is public housing as it can and should be.”
That conceit may be true. But low-density housing works because there are fewer people stacked on top of each other. Of course, that means there are fewer people, period. The new version of Ellen Wilson could be flawless if there were 10 of them, but there aren’tand won’t be anytime soon. Even the miracle on Capitol Hill took yearsin a community that is predisposed toward progressive measures. Try dropping the same project into wealthy Ward 3 and see what happens.
Housing advocates are the first to admit that the dilapidated high-rise apartment buildings that currently serve many of the nation’s poor families are not the answer. But if mixed-income developments mean that fewer poor families have housing, they also shift poor families to an already crowded public housing market, to the very complexes housing gurus are now trying to replace. “We’re pulling away the already minimal resources we have for [low-income] people,” says NLIHC’s Couch.
In the District, the public housing market does not have room for newcomers. About 28 percent of local renters cannot afford market-rate one-bedroom apartments in D.C., which average about $692 a month, according to NLIHC figures. HUD numbers released this March show that 11,317 families are already on the waiting list for public housing in the District. Many will likely stay there for at least five years, says Couch.
And the waiting list is about to get even longer. Last year, District authorities agreed to phase out the Tenant Assistance Program (TAP), a local program that works like the federal Section 8 system, which provides units and vouchers for those needing housing assistance, shifting the nearly 1,600 families it serves to the already strained public and assisted housing markets.
Furthermore, the stock of affordable housing in the District is shrinking. According to HUD figures, contracts have expired for 628 units of project-based Section 8 housing in the District since 1996, replaced only by vouchers, which tenants use to subsidize housing they find on their own. Last year, Congress passed the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, which pushes for an increase in mixed-income complexes for both public and assisted housing, meaning there could be even more families dislocated when projects are razed or integrated, says Couch. “What we’re doing is giving higher-income people preference to get into this public housing,” says Couch. “It’s absolutely detrimental to people with low incomes.”
District policies mirror the federal programs. By the time the receivership is through, likely next year, the District will have lost 2,007 hard units of public housing due to demolition or conversion of projects to homeownerhsip units. Aside from the old Ellen Wilson complex, the local housing authority has also called for redevelopment of Valley Green, Frederick Douglass, and Stanton Dwellings as mixed-income communities. Gilmore says, however, that the receivership will replace those missing units with 3,137 Section 8 certificates and vouchers.
Housing advocates like Couch say vouchers and certificates are an unreliable replacement for standard public housing. Poor families may have difficulty finding housing with the vouchers, and relationships with landlords can be unstable and unmonitored, she says.
Gilmore says this shift in housing and the struggles poor families face are an “inevitable, necessary downside” to the change in public housing policy. “Whether I like it or not, whether you like it or not, we have chosen in this country not to house all people who need housing,” he says. “If we’re not going to house everyone, you next have to focus your attention on how you’re going to house those you do.”
And he believes that it’s ill-advised to go after the projects that are being built, even if they don’t accommodate all of the people displaced by them.
“You’re attacking the wrong target,” Gilmore adds. “Don’t attack mixed-income communities. Go attack the loss of a safety net. The problem is, We’re not building anymore. Should we wait until we solve this enormous social problem…when we can do better while we wait?”
Vosper admits that programs like HOPE VI have had a huge impact on the public housing world, and not always in a positive way. “There is no question that a change of this magnitude disrupts people’s lives,” says Vosper. “What is also true is that the old system was not working. Something had to change.”
“I think we know mixed-income communities are better, but I think as you implement that kind of strategy, you have to have a parallel strategy for people who are going to be bumped,” says Mary Ann Luby, outreach coordinator for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “As our public housing gets better, it’s not going to be better for people who used to live there.”
Ed Batal didn’t have gray hair when the Ellen Wilson project started. That was nine years ago, when he was busy running his own public affairs firm on Capitol Hill, before he got together with neighbors, and before he became executive director of the Ellen Wilson CDCa part-time job for which he’s paid $58,000 a year. In that time, he has gotten married, had three children, and moved to the suburbs, following a route taken by many young professionals in the District.
But Batal has also learned a thing or two about public housing, he says. “I could see how people could come away thinking the establishment thinks of them as an afterthought,” says Batal on a tour of the Townhomes project on a rainy weekday morning. His 3-year-old son, Joshua, topped with a hard hat, lags behind.
He’s not talking about Ellen Wilson at the moment. Instead, he’s talking of residents of the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg complexes, who were dislocated last year when the housing authority decided to board up a couple of buildings to sell them off to the Marine Corps. Housing officials promise it will be a boon for the neighborhood, ensuring better maintenance and security. Good things, unless you’re one of those who got booted. “There’s a mind-set that [poor families] have become disenfranchised,” says Batal.
Couldn’t some say the same about former Ellen Wilson tenants? “Absolutely,” says Batal. “To some it may look like we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water.”
But then Batal’s talk quickly becomes that of a public affairs specialistspinning the Townhomes on Capitol Hill as only a lobbyist could. He’s talking about “painstaking efforts” to include as many low-income families as possible while still “maintaining the community.” The poor families who are in the new complex “are going to live here and be part of the solution, not the problem,” says Batal. “You gotta make your best efforts.”
Across the river, Stewart sits watching soap operas on a black-and-white TV at her place at Highland Dwellings, the two-bedroom unit she was “temporarily” relocated to when she vacated Ellen Wilson. A knubby yellow blanket is stretched across one sofa, neatly topped with mismatched pillows. Pictures and knicknacks are nicely arranged on a few tables.
Stewart tries to keep her inside world in order, but she complains about poor maintenance and the rough neighborhood outside. And then there are the hills of Anacostia. Her house at Ellen Wilson was on flat land and within walking distance of a grocery store. To get to a market from her current residence, she has to take a bus and change lines and hike up hills that aggravate her asthma. “These hills are something else,” she says, shaking her head. “I just can’t get over these hills.”
Before I leave, she details the bus route back to my office, complete with transfers and the exact amount I’ll need in bus fare. She stops me one last time on my way out. “If you’re writing a story about Ellen Wilson, you should find out why we can’t go back,” she says. “It doesn’t seem fair.”
Neither the problem nor the fix brings to mind fairness. The broader societal cost of maintaining huge public housing projects has become too much to bearthe density of the housing punishes the people who live near it and the people who reside in it. It isn’t working, and something new, something better, should take its place. But Stewart is schlepping the hills of Anacostia because paradise comes at a priceif they let everybody in, it wouldn’t be paradise.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.