When first lady Barbara Bush needed a child care photo op, she used Kenilworth-Parkside’s new day care center as her backdrop.
When Heritage Foundation conservatives touted privatization of public housing, they championed Kenilworth-Parkside as their model.
And when Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Jack Kemp vowed that tenant ownership of public housing would “save babies” and “save America,” it was on Kenilworth-Parkside that he pinned his hopes for the nation.
During the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Northeast public-housing project was a centerpiece of GOP plans to save the inner city through entrepreneurship. In 1987, Kemp pushed a tenant-ownership bill through Congress with Kenilworth-Parkside in mind. The Reagan administration inaugurated the law a year later, announcing plans to transform the public-housing development into private homes. The GOP leaders proposed to renovate Kenilworth-Parkside’s 464 units and then give tenants the chance to buy their apartments. Two years later, Kemp visited Kenilworth-Parkside and pledged that the feds would “create a million new homeowners” at public-housing projects.
But today, the Kenilworth-Parkside plan has all but collapsed. A dozen buildings at Kenilworth-Parkside stand empty and boarded up. Despite years of promises and glorious rhetoric, not a single apartment has been sold to a tenant. Instead of becoming a national model, the vaunted housing project is, as one of its neighbors says, “a blight on the community.”
For two decades, Kenilworth-Parkside has been the story of one irrepressible woman, Kimi Gray.
Gray moved to Kenilworth-Parkside in 1966 when she was 21 years old, and she soon began organizing her fellow residents. The project, which is sandwiched on Quarles Street between I-295 and the Anacostia River, had been completed in 1958 and by the ’70s was already dangerous and dilapidated. It often went without heat and hot water. A private company managed the project for the District, but in 1981, Gray persuaded Mayor Marion Barry to turn over Kenilworth-Parkside’s day-to-day operations to the Kenilworth-Parkside Resident Management Corp. (KPRMC). Gray was named chair of the corporation, a position she has held ever since.
Gray was just getting started. When project teen-agers told her they wanted higher education, Gray, a mother of five herself, started a mentoring program called “College Here We Come.” She cleared drug dealers from Kenilworth-Parkside’s grounds and made it safe (at least by the standards of public housing): There are 80 percent fewer 911 calls than a decade ago. She moved many residents off welfare by hiring them to work in the management office and on the maintenance staff. She required tenants to take classes in housekeeping and budgeting. She established strict residency guidelines: Families of drug dealers, for example, are given 30-day eviction notices. And she made the project a modest financial success: During the first three years of KPRMC, Gray increased rent collection by 77 percent.
During the mid- and late-’80s, Gray parlayed her management skills into national celebrity. She traveled the country touting tenant empowerment and ownership. She advised public-housing directors in other cities on how to turn their projects around. Journalists flocked to her. Reagan officials courted her. Her ideas for Kenilworth—self-help, individual responsibility, and more self-help—neatly dovetailed with their plans for the inner city. Kemp, the Republican party’s de facto ambassador to black America, called Gray “my hero” and “my friend.” Gray and city officials prepared a tenant-ownership plan, suggesting that the city and feds cede Kenilworth-Parkside to residents.
Just 10 days before the 1988 presidential election, Gray’s persistence paid off. Amid much fanfare, the outgoing administration announced that Kenilworth-Parkside would be the testing ground for a new public-housing paradigm: converting tenants into homeowners. Armed with a real stake in the community, the new owners would complete the transformation they had begun as resident managers: turning the blighted ghetto into a stable community of low crime, working families, and clean yards.
According to the plan, HUD would spend $23 million over several years to renovate the entire property. Then, under a phased-in scheme, the D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing (now the D.C. Housing Authority) would sell all of the rehabilitated units to KPRMC for $1. At that point, residents could buy their own homes by purchasing “limited-equity cooperative shares.” Each apartment would cost about $10,000. Gray and the KPRMC would continue to manage the complex until all the apartments were renovated and sold. (Around the same time, Kemp and HUD okayed a similar tenant-ownership scheme at another Northeast housing project called Paradise.)
Advocates gushed that the Kenilworth-Parkside plan had no downside. Tenants would own homes. The government would leave the landlord business. A troubled community would be healed. And taxpayers would make a killing. An independent accounting firm declared in 1989 that the federal government would save $6 million after 10 years; $11 million after 15 years; and $26 million after 40 years.
Kenilworth-Parkside is safer, cleaner, and more orderly than most D.C. projects. Quarles Street is scraggly but not decrepit. Around the drab low-rise red-brick-and-cream buildings, metal clothes lines are draped with colored fabrics, while crayon-box-blue jungle-gyms, plastic chairs, and tables with green umbrellas wait for company on small patios.
The usual horrors of D.C. public housing—crime, decay, poor maintenance, and high vacancy rates—don’t plague Kenilworth-Parkside as much as they plague other developments. “Looking around,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who represents Kenilworth-Parkside, “Kenilworth is really one of the better ones.”
Kenilworth-Parkside is no worse than most D.C. projects, and that’s its problem. What’s wrong with Kenilworth is not so much what the project is, but rather what it has never become. By the standards set by the architects of the tenant-ownership proposal, Kenilworth-Parkside is a disaster.
This much has been achieved: HUD renovated 341 apartments. The Resident Management Corp. received title to 132 of those apartments in 1992 (two years late).
But except for those modest achievements, the GOP plan has belly-flopped. More than 200 units still operate as public housing. Another 123 units are boarded up and unlivable. KPRMC owns the other 132 apartments. It leases them to tenants, only half of whom pay full-market rent. Other tenants receive federal rent subsidies.
Most disappointing of all, residents say they have not been offered any apartments for sale. And none will be offered soon. All plans for home ownership have been scuttled pending the rehabilitation of the boarded-up units by the D.C. Housing Authority.
And despite the accountants’ projections, Kenilworth-Parkside does not seem to have saved taxpayers a penny. In 1989, the General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated the cost of the renovations at about $25 million. But according to an article by Robert Guskind and Carol Steinbach in the Washington Post, the renovation to Kenilworth-Parkside cost “upwards of $60 million” and took “longer than it took to put astronauts on the moon.” Even if you accept the lower GAO estimate, the renovations cost more than $70,000 for each of the 341 rehabilitated units. That is more than it costs to build an apartment from scratch.
At that price, “we should have had gold toilet handles,” says one tenant. “And jacuzzis. The remodeling is shitty, if you’ll excuse the word. The majority of people don’t want to buy these units. They’re falling apart.”
And thanks to a HUD goof, 123 unitshaven’t been rehabbed at all. The winning contracting firm bid to renovate only three-quarters of the apartments, but was paid the money budgeted to complete all 464 units. (HUD’s unrevealing explanation: “An error was made initially.”) Although the District agreed to kick in $8 million to finish the renovations for the boarded-up units, the city hasn’t paid.
HUD and the D.C. Housing Authority insist that the only money the project is costing taxpayers right now is $800,000 in operating subsidies and Section 8 certificates a year. Those funds, they say, are based on the same funding formula used for all public-housing projects.
As Kenilworth-Parkside degenerated from the model for Kemp’s “new war on poverty” to the real-estate version of the Hubble telescope, the politicians have disappeared.
Critics often characterized the romance between Gray and two Republican administration merely as a cynical GOP nod to black voters.
“There were times when Jack Kemp came into Kenilworth almost as often as I came home,” says Herman Greene, who chairs the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in the area that encompasses Kenilworth-Parkside “Everybody will tell you that the Republicans at that time—that Bush—felt sorry for blacks and wanted them to be part of the Republican party to show that he’s not prejudiced. So they sent Kemp out here.”
But whatever the reason Kemp and other conservatives focused on Kenilworth-Parkside, they stopped focusing in 1992. That year, they turned the titles of the 132 units over to Gray and KPRMC. They also lost a presidential election. Bush was out of the White House; Kemp was out at HUD. And the new Democrats have not paid any visits to the Republicans’ model project.
But there is at least one person who does not seem to have suffered from Kenilworth-Parkside’s stagnation: Kimi Gray. Gray, says residents privately, runs the project like her own fiefdom.
Behind the closed doors of their apartments, residents catalog their grievances: Gray has her “picks”; she doesn’t treat people right; she’s forgotten where she came from.
“Downtown,” one woman says, “they think she is Miss No. 1. Everybody treats her like she is lord and master of this plantation.”
Some people who live at Kenilworth complain that Gray has the final word on everything. “She tells who can and can’t move out here,” says another longtime tenant. “It’s always, “You have to talk to Kimi Gray.’ ”
It’s true that most questions asked about Kenilworth-Parkside elicit a “Have you talked to Kimi Gray?” reply. On a recent visit there, Gray’s assistant made me profoundly unwelcome. “You can be here,” her assistant told me, “but you can’t see anything.” Asked for printed material on the history and success of Kenilworth, she said, “I can’t send anything out without Miss Gray’s permission.” Gray did not reply to a half-dozen queries for this story.
Even interviewing tenants is difficult because of a discernible atmosphere of fear. Residents think that Gray has snitches. “People are too damn scared to open their mouths,” says one resident. “They’re scared they’re going to get a 30-day notice to move off the property.”
The bureaucrats, of course, have written yet another plan to save Kenilworth-Parkside. According to aides, David Gilmore, receiver of the D.C. Housing Authority, has made the project a top priority. The authority last week announced the creation of a Kenilworth-Parkside task force to supervise renovations. Spokeswoman Lucy Murray says, “We intend to live up to the commitment of home ownership to the residents.”
But you could forgive Ernestine Terry if she’s a little skeptical of government promises. She lived in Kenilworth-Parkside in 1988 and she lives there today. Wheelchair-bound, she has had little to do for the past several months but stare out from her second-floor bedroom, which might have made her a Rear Window voyeur watching the comings and goings of her neighbors across the alley. The problem: She has no neighbors across the alley.
According to the plan, the buildings across the alley should have been renovated half-a-decade ago. They should be filled with hard-working, community-minded homeowners. Instead they are gutted, occupied by rats and vermin. Terry watches an empty landscape that social engineering forgot to fill.
“It’s been five years since they said they’d finish,” Terry says, her voice filled with frustration. “And they’re still not finished.”