Credit: Darrow Montgomery

More than ten years after D.C. officials originally approved the redevelopment of the severely distressed Barry Farm public housing complex in Southeast, residents of the site and their advocates are suing over the plans.

Yesterday, three individual residents, the Barry Farm tenants association, and advocacy group Empower DC filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against the D.C. Housing Authority—which manages the property and directs the redevelopment project along with the mayor’s office—and its two private developer partners, A&R Development Corp. and the nonprofit Preservation of Affordable Housing Inc. The suit alleges that Barry Farm families face discriminatory treatment by DCHA because the 432-unit property, built in 1943 and mostly occupied by black residents, is slated for redevelopment into 1,400 units of mixed-income housing and retail. Of those, about 344 will replace public housing units, while another 100 replacements will be located off-site.

The plaintiffs say DCHA has failed to provide adequate maintenance at Barry Farm, even though other DCHA properties receive routine and superior repairs. This has purportedly created conditions such as “holes in the floor and walls, leaking ceilings, faucets, and toilets, caved-in ceilings, broken appliances, pealing or chipped paint, broken or missing doors, windows, and screens, and persistent rodent and insect infestations.” Tenants have had to endure such circumstances or leave their longtime home, according to the lawsuit, which law firm Foley & Lardner LLP and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil and Urban Affairs filed for the plaintiffs.

As in a pending class-action lawsuit involving the planned redevelopment of the Brookland Manor complex in Northeast, the Barry Farm residents also allege that the project will reduce the number of family-sized units available and therefore put these residents at greater risk of being displaced or becoming homeless. By the plaintiffs’ count, 163 units ranging from two- to six-bedrooms will disappear. They say that this amounts to discrimination against the residents’ “familial status” under federal and local law.

Apartments with more than two bedrooms are increasingly rare in D.C. as developers primarily look to meet the demand for housing that newer, younger residents bring. But the planners behind the Barry Farm redevelopment maintain that it will feature sufficient family-sized housing to accommodate families who depend on government rental assistance.

In addition to legal damages and attorneys’ fees, the plaintiffs are asking for the U.S. District Court for D.C. to halt the “implementation of the currently proposed redevelopment unless and until the redevelopment ensures that housing will remain available” for both present and former Barry Farm tenants who have children and who also have lived in any of the larger units on site. They want “all existing Barry Farm units [brought] up to a state of good repair” and maintenance requests to be resolved in a timely manner.

“This is our home, and we want to preserve low-income homes not only for us but future residents in need,” says Detrice Belt, who serves as president of the Barry Farm tenant association and has lived at the complex for 20 years. One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Joseph Edmondson of Foley & Lardner LLP, adds in a statement: “It appears Barry Farm residents are being written off by the very public housing administrators with responsibility for providing them with safe and habitable housing in an attempt to clear the property and squelch dissent.” 

A DCHA spokeswoman says the authority “cannot comment on a lawsuit we haven’t received.” Neither POAH nor A&R officials responded to requests for comment. The court has yet to schedule a hearing in the case.

The planned redevelopment has attracted controversy for years, including a tenant association-led appeal of the D.C. Zoning Commission’s order approving the project in 2015 that has halted major construction while the appeal moves through appellate court. Barry Farm is one of four sites in the District’s long-stalled New Communities Initiative, which aims to redevelop over 1,500 units of distressed public housing across the city into mixed-income projects. NCI is premised on the one-to-one replacement of those units so tenants can return to their communities as well as a “build-first” model, whereby new housing is built before demolition occurs.

But NCI has fallen short of the build-first principal both at Barry Farm, where resident relocations are starting this year, and at the site of the former Temple Courts complex in NoMa, where low-income housing was razed in 2008 and which is now a parking lot. The District could still deliver on the build-first promise at a site in Park View, though, and at another in Lincoln Heights. The former is proceeding smoothly but for some neighborhood opposition, and the latter is poised to.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, who is up for reelection next year, in part campaigned on sparking momentum in NCI. Her administration has secured key approvals and proposals required for the four NCI projects to advance toward actual construction, largely through the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

To date, NCI has seen almost 350 units of new housing built, including 100 replacement units for public housing and another 246 affordable units. As for Barry Farm, the District has already built 245 two- and three-bedroom units, of which 85 currently serve former Barry Farm residents, off-site.

Bowser’s office “remain[s] fully committed to revitalizing the Barry Farm community in order to meet the needs of our residents,” says DMPED spokeswoman Chanda Washington in a statement. “We understand the significance of the redevelopment project and we are fully committed to moving this development along to improve the living conditions of Barry Farm residents and invest in a community that has been an integral part of D.C.’s history.”

The Barry Farm property is located in Ward 8 and roughly a 10-minute walk from the Anacostia Metro station. More than half of it is vacant as of today.