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In one of D.C.’s most hotly contested redevelopment projects, attorneys for two residents of Brookland Manor—a 535-unit housing complex off Rhode Island Avenue NE in Ward 5—have asked a federal court to certify dozens of families living at that property as a “class” for an ongoing civil lawsuit.
On Tuesday, the legal team representing the pair of residents filed papers with the U.S. District Court for D.C. to establish a group composed of all families “who reside or have resided” at the property in apartments of three-bedrooms or more and “have been displaced” from them since October 2014 or “are at risk of being displaced” from them. Plaintiffs Adriann Borum and Lorretta Holloman, both of whom are longtime tenants of Brookland Manor living in four-bedroom apartments with their families, brought the suit through their attorneys last August.
They allege that developer MidCity Financial Corp. is discriminating against their and others’ “familial status,” a protected class under District and federal law, by advancing a project that would eliminate the property’s four- and five-bedroom units, and include only 64 three-bedroom units. As of January, Brookland Manor housed 118 families who were residing across 209 apartments of those sizes, the residents’ lawyers say in this week’s filings.
If the court agrees that Borum and Holloman are typical of the purported group, they would then be a step closer to attaining an injunction requiring MidCity to stop, and possibly revise, its plan for the property. The residents’ attorneys, who are with the firm Covington & Burling and also the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, are relying on the Fair Housing Act and the D.C. Human Rights Act.
“Without such declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent the elimination of large apartment units in the redevelopment, many Brookland Manor families will be displaced and lose their long-standing support structures, such as access to jobs, assistive or social-service related programs, and local schools,” the lawyers argue in a memo, which says families occupy 81 percent of the bigger units.
MidCity’s legal team has until July 21 to respond to the filings, according to the U.S. District Court for D.C. docket. MidCity has retained real estate-focused firm Greenstein Delorme & Luchs in the case. After the court receives a response, the plaintiffs will have until Aug. 11 to file any counterarguments.
“We understand that development is often a disruptive process and will work with all stakeholders to address their concerns,” MidCity executive Michael Meers told City Paper when tenants organized a rally to coincide with a D.C. Zoning Commission hearing on the case that took place in February. “We believe that the new development will better support our current residents and the entire community.”
The litigation is moving forward even though MidCity won approval from District zoning officials for a significant portion of its redevelopment plans in May. That component calls for a 200-unit affordable building for single seniors and a second, 131-unit building consisting of studios to three-bedrooms.
The company says the complex, constructed in the 1930s, has deteriorated to the point of needing to be razed and rebuilt wholesale. At completion the entire project, which is located just several blocks east of the Rhode Island Metro station, will include approximately 1,700 residential units plus retail space. Given the project’s timeline, MidCity says many households wouldn’t have to leave the site for years to come.
Construction on the part of the project that the Zoning Commission green-lighted cannot begin until a final order is written and promulgated, which could take a few more months. It is also possible that the ruling could be disputed, so the zoning case would work its way up to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Brookland Manor has become a hallmark of the District’s affordable housing situation, highlighting a lack of family-sized apartments within financial reach of lower-income people. Since 2015, D.C. leaders have invested $100 million annually in a city fund that provides gap funding for developers who create affordable housing, but data show it hasn’t always reached the neediest.
MidCity insists that all current tenants who are “in good standing” will be able to return to the 20-acre site, and that it’s gone to greater lengths than peer developers to work in good faith with the tenants, the vast majority of whom receive government rental subsidies. According to the landlord, 373 units at Brookland Manor are attached to Section 8 vouchers and most of the remaining units are filled by tenants with individual household vouchers. Still, residents have pointed to aggressive security tactics and questionable eviction practices at the complex, which they say have pushed families out.
The plaintiffs have requested that the court set a hearing on the motion for class-action certification if one proves necessary. In November, the judge in the case, Rudolph Contreras, chose not to grant Borum and Holloman the preliminary injunction that they’d sought, but also denied MidCity’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.