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Tenants of Brookland Manor, a Northeast D.C. affordable housing complex slated for massive redevelopment, are preparing to testify before the Zoning Commission this evening, when commissioners are expected to rule on those development plans. Supporters of the tenants say they will rally outside the hearing, which is in Judiciary Square.
Brookland Manor is just a few blocks east of the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station—a rapidly gentrifying section of Northeast D.C. The complex’s 535 units include many three-, four-, and five-bedroom apartments. These “family-sized” units are at the center of an ongoing class-action lawsuit hanging over the redevelopment plans. Apartments suitable for large families are increasingly rare in the District, and more than 430 of all the units at Brookland Manor (about four-fifths) were occupied as of September. As of last February, more than 90 households had D.C. Housing Authority vouchers across its units.
The demonstration—spearheaded by advocacy group ONE DC—is anticipated to draw dozens of activists who see the dispute over Brookland Manor as a touchstone of gentrification in the District.
The project’s developer, however, insists the area will be improved and families won’t be displaced. It says replacement housing will be built first, residents will have their moving expenses covered, and that it wants to right-size the complex’s concentration of small and large units, which are decaying. It also notes that more than 50 decades-old four-bedroom apartments will remain until at least 2023.
“The worry from the tenants is that [the developer is] clearing out the property,” says Will Merrifield, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, who represents the Brookland Manor tenants’ association. “We’re going to try to make the commission understand the sorts of effects that these redevelopments have on Washington, D.C. From an affordable housing standpoint, we feel that these redevelopments being approved…is exactly the cost of displacement, of increasing segregation in the District, and is absolutely germane to zoning.” Merrifield explains that the tenants want to partner with the developer and officials to preserve affordability. “We’re saying: ‘Work with us.'”
In 2014, owner MidCity Financial Corp. proposed redeveloping the site and an attached shopping center, now vacant, into a mixed-use project. The component of the project that zoning officials are considering tonight covers 2.6 acres and contains 64 out the 535 Brookland Manor units. It is planned to be the future home of a 200-unit building for seniors and an approximately 130-unit apartment building, both affordable. The D.C. Zoning Commission approved a framework for the entire 20-acre project back in 2015.
Michael Meers, an executive at MidCity, says in a statement that the firm has committed to allowing “all current residents in good standing” to remain at the site, adding that both DCHA voucher tenants and project-based Section 8 tenants will pay 30 percent of their income for new units. He and his partners have said they want to build an inclusive community.
“There is no other private development project in the District that provides this quantity of deeply affordable housing,” Meers says. “We understand that development is often a disruptive process and will work with all stakeholders to address their concerns. We believe that the new development will better support our current residents and the entire community.”
Despite the proposed increases in density and amenities, controversy has surrounded the project over the past few years. MidCity found itself under more scrutiny last August when The Washington Post published an investigation into the company’s eviction practices at Brookland Manor, finding that some tenants faced eviction proceedings for being as little as $25 behind on rent. Meers says the eviction rate at the complex has hovered “around 1.5 percent per year” over the decades.
Later that month, tenants and their attorneys filed suit against MidCity for allegedly discriminating against certain residents’ “familial status”—a protected class under federal and local law—through the redevelopment plans, which eliminated four- and five-bedrooms and significantly reduced the number of three-bedrooms as compared to the status quo. Although they asked for a court order to prevent MidCity from advancing the proposal, the company in September proceeded with “second-stage plans” as it had said it would in filings to zoning officials prior to the lawsuit being announced.
The lawsuit is still pending but the most recent court filings suggest that a settlement could be in the works. On Feb. 1, U.S. District Court for D.C. Judge Rudolph Contreras granted a joint motion from the tenants’ and MidCity’s attorneys asking to delay a legal discovery period by three weeks. “The parties jointly request the stay so that they may engage in settlement discussions without incurring additional, potentially unnecessary, litigation costs, and so that they may avoid burdening the Court’s time with a status conference that may be unnecessary in light of a potential settlement,” the attorneys wrote. Contreras chose not to grant MidCity’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit in November.
In the civil case, Covington & Burling and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs are representing the Brookland Manor tenants who allege discrimination, while Greenstein, Delorme, & Luchs are representing MidCity and its property manager. An attorney for the tenants says the suit “remains pending and active” despite the Zoning Commission’s expected order today.
Leading up to the zoning hearing, emotions are running high. “We are like throw-away people,” says Yvonne Johnson, who serves as vice president of the Brookland Manor tenants association. “You’re throwing us away like we’re trash, like if you don’t see us, that’s the best thing in the world.”
What happens next? The Zoning Commission may either rule from the bench on MidCity’s second-stage redevelopment plans or continue the hearing into a future date if tonight’s hearing goes long.
This post has been updated with comment from Meers.