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Despite the pleas of residents and advocates to the contrary, D.C. officials green-lighted $13 million in what’s known as predevelopment financing to refurbish distressed public housing in Ward 8’s Barry Farm at a meeting Wednesday.
The approval by the D.C. Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners followed the tabling of a vote last month, when some commissioners were absent. With the board’s consent, DCHA can now enter into agreements with companies to advance project design, permitting, and the relocation of residents, who have a right to return under the principles of the New Communities Initiative. That program, launched in 2005, aims to revitalize four residential sites across D.C. in partnership with the private sector since federal funds for public housing are slim. The motion narrowly passed 6-4.
The board’s chair, Terri Thompson, said in a statement that the $13 million in funding from the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Planning and Economic Development enables actions “that will inform our process moving forward.” But during the hearing, some Barry Farm residents and their backers voiced concern that current tenants would be displaced by the project, perhaps permanently. As of the end of 2015, a bit more than 200 of the site’s 425 units were legally occupied.
Paulette Matthews testified that most Barry Farm residents she knows want to have redevelopment done “in place” (meaning tenants could stay during renovations), adding that she’s worried about the logistics of being temporarily relocated, like storage and moving costs. “All of these things that they make sound real good, I know a lot of people who’ve had nightmares of it,” she said. “I know of so many people that have left Barry Farms [as residents call the neighborhood] that want to come now and take bars, boards, lockboxes off and come back to their unit… because [of] where they have moved and what little matchboxes they are living in. People are calling and stressing out—crying.”
Commissioner Bill Slover said he was unsure that he could “fulfill his fiduciary responsibility” as a board member with the proposed resolution and enumerated several doubts: Whether DCHA would retain ownership of the land, what the mix of replacement units would be, what leases would entail, and if the site would have public housing “in perpetuity.”
With other sites located in Wards 1, 6, and 7, the New Communities Initiative has represented something of a hard sell for officials, who have been at pains to convince public housing residents that the plan is intended to benefit them rather than private developers and D.C.’s more affluent newcomers. Many remain skeptical about the program’s implementation. To help assuage such unease, the District is soliciting a firm to do outreach and PR. Applications are due tomorrow.
At points, yesterday’s hearing turned tense. A couple of advocates yelled over commissioners discussing the motion.
“There have been some challenges with the New Communities program,” DMPED’s Brian Kenner said from the dais, before being heckled by an organizer. “This resolution is an example of us trying to move closer to [being as open as possible about NCI], but also to move closer to the idea that we need to be realistic with timelines and expectations.” He listed the one-to-one replacement of existing public housing units and the area’s overall affordability as priorities.
“We are people!” Empower DC Housing Organizer Schyla Pondexter-Moore shouted after the commissioners voted to approve the resolution. “Don’t forget that! We are people! And we are not going without a fight! We are not leaving!”
She was then escorted out of the room.