Tomorrow afternoon, the tenants of Museum Square and their supporters will gather at 401 K St. NW to rally for the extension of the building’s affordable-housing contract, which expires Oct. 1.
The rally—announced earlier in September on Facebook—comes just a couple of months after another event was held at the Busboys and Poets in Mount Vernon Triangle, hosted by owner (and potential D.C. Council candidate) Andy Shallal. This time around, participants will march through the neighborhood demanding that Bush Companies, Museum Square’s owner, cease its attempts to raze the site and replace the building with 825 luxury condo units and 17,000 square feet of retail space by 2018. Organizer Sam Jewler calls the expiration of the building’s Section 8 contract a “major threat” for Museum Square’s 300-plus residents, many of whom are Chinese immigrants.
If any of the tenants move out after the contract goes up, the owner could replace them with tenants who would pay market-rate rents, though it’s more likely the owner would try to empty the building in order to move ahead with its development plans. Still, Bush Companies cannot legally evict the remaining residents unless authorized by District courts.
“[The tenants] are all getting individual tenant vouchers [as part of federal housing regulations, and] if they choose, they can use them to stay in the building and keep paying the same rent,” Jewler explains. “But Bush Companies has been doing some things to kind of mislead and intimidate the tenants from organizing. Many only speak Chinese, so there’s a lot of confusion and fear.”
Among the developer’s purported scare-tactics: sending a letter to the tenants in June that, while “legally sound,” Jewler says deceptively emphasized that their rents would go up; and stonewalling tenants’ efforts to submit Section 8 vouchers to the building’s management. Vera Watson, an African-American woman who’s lived in Museum Square since 1982, says she recently tried to give the building’s manager her voucher indicating that she’d like to remain a resident, but was rebuffed: According to Watson, the manager said she’d need to get approval from her boss to take it. (Vera McPherson, a property director at Bush, could not immediately be reached for comment.)
When supporters tried last Friday to deliver a petition to Museum Square’s management, Jewler says the manager also told him she couldn’t accept vouchers until her supervisors said she could. Before that, on Sept. 19, Jewler says security guards prevented organizers from canvassing in the building. “The tenants are ready to file a lawsuit if this continues beyond Thursday,” he explains.
“Bush Companies can change their mind right up to the very last minute,” explains Michael Kane, executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants. “By law, the owner must accept [the tenants] on that property if they want to stay. [The federal government] would pay the market rent.”
The petition against the razing of Museum Square has received more than 1,900 signatures out of 2,000 expected. In it, resident Jenny Tang says the tenants are rallying to save their homes. “The owner has made plenty of money from us, and can continue to make it without putting us on the streets,” Tang states. “We hope the owner will… preserve our homes for the younger generation.”
Jewler says organizers anticipate “several hundred people” at tomorrow’s rally, drawing from the pool of attendees at the Busboys and Poets event as well as residents who are concerned about the “displacement and gentrification” sweeping the District. A few Asian-American interest groups have also indicated its members will attend, including the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development and API Resistance, an offshoot of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Christina Truong, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, says Director David Do may attend the Museum Square gathering, “depending on his schedule.”
“These are human beings with hardworking, immigrant families,” Jewler says. “To have this major company that has a history of displacing people from D.C. coming in and saying, ‘Sorry, your time is up, you have to leave so we can make an extra buck’—people in this city won’t stand for it.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery