The Park Morton public housing complex has languished as New Communities struggles to get off the ground.
The Park Morton public housing complex has languished as New Communities struggles to get off the ground.

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At Park Morton, the city terminated its agreement in February with the developer it had selected five years earlier for failure to get a redevelopment project moving. At Barry Farm, an attempt to introduce the community to would-be developers turned so heated that the police had to intervene. At Northwest One, the surrounding neighborhood has grown wealthier while the effort to rebuild demolished affordable housing has long stalled. And at Lincoln Heights, the inability to attract market-rate housing developers has derailed the city’s plans and left the neighborhood growing poorer as much of the city prospers.

In short, the New Communities program has failed to produce new communities.

These four projects comprise the initiative launched by then-Mayor Anthony Williams in 2004 that aimed to replace crumbling public housing into mixed-income neighborhoods. The logic made sense: The city would both address the chronic problems that accompany concentrations of poverty and minimize the displacement of low-income residents by allowing them to return to the sites of their former homes after redevelopment. But the execution, amid poor planning and a recession that slowed development countrywide, has left many residents frustrated.

According to a report commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and released to the D.C. Council today, New Communities’ struggles can be traced largely to unrealistic expectations that led to structural flaws in the program’s design. The proposed solutions involve a strategic reshuffling of priorities to ensure that housing gets built, even at the possible expense of some of the program’s ideals.

“The [New Communities Initiative] plans were presented as ready for implementation when they were in fact very conceptual and lacking all the necessary ingredients in place, such as site control, partner agreements and due diligence,” concludes the report, written by the D.C.-based Quadel Consulting and Training LLC, which was issued a city contract in January to study New Communities after it was the only respondent to a city solicitation for consultants to perform the work. “There was insufficient market and feasibility analysis and together all these factors undermined the timeline for implementation.”

New Communities has produced 1,070 housing units that are either complete or under construction, according to the report. But a quarter of these are market-rate units and half are affordable units for moderately low-income households, rather than the heavily subsidized units intended to replace the public housing being demolished. Only 355 of these replacement units have been built or are under construction or seeking financing, while 1,542 units have been or will be demolished under New Communities.

“Overall, I think that New Communities is something that is definitely necessary for those neighborhoods,” says Kimberly Black King, who oversees the program for DMPED and supports many of the report’s recommendations. “These were conceptual plans that needed a lot of work before implementation happened. I think that’s where we got lost, between the expectation and the reality of actually implementing these plans.”

In his letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson presenting the report today, Mayor Vince Gray writes that the city has “experienced challenges overseeing the implementation” of New Communities. “The District remains fully committed to creating economically diverse communities with quality affordable housing and opportunities for residents to thrive,” he adds.

New Communities started with just one project, Northwest One, which consisted of a mix of housing types between the Truxton Circle and NoMa neighborhoods and incorporated nearby city-owned land. “And then other councilmembers said, ‘Well we have the same challenges in Ward 1 and Ward 7 and Ward 8, so let’s make New Communities in these neighborhoods,'” says Black King. “The difference is that we did not have the same kind of offsite development. The District didn’t own parcels in Lincoln Heights and Park Morton.” As a result, efforts to build offsite housing as part of the redevelopment process were delayed. That’s one reason that the three public housing sites added to the initiative have yet to receive their planned overhaul.

Offsite housing is a necessary ingredient for a key principle of New Communities known as “build first.” It stipulates that the city should build offsite residences, ideally near the site being demolished, before tearing down the original housing, in order to minimize displacement. But the report pins much of the blame for New Communities’ struggles on build first.

“The Build First Principle …  is not cost or time effective, particularly when combined with the desire to ensure units serving a range of incomes,” states the report, referring to the need to serve a mix of incomes at the offsite developments in order to avoid an overconcentration of public-housing tenants. “In order to meet more efficient timeline demands, NCI will need to modify the Build First principle and develop on-site and off-site housing simultaneously rather than spending an inordinate amount of time, staffing resources, and financing until adequate off-site housing is fully developed.”

Black King says the city won’t abandon the build first principle altogether. But now that New Communities has produced some 1,000 offsite units, she suggests it’s time to turn the program’s focus to onsite housing. At Barry Farm, near Anacostia, for instance, Black King estimates that it would take 12 years or longer to replace all 440 units with offsite housing before demolishing the existing stock. And so in the interest of speeding up the process, even at the risk of more displacement, the city needs to start working on the public housing sites. At most, she says, that’ll still just mean two moves for families: one to other housing using a subsidized housing voucher, and one back to the redeveloped New Communities site if the family chooses to return.

“There’s some urgency to do something about Barry Farm, to do something about Lincoln Heights,” Black King says. “We have to take that reality into perspective and figure out, what is the best thing to do going forward? And moving our focus to onsite development is something that we are committed to doing going forward.”

The report also takes issue with one of New Communities’ other core principles, the conversion of the low-income sites into mixed-income housing that includes market-rate units. At some of the sites, and particularly Lincoln Heights, located in a low-income area near Deanwood and not within easy walking distance of a Metro station, it’s proven difficult to attract market-rate development.

“This overly optimistic assumption around market-rate rents created an equally overly optimistic financial picture with respect to the feasibility of market-rate units in initial phases of the redevelopment,” the report states. “Over time the revitalization investments of the City should pave the way for the market-rate segment of the market to emerge, but it is unlikely in the near term.”

Again, Black King maintains the city will stick with its mixed-income goals, but might have to sacrifice market-rate housing in the short term at one or more sites and wait until demand for it increases. Asked what will happen if demand is slow to arrive, particularly in the event of another housing-market crash, and it’s another 20 years until middle-income earners are interested in renting at Lincoln Heights, Black King laughs. “We’re optimistic that it won’t be that long,” she says.

The slow progress of New Communities has drawn criticism from housing advocates. In February, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute urged the D.C. Council to revamp the program. The city has attempted creative solutions, with DMPED suggesting “NCI branded swag” in April. But clearly, more comprehensive approaches are needed.

On some of New Communities’ problems, the report may not prove very helpful in guiding the city’s response. The “Challenges and Recommendations” section lists the first challenge as “timelines,” followed by, “Recommendation: Develop New Timelines.” Next up: “Challenge: Financing Gap. Recommendation: Develop New Funding.” On the latter point, the report suggests receiving more funding from the Council—-easier said than done.

“We want to look at other ways to fund it, other than ‘the District has to pay more money,'” says Black King. According to the report, there’s an effective $204 million funding gap for the New Communities program. It suggests taking money from two of the principle funding sources for affordable housing, the Housing Production Trust Fund and the Local Rent Supplement Program, in order to help fill that gap—-a move that would surely rankle affordable-housing advocates. Black King is noncommittal on that point. “We’ll have to work with the future administration and Council to figure out what works and what makes the most sense,” she says.

“We appreciate that DMPED took the initiative to give the New Communities Initiative a thorough review,” says Adrianne Todman, executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority, which oversees the city’s public housing and has worked with DMPED on New Communities, in a statement. “After careful examination by well-respected analysts, serious inefficiencies and weaknesses were identified and a robust list of recommendations was made. We’re prepared to begin working with our city partners as the details in the recommendations are ironed out and as our commitment to our families is fulfilled.”

The full report is below.

This post has been updated to include the comment from Todman.

Photo of Park Morton by Darrow Montgomery