The houses at Highland Dwellings, slated for a makeover. (Darrow Montgomery)

On a Friday evening in late July, a small group of residents gathered around a white sheet taped to the side of Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Washington Highlands, straining to hear the faint soundtrack of a film projected from a laptop. The audience’s intense concentration didn’t just come from the low volume, however. The balmy night’s feature was also supposed to teach a lesson.

Chocolate City, a documentary about the removal of low-income people from the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public housing complex near the Navy Yard, has been shown sporadically among activists since its release in 2008. Slow-motion footage of construction equipment destroying brick walls and spoken word performances about gentrification are interwoven with residents telling the story of their displacement.

Very recently, the stories started to seem relevant for the residents of Highland Dwellings, a 208-unit public housing complex in Ward 8 slated for a $19.5 million renovation. In mid-May, the approximately 150 people who responded to a letter in the mail about an important meeting were told that they would need to move temporarily while their homes were renovated. Some wouldn’t be able to return because appropriately-sized units wouldn’t be available; those who have lived there longest will be first in line.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kay Armstead, who arranged the screening, has become the residents’ de facto leader, pulling together a high-powered legal team to advise them and trying to forge a unified front—something that isn’t easy in a place that hasn’t needed to unify for much of anything before.

“Look at that!” she says, wondering at the masses of Hispanic immigrants marching in one section of Chocolate City. “They’re organized!”

When the film ended, the audience launched into a discussion of their own situation, and confusion reigned. A community representative from Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office had shown up, and residents pelted him with their concerns—some people had been given as little as three days’ notice before they had to move, and little choice in their interim destinations, separating children from their schools and the elderly from familiar surroundings. The reaction doesn’t bode well for a smooth relocation process.

“They’re being sneaky about it,” said Aaron William, a wizened old man who had been living in Highland Dwellings for 20 years. “I’m not trying to go anywhere.”

In the abstract, the renovation is great news for living conditions in a complex that looks quite the worse for wear. But the speed at which it’s moving, and the little notice residents were given, are making an already disruptive process even more unsettling. And organizers are tying the renovation of Highland Dwellings into the broader context of gentrification and displacement, on a city and a national level—warning that, not too far off in the future, similar fates may await many public housing residents in the District and around the nation.

Blame some of the confusion on last year’s economic stimulus plan, and the haphazard way Congress designed it. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which is kicking in $7.3 million for environmental upgrades at Highland Dwellings, is a mixed blessing. Yes, it’s a needed source of federal money for cash-strapped municipalities. But lawmakers want to see shovels in the ground as soon as possible after the checks go out, which means that the D.C. Housing Authority has to get people out of the complex fast.

Sometimes, that means skipping a few steps along the way. In this case, it was working with the resident council, the democratically elected body that’s supposed to serve as a liaison between DCHA and residents. Highland Dwellings hasn’t had a proper resident council in several years—instead, it’s represented by the resident council of neighboring Highland Additions, which previously had been governed separately. But since she isn’t among those who have to move, resident council president Sarojah Spruill wasn’t notified about the initial meeting. Impaired by severe arthritis, she’s had trouble making it to subsequent meetings, and now can only watch as people disappear.

“My neighbors and my friends are being uprooted. They’re doing it illegally,” Spruill says. “We’re on the end of a chair. You never know when something’s gonna happen.”

Had DCHA decided to just do the environmental upgrades with the stimulus money, they would have been able to start earlier and work around the residents, and no one would have had to move. Instead, the Housing Authority decided to do a more comprehensive renovation. But without enough money to make it happen, officials decided to try something new—borrowing against the fair market value of 83 units to raise $8 million in private debt financing, and “selling” them to a wholly-owned subsidiary of DCHA. Officially, they will be converted from traditional public housing into private buildings owned by the subsidiary. Residents will pay for them with the help of “project-based vouchers”—a form of Section 8 voucher—that cover the difference between the unit’s rent and an amount equal to 30 percent of the resident’s income.

It’s the first time the D.C. Housing Authority has tried financing renovations by “project basing” its own buildings. And DCHA promises that it’s just a financing strategy—Highland Dwellings residents won’t know the difference between the old and the new form of housing.

Still, a more extreme form of this strategy has already spread around the country over the last decade, as funding for public housing declined during the Bush years and super-blocks of low-income units went out of fashion. Some cities, like San Diego and Atlanta, have sold off or torn down all of their public housing and put the money into vouchers instead, which means that residents deal with a private landlord instead of a housing authority.

And that might be just the tip of the iceberg. This year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed a plan that would dramatically accelerate that process, encouraging housing authorities to leverage private financing to pay for renovations and make wider use of contracts with private owners to house tenants. Low-income housing advocates were leery of making public housing so dependent on the vicissitudes of the private market, even as they recognized desperately-needed dollars probably wouldn’t be coming from the taxpayers. Most housing authorities were skeptical as well—but D.C.’s interim director, Adrienne Todman, stood as a notable exception, saying the proposal could be “a wonderful tool for all of us.” Ultimately, Congress sent HUD back to the drawing board, but Secretary Shaun Donovan is still working hard to push through something similar.

A couple weeks ago, the local organizing group Empower DC held a forum on the HUD proposal (called Preservation, Enhancement, and Transformation of Rental Assistance, or PETRA) headlined “Privatization of Public Housing: Opportunity or Elimination.” The title sort of gives away the answer the group was getting at. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Linda Couch explained that even after gathering residents’ input, HUD mostly ignores their findings under the new system. “It was really quite shocking,” she tells an audience of mostly public housing residents. “If you’re a tenant, it’s a whole new ballgame.”

Of course, HUD’s struggle with Congress isn’t really about the specifics of what happens at Highland Dwellings—at least, not directly. But when news about the broader policy shifts trickle down, it all blends together to freak residents out. Next door, Highland Additions was passed over for a federal HOPE VI grant this year, but DCHA is reapplying—something that Empower DC, Kay Armstead, and Sarojah Spruill all oppose. HOPE VI funding, they say, drives out poor residents to create mixed-income neighborhoods like the one now developing at Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg, or the city’s New Communities projects at Park Morton and Northwest One.

“New Communities, PETRA, they’re pretty much in the same category,” Spruill says. “They’re just trying to dress up names.”

Except they’re actually not the same, at least in theory. HOPE VI grants aim to build market-rate housing to subsidize some public units in a mixed-income complex; New Communities does the same thing, with city money and local developers instead of federal cash. What DCHA is trying to do at Highland Dwellings, in contrast, is supposed to be just a renovation. New units won’t be constructed, and new residents aren’t likely to move in.

The effect, though, can still be dislocating to residents. After all the moving around, not everybody wants to come back to Highland Dwellings. Evelyn Bassil says this will be her fourth move, and she’s sick of Southeast anyway—the violence, the lack of resources. She’ll try to make it to Northwest, but knows her chances aren’t good.

“It’s moving us like cattle,” Bassil says, sitting outside on her porch last Saturday. “When you’re poor, you don’t have nothing to say.”    CP

Visit the Housing Complex blog every day at Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to Or call (202) 332-2100, x 224.