The back room of Busboys and Poets was packed wall-to-wall Monday night, when the Mount Vernon Triangle location of the D.C. restaurant welcomed more than 100 people to a rally for the tenants of Museum Square: the Section 8 building at 401 K St. NW that has featured prominently in the city’s affordable housing wars.
Amid cupcakes, noodles, and salad provided by local eateries Baked & Wired, Mandu, and Sweetgreen, District residents listened to community activists and Museum Square tenants discuss the legal imbroglio they’re involved in with Bush Companies, the Williamsburg, Va.-based developer that owns the building and its 302 units. Bush plans to raze Museum Square and more than double the number of units on the site by erecting two buildings in its place. Last year, the developer informed tenants that if they wanted to buy the property in accordance with D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, they’d have to come up with $250 million. At $828,000 per unit, that figure was more than most Museum Square tenants could afford, and one that seemed arbitrarily inflated. So, the tenants and their supporters sued Bush in D.C. Superior Court, which ruled in their favor this April. An appeal by the developer is now pending. (Vera McPherson, a property director at Bush, could not be reached for comment.)
Despite that litigious backdrop, Monday’s rally was as much a celebration as it was an assembly. Andy Shallal, the owner of Busboys and Poets, said in an interview before the event that he was hoping to bring the community together and make the tenants of Museum Square feel welcome as neighbors. (Shallal is no stranger to District politics: Most recently, he ran for mayor in 2014.)
“This is a fight for the soul of the city,” Shallal said on stage while making introductory remarks. “Wherever you come from, this should be a city for every single human being who wants to live here.”
Later on, audience-members chanted “Museum Square stays!” led by Shallal at the microphone.
Nearly a dozen people spoke at the event, including Museum Square tenants, affordable-housing advocates, and D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman. (Eugene Puryear, who ran for the D.C. Council last year, and Nichole Opkins, general counsel for Councilmember Charles Allen, also gave remarks.) But perhaps the most poignant speaker was a young Asian-American girl named Jasmine, who lives in Museum Square with her family. “It is very disappointing that the owner wants to demolish the building so riches can live there,” she read from a prepared statement. “I want to keep on living and grow up here because I have many, many memories of this building.”
More than half of Museum Square’s tenants are Asian—primarily Chinese—while the remainder are mostly African American. Because the building is under a Section 8 contract, the tenants pay only 30 percent of their income towards rent. Many of them do not speak English as their first language; this fact has made it difficult for the tenants to understand already-complicated forms describing tenants’ rights and affordable-housing laws, such as federal housing-choice vouchers. Two Chinese-language translators attended the rally last night to help facilitate communication.
After the event’s speeches, Bryan Gerhart, the frontman of Baby Bry Bry & The Apologists, performed for the audience. Gerhart said he wanted to participate in the rally because he feels complicit in the “rapid and rampant gentrification” of D.C. “There’s a lot of us, myself included, [who] recognize we’re part of this system we find repulsive… a system that is stacked against Washingtonians with less privilege,” he explained in a phone interview before the event. The irony of the fight over Museum Square, he added, is that the District is happy to appropriate Chinese culture to give Chinatown character, but it doesn’t seem to care much about the tenants.
Two D.C.-based nonprofits, Think Local First DC and Jews United For Justice, cosponsored the event with Busboys and Poets. Omeed Tabiei, deputy managing director of Think Local First DC, said the restaurants his organization approached—including Silo, a New American eatery that opened last year in Mount Vernon Triangle—were immediately excited about helping to cater the event, even though not all of them had known about the situation facing Museum Square. Sam Jewler, a community organizer for Jews United for Justice, said his group wanted to show its support for maintaining diversity and affordability in D.C., but that policy decisions would be up to the city.
Vera Watson, an African-American woman who has lived in Museum Square for 33 years, said she occupies a one-bedroom unit that she pays $210 a month for, including utilities. She cited the number of seniors within the apartment complex as a reason she continues to enjoy her building.
“It’s our home,” Watson said in a phone interview. “We’re like family here—all the residents.”
The strength of that family will largely determine the ultimate fate of Museum Square, explained Jim McGrath, chairman of TENAC, D.C.’s Tenants Advocacy Coalition. McGrath added that the building’s tenant association needs as many members as it can get to have political lobbying power. He said the growth of luxury housing is “decimating” communities like Museum Square.
“All too often, you have a complete turnover of the [rent-controlled] building,” McGrath said. “Where are these people going to go? There are so few other affordable-housing places in D.C.”
Brenda Holliday doesn’t have an answer to that question. A Washingtonian who grew up in the Potomac Gardens public housing project in Capitol Hill, she says she feels blessed she got an apartment in Museum Square a little over two years ago. Holliday explains that she loves the convenience of living in her current neighborhood: She can walk to the Metro, her local Safeway supermarket, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library that’s just one block away from Gallery Place.
“I’d like to be settled,” she says. “And I don’t have options. I’m praying they don’t kick us out.”
Photos by Andrew Giambrone