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“(The New Communities Initiative) is a tremendous opportunity for our city, one of the most important things we have done in the last 10 years.” —Mayor Anthony Williams, July 2005
When Williams uttered these words, New Communities seemed a bold leap, setting a new standard for “urban renewal,” in which long-term, low-income residents would benefit most from the changes. The pledge was to build new affordable housing with wrap-around services adjacent to decaying complexes, so that tenants got new homes in their own community while a larger mixed-income redevelopment took place.
The program began with a pair of murders, the most obvious being the January 2004 execution of 14-year-old Jahkema “Princess” Hansen in the Sursum Corda complex near First and M streets NW, cut down for having witnessed an earlier killing. Hovering ghost-like in the background, however, was another death: that of a tight-knit Southwest D.C. community in the first wave of inner-city renewal in the 1950s.
That history fed community skepticism of New Communities in Northwest One—the North Capitol Street area adjacent to Sursum Corda, where the whole program began—as residents questioned whether demolition and displacement would trump the building of new units in the community. But neighborhood advocates like me helped overcome the suspicion, arguing that this time would be different, and we would fight to make it so.
Now the New Communities Initiative is in serious trouble, with the biggest news in its 10th year being a city-commissioned report detailing its fundamental failings. The recommendations for reviving the program in the report by Quadel Consulting and Training only magnify the danger. Underneath the measured, wonkish tones is an unmistakable message: New Communities can only be saved by breaking its original promises—those, that is, that haven’t already been broken.
One measure of this betrayal: The New Communities program in Northwest One has resulted in a net loss of more than 100 deeply subsidized—read: truly affordable—units thus far.
This is not how it was supposed to be… and I speak as someone in the room when this all came together, in community meetings at St. Aloysius Catholic Church following the highly publicized murders, failed HUD inspections, and consequent feared loss of hundreds of units of affordable housing.
Over the years, I have been heartbroken as, one by one, those hopes were dashed, those pledges compromised, even discarded. Now the last chance to salvage the essentials of the original vision and keep faith with the long-term, low-income residents lies in the hands of a new mayor and D.C. Council.
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“They called it ‘urban renewal,’ but it was really ‘black people’s removal.’” —Alverta Munlyn, president, Northwest One Council, 2006
For African-American residents, rede-velopment schemes inevitably evoke the painful and formative experience of Southwest in the 1950s. The sight of hardscrabble alley dwellings within sight of the gleaming Capitol dome deemed too raw for tender sensibilities, planners decided to level much of the community—destroying it in order to save it. But save it for whom? A new Southwest rose, but in the process, more than 23,000 people—mostly low-income blacks—were displaced, never to return, as detailed in the film Southwest Remembered.
The inevitable community opposition that met any subsequent “renewal” pushed urban planners to try to do better. In the mid-1990s, the Hope VI program transformed the feared Washington Highlands public housing complex Valley Green into Wheeler Creek. The new development was impressive, resembling a suburban subdivision, with mixed incomes residing side by side—but at the cost of a major net loss of affordable housing.
This set the stage for the struggle a few years later over the redevelopment of Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg Manor on the Southeast side of Capitol Hill. Tenants campaigned successfully to ensure one-for-one replacement of affordable units, along with a right to return to the “renewed” community.
This hard-fought victory left the most disruptive aspect of redevelopment still in place, however: Residents were displaced from their homes for years before being able to return after construction. The reality of Capper/Carrollsburg was not so much different than in Southwest decades before: As of November 2012, only 114 of the 707 families displaced had returned.
New Communities promised to move urban redevelopment to a new, more resident-friendly level, taking the lessons learned and applying them to area around the impoverished, embattled Sursum Corda complex.
There was considerable irony in the fact that this ambitious affordable-housing endeavor came together in the administration of Anthony Williams. Over the course of his first term, the wonky, bow-tied mayor had become widely mistrusted among lower-income black residents as too friendly to developers seeking young, white, wealthy faces to populate their luxury condominiums.
But the Williams administration—led by new city administrator Robert Bobb—won over the feisty and often skeptical Northwest One residents, making them essentially co-creators of what became New Communities.
Over the course of 2004 and 2005, the program was hammered out in meetings between city officials and the broad-based neighborhood organization the Northwest One Council. On top of the principles of “One-for-One Replacement,” “Right to Return,” and “Mixed Income”—one-third deeply subsidized, one-third workforce/middle income, and one-third market rate—New Communities added two critical new elements.
The first, and most essential, was “Build First,” which committed the city to building new affordable units in the neighborhood before demolishing old ones. This would ensure that residents would remain in the community, no more than a few blocks away, while the redevelopment was underway. The final piece was implementing wrap-around programs of social uplift, fostering “human capital” as well as improving physical capital.
All in all, it was ambitious, even visionary, with the entire program to be financed out of the Housing Production Trust Fund, multiplied in bond market transactions. The appeal of the concept was obvious, as D.C. Councilmembers Jim Graham and Vince Gray scrambled to replicate it at Park Morton, Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings, and Barry Farm.
The Williams administration impressed observers by taking on the Bush Companies, owners of the decaying, troubled Temple Courts, the largest single chunk of the 520 units targeted in Northwest One. Bush was seeking to opt out of Section 8—and thus New Communities itself—to go market-rate for a big payday.
This threatened to derail New Communities before it even got started. The city moved forcefully and effectively, wielding eminent domain to wrest control of the building from Bush, making sure Temple Courts residents weren’t displaced.
It wasn’t all smooth. Since the Trust Fund could only pay for housing production, the wrap-around services had no obvious funding source. Due to a process underway before New Communities arrived, 40 tenants were displaced early on from Golden Rule Center, owned by nearby Bible Way Temple. And personality conflicts between Alverta Munlyn, the dynamo who headed the Northwest One Council, and Sursum Corda Cooperative president Beverly Estes led to a painful split, which ended with Sursum Corda making its own separate redevelopment deal.
The standoff was enervating and divisive. Still, the project looked to be in decent shape as the 2006 election loomed, with Adrian Fenty—a staunch supporter of New Communities and affordable housing on the Council—replacing Williams as mayor.
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“When they tear down this building, we’re not coming back… It’s a lie.”—Diane Hunter, president, Temple Courts resident association, June 2007
Over the course of 2007 and 2008, however, New Communities absorbed two hammer blows in quick succession. The most obvious was the near meltdown of the American economy, which definitively undid the arguably dubious math underlying the finances of the project.
The source of the second was even more shocking, unexpected and devastating, however: the Fenty administration itself.
The economic challenges were real, but the new Fenty team proved to be arrogant and unilateral, making a difficult situation far worse. They talked a good game about community input and collaboration but acted in another fashion entirely. If the Northwest One Council was to remain a partner, it was now a decidedly junior one, expected to acquiesce in whatever the administration wanted. The looming financial gap was used to bludgeon the Council into playing along.
The rapidly escalating tension came to a head after Fenty decided on the basis of a poorly attended community meeting that Temple Courts tenants were to be moved elsewhere, with the complex to be torn down before new housing was built.
If any single moment heralded the death of the original vision of New Communities, this was it. Only about 70 people attended the meeting—not even a third of the Temple Courts residents, even if every attendee represented a separate household. The building had just held a vigorous and closely monitored resident association election that re-affirmed Diane Hunter—an outspoken opponent of displacing the tenants—as president. Nonetheless, Fenty would forever claim to have followed the will of the people in making this rash decision to demolish Temple Courts and scatter its residents.
When the Northwest One Council fought him openly, Fenty aggressively and successfully moved to defund and marginalize it. In the end, the group faded away with barely a whimper, partly out of lack of funds, but largely due to simple disgust, believing New Communities was a lost cause. I was one of the only veterans of the Northwest One Council willing to participate in the new advisory committee Fenty’s team assembled.
What Fenty left behind was a dispirited, divided—and significantly displaced—community that no longer believed in New Communities. Progress had slowed to a barely perceptible crawl: While a gleaming new Walker-Jones School, library, and recreation center rose—reflecting Fenty’s focus on education—new affordable housing did not.
When Mayor Vince Gray arrived, New Communities was adrift. For all intents and purposes, the “Build First” principle was history, buried in the rubble of Temple Courts, paved over to make a parking lot for buses. Despite heroic efforts by nonprofits like Perry School Social Services or Housing Opportunities Unlimited, Northwest One human capital funds were largely spent on simply keeping displaced residents, spread across the area, in touch.
The Gray’s administration appeared to believe that building something is better than building nothing, even if that means putting up luxury structures like 2 M Street. This recently opened apartment complex is beautiful, but 70 percent of its units are market-rate, with only 59 actual replacements for those lost at Temple Courts. Local activist church Bible Way Temple has persevered in its efforts, despite the stasis around New Communities, debuting first The Severna, then The Severna on K Street on the old site of Golden Rule Center. Nonetheless, more than 100 of the 211 units of Temple Courts remain to be replaced. It may well be another decade before that happens—if it ever does.
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“They ain’t never gonna let us stay here, not this close to the Capitol. The black folks, the poor folks will get pushed on out, just like in Southwest.” —Vernelle Saunders, Sursum Corda resident, 2006
When my 79-year-old friend Vernelle Saunders told me this back in the heady early days of New Communities, I took it as cynicism born of a hard-knock life indelibly marked by racism, violence and the illness that had left her in a wheelchair as a double amputee. I didn’t want to believe her, even though I knew she spoke for many of her neighbors.
I tried to persuade her—and so many like her—that they were wrong, that this time would be different. I was sincere, passionate, and persuasive. But I was wrong. The past decade has shown that the city is either unable or unwilling to honor its commitments to one of its most low-income communities.
New Communities rose out of the shocking murder of “Princess” Hansen and a harsh history offering lessons that could help realize a better future. The program that started with such promise and hope now seems almost a murder of its own—a murder in slow motion, heralding the death of a dream as well as a community.
Gray’s administration did recognize this, commissioning Quadel to probe the situation. What the report, and the city government, lacks is any visible sense of remorse or outrage over the broken promises, the dismembered communities, the fuel for deepened cynicism.
With sadly typical bureaucratic crispness, the report essentially says it would be too hard, would cost too much to do what we promised, so let’s just do what is easy. Build first? Impossible. One-for-one replacement? Too expensive. Right to return? Maybe. Mixed incomes? Yes, mostly the rich, with a few not-so-rich. New Communities? No, the same old shit.
The report sets the stage for the city to definitively abandon its New Communities promises. Only the next mayor and Council can write a happier ending to this sad, shameful story. Here’s hoping that they muster the moral and political will to do so. This time, I won’t be holding my breath.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery