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Time can feel like a flat circle at the D.C. Housing Authority. The major redevelopment of another public housing complex is moving forward despite community complaints about another string of broken promises.
This time, the transformation of the Greenleaf Gardens apartments in Southwest is on the table. The Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners voted 7-2 Wednesday to approve detailed plans for its redevelopment, set to be managed by a team of Pennrose Properties, EYA, and Paramount Development (the firm run by Ben Soto, a close ally of Mayor Muriel Bowser).
Broadly, the idea is to redevelop the existing 493 units on the property (located not far from the Waterfront Metro station) into 1,410 new apartments and townhomes. That will include replacements for all of those existing public housing units, with the rest built as new, market-rate units. The problem with the plans, as has happened so many times before, is that there’s no guarantee about what will become of the residents who live at Greenleaf now.
Developers and DCHA officials have consistently promised a “build-first” model, where they’d construct new units for current tenants to move into before tearing down any existing buildings. But that strategy looks elusive once more. Residents, advocates, and elected officials (from advisory neighborhood commissioners all the way up to Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen) have expressed alarm about how the plans have shifted away from DCHA’s long-promised commitment to build first, fearing that Greenleaf residents will be moved off the property and never get the chance to return.
“This should all be in black and white before anything moves forward,” Patricia Bishop, the head of one of the resident councils at Greenleaf, said of build first during the Wednesday meeting. “This must stop.”
The development team (selected back in November 2020) says it has structured its plans to preserve that build-first approach, and DCHA spokeswoman Sheila Lewis describes it in an email as a model that will deliver “zero displacement” with a “focus on residents moving only once.” DCHA Executive Director Brenda Donald went even further during Wednesday’s meeting, saying that “no one has to return, because no one will be displaced.” The board also added language to its resolution committing to build first.
But it’s difficult for Loose Lips to understand how this will actually work in practice, especially because plans to build new, off-site housing for Greenleaf residents have fallen apart.
Consider the description of the first phase of the project. The developers expect to start with a full renovation of the Greenleaf Senior building (which sits across M Street SW from the rest of the apartment complex) and transform 211 of its 215 existing homes into livable, public housing units. They could build another 15 affordable townhomes on the existing parking lot (though that part of the plan is not set in stone, per a presentation to Greenleaf residents on March 2).
That would enable developers to tear down 58 apartments that currently sit along M Street, moving those people into the newly renovated units in the senior building before starting on a new phase of construction that would deliver 446 new apartments across two towers. Then residents elsewhere on the property could move into the new units, and so on until the project finishes sometime between 2032 and 2034.
But what happens to the people living at Greenleaf Senior when those renovations are ongoing? Where will they go as work ramps up? LL imagines these renovations won’t exactly be minor, considering tenants there have previously described cockroaches eating through kitchen cabinets and sewage leaking through walls.
Lewis says that “where possible, DCHA will provide residents with the opportunity to move into a newly renovated unit in the building or remain in their existing unit during the renovation.” But that’s quite far from guaranteed.
Could residents instead be relocated into vacant units elsewhere in the building while renovation commences? Lewis says about half of the 215 units in Greenleaf Senior are currently empty, and the housing authority has previously adopted such a strategy, renovating vacant units first and then shuffling residents around.
However, Lewis says, “renovations will occur over three phases, allowing residents to move once into new units upon completion,” so there should be no need for that shuffle. She adds that there will still be room for the people currently living in those 58 units that will be torn down to move into the senior building as the renovations ramp up. But that still leaves an awful lot of people competing over the same crop of units.
That’s not to say these plans are completely infeasible, but the bigger issue is that many residents and advocates simply don’t trust DCHA and its partners to deliver. Many are still scarred from hearing similar promises at Barry Farm and Park Morton, only to see those fall by the wayside.
“You can’t help but ask, ‘What makes you all believe you’re going to get it right this time?” says Daniel del Pielago, Empower D.C.’s organizing director and a longtime advocate for public housing residents. “Anyone with half a brain understands what’s really happening. They’re finding a way out of any of the promises they made.”
It doesn’t help matters that build-first options have slowly fallen out of plans showcased by DCHA over the years. At one point, the redevelopment of the nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church was discussed as one home for Greenleaf residents, considering the developer working on the project (Bozzuto) was also part of the Greenleaf team. But Bozzuto has since dropped out of the Greenleaf effort and the Westminster site isn’t on the table as a build-first option. A spokeswoman for the developer did not respond to a request for comment, but DCHA development official Andre Gould said Wednesday that Bozzuto dropped out because it “felt that the economics of the deal had changed.”
EYA had also discussed redeveloping the Capitol Park apartment complex, which sits just north of Greenleaf, and making that a build-first option. But executives with the firm said at a community meeting last summer that the property was off the table too.
Without those off-site options, the only path forward for residents is trusting that DCHA and its partners will actually build new housing on the property. Considering just how long it’s taken the housing authority to do so in similar situations at Barry Farm and Park Morton, there is good reason to wonder if that will happen in time for Greenleaf’s older residents.
“They’re setting this timeline out to 2032, but based on their track record, it’ll be double or triple that amount of time before anything gets done,” del Pielago says. “Most of these folks at Greenleaf won’t be around anymore.”