By: Tiffany Joslin - www.notabigspender.com - Follow Tiffany @in_a_tiff
Imagine your granddaughter, age seven, is playing on the grass in front of your apartment building with a group of kids that live in your complex. You and several neighbors are watching over them. A security guard approaches and demands that you get off the grass and go on the sidewalk that lines the edges of Brentwood Road, a bustling four-lane street. This is the first time you’ve heard of this rule. Kids used to be able to play where they wanted. These new, ever-changing rules seem to be an element of the redevelopment initiative, the same initiative which is also transferring families around.
This is what Neeka Sullivan, a nine-year Brookland Manor resident, said she experienced in early May. Brookland Manor is an affordable housing complex in Northeast DC that is set to be demolished and renovated starting in 2017. Residents said they have experienced an uptick in numbers of violations and infractions given for activities like children playing on the grass or residents sitting on their front porches. “The kids don’t have nowhere to play no more. All they have is the steps, the rails, and the trash thing,” Sullivan said, referring to a dumpster that she tries to keep the children away from.
The situation has turned into a lockdown, said Will Merrifield, a lawyer who represents the tenants. “They are telling people to go inside if they’re outside. They’re hassling old women and children.” Sullivan corroborates this claim. “We don’t have nothing on paper but it’s happening,” Sullivan said. “If a lot of whites lived in this neighborhood, [security] wouldn’t be doing things like they doing.” And, according to Sullivan and other residents, the situation has worsened in the last month.
“I can’t respond to that,” Michael Meers, the Executive Vice President for Mid-City Financial Corporation, said in regards to the reported increase in harassment by security staff. “I’m not aware of any changes.” Meers said that the company’s private activities are in full support of its public commitments.
Yet tenants and advocates are concerned about the company’s public commitments as well. The new design cuts over 160 of the current low-cost units. Merrifield called this “criminal” because the District is in midst of an affordable housing crisis. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported that in 2015, the city contained half as many inexpensive units than in 2002.
Meers said that the new property will remain “real, deep affordable housing,” unlike several other developments around the city, and said that the planned number of affordable units was “three times what was legally required.” According to the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development website, zoning law requires 8 to 10 percent of new or redeveloped properties to contain affordable units. Brookland Manor will be 21 percent affordable. Even still, Merrifield and residents are continuing to push for the same number, and same bedroom size, of redeveloped units.
RIA—the name chosen for the neighborhood redevelopment—will be a mixed-income community. “Our thought was that a mix of incomes will create a better environment and opportunity for everyone,” Meers said.
Yet Brook Hill, a fair housing advocate at the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, disagrees. According to Hill, gentrification is the root cause of D.C.’s affordable housing crisis.“This is a uniquely African American crisis,” said Hill. Many neighborhoods are becoming out of reach to people of color. In the last 15 years, the black population in the 20001 zip code (a large strip down the middle of the city) has decreased by 33 percent. Brookland Manor’s zip code is currently 86 percent African American, but it would be easy to imagine that number falling as well if steps aren’t taken to stop displacement.
Most importantly, “if people are displaced from Brookland Manor, they will not move to communities with lower concentrations of poverty or where African Americans are underrepresented,” Hill added. “They will move to communities in Southeast and Prince George’s County that are more racially segregated and that have greater concentrations of poverty.” Hill foresees the attempt to create a racially and economically integrated community in Brentwood—another name for the community—being hampered to a large extent.
Washington City Paper reports that with other, similar mixed-income developments around the city, the owner tears down aged affordable housing structures with a plan to rebuild one-for-one. However, according to City Paper, these projects have, “faced tremendous hurdles, putting its four projects well behind schedule and leaving many residents displaced longer than expected.” Moving people off the properties caused a portion of these delays, which Merrifield said has not happened yet at Brookland Manor. Instead residents are being relocated around the property.
The relocation process itself remains opaque to tenants. Several families have been asked to move multiple times in the last year. Minnie Elliott, the President of the Board of the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association, was relocated to a new on-site apartment less than six months ago and is now being asked to move again for reasons that weren’t immediately explained to her. “It’s a hardship,” Elliott said of the first move. “If it hadn’t been for my family, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
Elliott said the next move will be even harder. She doesn’t understand where management will place her and the 21 other families that are being asked to move. Elliott said, in response to management’s claims that they have enough space for all the families, “That was a lie.”
“It is certainly not the goal to move people around multiple times,” Meers said. “It is a complicated and involved process.” In regards to Elliott’s second move, Meers said it came about because of a change in plan from what was originally approved by the Zoning Commission. According to an email exchange with Meers, “the reason for the change relates entirely to being able to build as much replacement housing on site as possible at the earliest possible date.” Mid-City aims to file a Second-Stage Planned Unit Development (PUD) Application for the two buildings this summer.
Meers said he understands residents’ fear. “I get why people are anxious. But we are committed to allowing everyone in good standing to stay. Our public commitments stand and we will be accountable.”
Tenants, along with community organizers like ONE DC, are fighting back. Through canvassing and one-on-one meetings, community leaders and ONE DC members were able to raise Tenant’s Association attendance to between 25 and 50 residents each month. ONE DC also maintains a database of over 200 tenant contacts. “Tenants will be capitalizing on nearly two years of slow organizing in coming months to put pressure on the city council and zoning commission to withhold approval for the project if all the units aren’t replaced as affordable housing of the same unit sizes,” Hill said.
In the meantime, many residents think the developer should do more to ease their worries. And they say that some promises made, like money for moving assistance, have not been kept. “It’s so rough out here,” Sullivan said. “The developer needs to do something to help us relax, because right now they’re throwing people on the street.”