Anger, fears boil over for Barry Farm ten­ants about rede­vel­op­ment

D.C. com­plex’s raz­ing is set to be­gin, but some worry they’ll wait years to go home again — or never re­turn

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY PAUL DUGGAN

Over the years, at com­mu­nity meet­ings on the District’s plan to tear down Barry Farm, a di­lap­i­dated pub­lic hous­ing com­plex in the poor­est part of Wash­ing­ton, Paulette Matthews has never hes­i­tated to share her con­cerns about the rede­vel­op­ment.

The night of June 28 was no ex­cep­tion.

With de­mo­li­tion work fi­nally set to be­gin this sum­mer at the aged, half-va­cant dwellings, Matthews and other res­i­dents joined de­vel­op­ers and D.C. of­fi­cials for a meet­ing about Barry Farm that quickly un­rav­eled into a ver­bal free-for-all.

The evening’s agenda had en­vi­sioned a po­lite gath­er­ing in the mul­tipur­pose room of an Ana­cos­tia school, fol­lowed by break­out ses­sions at which ten­ants would be up­dated on the “re­lo­ca­tion and reen­try” process for 513 res­i­dents who, the city says, will be tem­po­rar­ily dis­placed dur­ing months of con­struc­tion.

But as frus­tra­tion and worry among ten­ants boiled over — mainly about the im­pend­ing forced move — res­i­dents united in pep­per­ing of­fi­cials with queries and chal­lenges.

The dis­or­derly meet­ing at the Ex­cel Academy Pub­lic Char­ter School seemed a metaphor for the District’s am­bi­tious but trou­bled New Com­mu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive, a neigh­bor­hood re­vi­tal­iza­tion ef­fort tar­get­ing four ar­eas of the city that has pro­gressed at a glacial pace, and some­times lan­guished, for more than a decade.

A ma­jor el­e­ment of the plan in­volves raz­ing and re­plac­ing Barry Farm, a com­plex dat­ing to World War II that has long been an eye­sore in Ward 8, the District’s most im­pov­er­ished precinct.

“I have some ques­tions!” Matthews, 58, shouted as mod­er­a­tors tried to or­ga­nize about 40 peo­ple into break­out groups to dis­cuss the move, the de­sign of the new project and the menu of so­cial ser­vices avail­able to res­i­dents.

De­spite as­sur­ances from the city that they will be al­lowed to move back, Matthews and oth­ers fear that once they leave their Barry Farm apart­ments, they will be kept out for many years or per­ma­nently be­cause of con­struc­tion slow­downs or stricter res­i­dency screen­ings at the new, much larger mixed-in­come com­plex.

“Let her fin­ish!” some­one yelled, af­ter Denise Robin­son, a project man­ager for one of the de­vel­op­ers, had in­ter­rupted Matthews, ask­ing her to hold her in­quiries un­til later.

“We’ve got to keep con­trol of the meet­ing,” Robin­son warned, stand­ing near a stage. “Now, I’m not be­ing dis­re­spect­ful, but —”

“You are!” a loud voice cried. “You need to let her speak!”

“Un­ac­cept­able!” an­other de­clared.

‘Un­rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tions’

The New Com­mu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive was born in 2005 and grew up on draw­ing boards over the next three years. Plan­ners rea­soned that by elim­i­nat­ing con­cen­trated pock­ets of poverty, cen­tered on pub­lic hous­ing, they could ease crime, job­less­ness and other so­cioe­co­nomic ills.

By 2008, the plan called for raz­ing four tum­ble­down apart­ment com­plexes in the city and build­ing big­ger, modern devel­op­ments in line with the New Ur­ban­ism con­cept, fea­tur­ing open, walk­a­ble green spa­ces and an ar­ray of ameni­ties. The com­plexes would in­clude not only re­place­ment pub­lic hous­ing but also other types of af­ford­able apart­ments as well as mar­ket-rate rental units and con­dos for sale.

But more than a decade af­ter the ini­tia­tive was con­ceived, none of the projects is even close to be­ing fin­ished.

One of the ini­tia­tive’s early, much-touted prin­ci­ples was “build first,” mean­ing that ex­ist­ing pub­lic hous­ing ten­ants would not suf­fer the pro­found dis­rup­tion of be­ing tem­po­rar­ily re­lo­cated far from home. In­stead, they would live on or close to the rede­vel­op­ment sites. But build-first was eas­ier said than done.

A con­sul­tant’s study in 2014 found that the New Com­mu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive was ham­pered from the start be­cause of­fi­cials had failed to fully con­sider po­ten­tial is­sues in­volv­ing fi­nanc­ing gaps and un­pre­dictable changes in the real es­tate mar­ket.

“Start­ing off with re­ally un­rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tions just set us up for a lot of prob­lems, like failed time­lines,” said Kim­berly Black King, chief de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer for the D.C. Hous­ing Author­ity, which over­sees pub­lic hous­ing.

Nev­er­the­less, an­other hous­ing of­fi­cial said, the ini­tia­tive has gained mo­men­tum in re­cent years and is near­ing a mile­stone with the im­pend­ing de­mo­li­tion of Barry Farm, once no­to­ri­ous as an epi­cen­ter of vi­o­lence dur­ing the city’s worst pe­ri­ods of crime.

“For the first time in New Com­mu­ni­ties’ his­tory, we ac­tu­ally have sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment move­ment at all four of our sites,” said Angie Rodgers, who man­ages the ini­tia­tive in the of­fice of the deputy mayor for plan­ning and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

A de­vel­oper was re­cently cho­sen to raze the Park Mor­ton pub­lic hous­ing com­plex, in the Park View sec­tion of North­west Wash­ing­ton, and con­struct a larger, mixed-in­come re­place­ment, Rodgers said in an in­ter­view.

Be­cause the build-first model will be used there, she said, the project “is set to be the first fullscale pub­lic hous­ing rede­vel­op­ment in the coun­try that we’ll do with­out dis­plac­ing any of the res­i­dents from the neigh­bor­hood.” The com­plex now houses about 140 fam­i­lies, she said.

She said the build-first con­cept also will be em­ployed at the Lin­coln Heights and Richard­son Dwellings pub­lic hous­ing site, near the city’s east­ern tip. Rodgers said the city is on track to is­sue a “re­quest for pro­posal” this sum­mer, seek­ing a de­vel­oper to han­dle that project.

The orig­i­nal New Com­mu­ni­ties mixed-in­come project, largely still in the pa­per­work stage since 2005, is slated for land once oc­cu­pied by the crime-rid­den Tem­ple Courts and Golden Rule hous­ing com­plexes, near Union Sta­tion. A full build-first model hasn’t been used at this site, known as North­west One. Be­fore the 250 old apart­ments were de­mol­ished, the low-in­come res­i­dents were given vouch­ers to help pay for af­ford­able pri­vate hous­ing else­where in the city, while the rede­vel­op­ment plan lan­guished.

De­vel­op­ment stalled partly be­cause of a land-use re­stric­tion, but that prob­lem was re­solved in 2013. The city last year sought pro­pos­als from would-be de­vel­op­ers. Rodgers said of­fi­cials hope to make a de­ci­sion this sum­mer.

The city an­nounced last Septem­ber that the build-first ap­proach would be too ex­pen­sive and time-con­sum­ing for Barry Farm, and that res­i­dents would be ei­ther tem­po­rar­ily moved to pub­lic hous­ing units scat­tered around the District or would be given rent-sub­sidy vouch­ers to help pay for non­pub­lic af­ford­able hous­ing.

“We came to this de­ci­sion al­most a year ago, and our com­mu­ni­ca­tion with res­i­dents about it has been very clear ever since,” Rodgers said.

But not much about the New Com­mu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive tends to go as planned.

‘Just more ex­cuses’

As the di­a­logue grew loud and testy in the school mul­tipur­pose room, D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) took the mi­cro­phone, try­ing to re­store or­der.

Af­ter scut­tling the break­out ses­sions — res­i­dents in­sisted on stay­ing to­gether — White said calmly, “Go ahead, Ms. Matthews, fin­ish what you were say­ing.”

“I have a ques­tion and I have a state­ment,” de­clared Matthews, who has lived in Barry Farm for 21 years. To be­gin with, she said, she fears that the project will grind to a halt, for fi­nan­cial or other rea­sons, while res­i­dents are liv­ing in far-flung places across the city, wait­ing to re­turn.

Robin­son, the project man­ager, seemed mildly ex­as­per­ated.

“We came out to a meet­ing of Barry Farm res­i­dents on Septem­ber 14 — so all the way back in Septem­ber — to let them know the re­sults of our in­quiry into whether a build-first op­tion was pos­si­ble,” she re­minded the au­di­ence. “We told res­i­dents at that time that it was not pos­si­ble, and that ev­ery­body was go­ing to have to tem­po­rar­ily re­lo­cate from the site. And we’ve been say­ing —”

Matthews cut her off, and the two be­gan talk­ing over each other, their voices ris­ing as Robin­son pleaded: “Wait a minute! Let me —”

Then White stepped in again to lower the vol­ume.

“That’s just more ex­cuses!” an­other woman yelled, dis­miss­ing the idea that the build-first con­cept is not fea­si­ble.

Rodgers said that based on con­ver­sa­tions with nu­mer­ous Barry Farm ten­ants, the res­i­dents op­posed to the plan at the meet­ing are in the mi­nor­ity.

Man­age­ment of the new com­plex will be over­seen by one or both of the de­vel­op­ers that have part­nered with the Hous­ing Author­ity. To dis­pel con­cern that the new man­ager might im­pose a tighter screen­ing process for re­turn­ing res­i­dents, in terms of their credit and rent-pay­ing his­to­ries and any past le­gal prob­lems, the author­ity has en­acted a rule that the process can­not be any stricter than the cur­rent one for pub­lic hous­ing.

There are 444 apart­ments at the site, about 200 of which are oc­cu­pied by 513 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the Hous­ing Author­ity. The other units are va­cant be­cause in re­cent years, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the rede­vel­op­ment, the author­ity has not ac­cepted new ten­ants.

King, the author­ity’s de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer, said the re­built com­plex will have 1,400 units, in­clud­ing 344 for pub­lic hous­ing ten­ants. An ad­di­tional 100 pub­lic hous­ing apart­ments al­ready have opened, and are oc­cu­pied, at two new com­plexes nearby. The rest of the rede­vel­op­ment, more than 1,000 res­i­dences, will be a mix of non­pub­lic apart­ments for low­in­come ten­ants and mar­ket-rate rental and own­er­ship units.

The re­lo­ca­tion process, set to be­gin this sum­mer, is ex­pected to take about 18 months, King said. As the ten­ants start leav­ing, con­struc­tion will com­mence, she said. If all goes as planned, she said, the first phase of the project — about 550 hous­ing units at a cost of about $150 mil­lion — will open in 2020 and be com­pleted in 2022.

In that two-year span, King said, the re­lo­cated ten­ants will be al­lowed back in.

“Any time peo­ple are be­ing moved out of their homes, not cer­tain if they’re go­ing to come back, there’s go­ing to be dis­trust,” White said af­ter the meet­ing. “Trust is earned. You’ve got to say what you’re go­ing to do, and then make a prac­tice of do­ing what you say.”

So Matthews will have to wait and see.

“Prom­ises, prom­ises,” she said. “We all know any­thing can change.”

MICHAEL ROBIN­SON CHAVEZ/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

An Amer­i­can flag flaps in the wind at Barry Farm, a di­lap­i­dated pub­lic hous­ing com­plex in the poor­est part of Wash­ing­ton that D.C. of­fi­cials hope to re­build as a big­ger and more modern de­vel­op­ment.

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