Phyllissa Bilal, resident and co-founder of the Barry Farm Study Circle, has lived in the neighborhood for about 3 years.
WASHINGTON — Hundreds of predominantly black families in Washington, D.C., are preparing to be forced from their homes to make way for massive redevelopment projects in the nation’s capital city.
Scattered throughout Washington are four neighborhoods – Barry Farm, Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings, Northwest One, and Park Morton – that have been targeted by the District government for their concentration of poverty, high crime and economic segregation. The neighborhoods and the homes in them will be razed and new “mixed-income” units as well as commercial spaces will be built in their stead.
The city government claims that the neighborhoods have been targeted for redevelopment because of the deteriorating nature of the communities coupled with federal budget cuts to housing programs.
However, Kalfani Turé, a veteran community activist, scholar and former police officer, claims that it is not a coincidence that these neighborhoods have become poor, destitute and criminogenic.
He claims that these “hot spots,” which is how law enforcement refers to areas that generate the most 911 calls or have other criminal activity, are consciously targeted to decay by developers, institutions and city government at least a decade before they come under the eminent domain of the government and are redeveloped. Turé says urban ghettos are not naturally occurring demographic phenomena; they are created through urban planning.
Barry Farm: Ground zero in the fight for affordable housing
Barry Farm, located in Southeast Washington, is the epicenter of a fight taking place between low-income District residents and the City Council.
The Barry Farm Redevelopment Plan — zoning for which was approved by the city government in October — proposes to demolish 444 homes in the neighborhood and rebuild the community with 1,400 mixed-income homes. The plan calls for “one for one replacement of subsidized housing units,” along with affordable housing and market-rate homes both for sale and rental. There will also be new retail spaces, public services, open space, parks and roads.
The two developers selected by the city government to implement these projects are the Preservation of Affordable Housing, a non-profit organization, and A&R Development, a real estate company based in Baltimore, Maryland. Both companies have other properties based in the District.
MintPress News visited the neighborhood and saw some of the fruits of this initiative, including the Barry Farm Recreational Center, which features a gym, game room, computer lab and other facilities.
The new amenities are being built as part of a program called the New Communities Initiative (NCI), which was established in 2005 by former D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who served from 1999 to 2007.
The NCI website of the D.C. government claims, “The goal of the Barry Farm redevelopment plan is to improve the residents’ quality of life by addressing both the physical architecture and human capital of the community.”
A 2005 report authored by Mayor Williams, “Homes for an Inclusive City: A Comprehensive Housing Strategy for Washington, D.C.,” states that the NCI was implemented to “reclaim neighborhoods troubled by concentrations of violent crime and poverty.”
Reasons for concern
Yet neighborhood residents, activists and scholars have called into question whether public housing really will be replaced one for one.
Typically — and particularly in Washington — the rate of return for public housing recipients has been low, as can be seen in other housing projects that were destroyed to make way for mixed-income housing, such as Capper/Carrollsburg, Temple Courts and Lincoln Heights.
Turé, who has done empirical studies on the situation, told MintPress, “The rate [of return] in D.C. is something in the area of 8 percent.”
He referenced as an example Valley Green, a housing project located in Southeast, which had 300 households. The residents were forced to move to make way for a redevelopment project. Turé said, “24 households were allowed to return.”
The model the city is using to displace residents comes from HOPE VI, a federally-funded program implemented in 1992 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program was created to deal with “severely distressed” housing units, similar to those in Barry Farm.
The program “sought to reduce the concentration of poverty in urban neighborhoods by raising the quality and standards for public housing stock, providing supportive services and employment opportunities to residents, and developing mixed-income communities.”
But a study by the Urban Institute in 2004 revealed that only about 19 percent of families were able to return to the neighborhoods where they had previously lived, despite promises otherwise.
Meanwhile, another 29 percent had moved to other public housing, 33 percent had moved to rental housing using vouchers provided by the government, and 18 percent had “left assisted housing altogether.” The study explains that some former residents experienced “considerable instability” and even became homeless.
As a caveat to the seeming destitution faced by residents who are forcibly removed, the Urban Institute report noted that advocates for HOPE VI argued that residents go in and out of public housing frequently, so a low percentage of returning residents is not a problem.
War against the poor: Deconcentrating poverty
One of the main assertions of HOPE VI and other public housing redevelopment plans around the country, including the District’s current New Communities Initiative program, is that the concentration of poor, unemployed people in one area contributes to numerous intractable social problems.
Basically, it argues that poverty begets poverty.
The solution for residents and the city, so the theory goes, is to “deconcentrate” poverty by helping people move to better communities and replacing the old neighborhoods with mixed-income developments. The idea is that impoverished people need to be spread around, rather than concentrated.
However, Herbert J. Gans, author of “The War Against the Poor,” argues that the “concentration [of poverty] merely makes poverty more visible than spread-out poverty, calls attention to concentration, and thereby diverts attention from policies that would reduce or end poverty.” His ideas are laid out in a 2010 policy paper he wrote entitled “Concentrated Poverty: A Critical Analysis.”
Gans argues that this idea reemerged in academic literature in the 1990s in order to justify the HOPE VI program, the aim of which was to tear down public housing projects and transfer public property into the hands of private developers.
There is no empirical evidence to support the concentrated poverty idea, he contends, and neighborhoods, in and of themselves, should not generate negative effects on a community. “Neighborhoods, whether demarcated officially or unofficially by their inhabitants, do not control or allocate resources and do not make policy and political decisions,” he wrote, explaining that the resources and policies of a neighborhood originate elsewhere.
Further, he asserts, a better indicator of why the poor are experiencing intractable problems, including social and economic woes, is “the decades-long withdrawal of public funds, not only for the maintenance of the buildings but also for the upkeep of those residents unable to work or to find work.”
Urban ghettos are created
Critics of HOPE VI point out that the precursor to the program, the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing (NCSDPH), did not recommend a mixed-income and deconcentrating poverty approach to solving poverty in public housing. It simply suggested that old dilapidated public housing should be replaced on a one-for-one basis.
Meanwhile, others claim that public housing authorities, city government, and developers around the country and in Washington have exploited the idea of deconcentrating poverty to first create neighborhoods in decay and then sell them off to the highest bidder.
This happens through a historical process by which the poor are relegated to certain neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods are then divested from in terms of public services, like sanitation and quality school administration.
In other words, the preconditions needed to identify a space as “severely distressed,” in terms of high crime, a concentration of poverty and economic segregation, are consciously manufactured by city officials in collusion with real estate developers years in advance.
In the case of Barry Farm, which just passed a zoning approval to be demolished, plans for its destruction were put into writing by D.C. Mayor Williams 10 years ago. Thus, for at least a decade, there’s been economic incentive for politicians and developers to divest from any programs in Barry Farm that might economically or socially revitalize residents of the housing project.
What do Barry Farm residents want?
Ray (left), 57, and Alex (right), 61, both grew up in Barry Farm, Washington DC.
Phyllissa Bilal is a resident in the neighborhood and co-founder of the Barry Farm Study Circle, a community organization that organizes public housing residents to protect their human rights and challenge systemic oppression.
She explained to MintPress that Barry Farm residents and organizers, including the Barry Farm Study Circle, ONE DC, a nonprofit organization that aims to create and preserve racial and economic equity in Washington, and the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, a residential committee concerned about the coming development, have a list of demands they would like the City Council to heed.
First, they would like the city to appeal the approval to demolish Barry Farm and to stop any plans to move forward with the process. They also want an independent body to audit the redevelopment process to make it clear how the project plans to move forward, including how much money it will take to relocate current residents.
A list of these demands and others can be found on the ONE DC website.
Residents feel very much in the dark about the process going forward. Plus, the District of Columbia Housing Authority has not provided clear information, nor are residents always notified about public meetings regarding their neighborhoods. According to Bilal, current residents have no idea where former residents are placed once they move.
Bilal, who does not oppose redevelopment as long as it truly incorporates residents into the process, told MintPress she would also like to see a cooperative grocery store, or co-op, established in the neighborhood. A co-op is a member-owned business that returns surplus revenues to member-owners based on how often they use the business. This type of business model could potentially help a lot of people in a low-income neighborhood like Barry Farm by providing cheaper food.
She also would like to see an entrepreneur-training program set up in the neighborhood. Bilal told MintPress, “People in Barry Farm have been through numerous job training programs. What they need is opportunities to start their own profitable businesses.”
What can people do?
Gentrification and forced removal are issues often covered as if they’re some monolithic force that both the oppressed and the oppressors are powerless to fight. They’re presented as if the economic forces that change cities and neighborhoods are too great for the poor, who are either forcibly removed or priced out, to push back against. And when newcomers become aware of this injustice, they do not see a way to right the wrongs.
Forced removal and gentrification are seen as part of a natural economic evolution. This line of thinking assumes that when change comes, some people just have to suffer.
This is far from the truth, though, according to Turé. Both the haves and have-nots can affect change in their communities. People do not need to be forcibly removed, nor do skyrocketing housing prices need to force long-time residents and business owners from their properties.
But it will take a movement that effectively puts pressure on those governmental agencies that make decisions over public and affordable housing, he explained.
“Government should be the proper advocate for the people. Government is converting these public properties into public-private ownership,” Turé told MintPress. “We need to make sure that government does not displace people.”
Bilal told MintPress that people who want to help affect change in the District should contact her at the Barry Farm Study Circle or some of the other organizations working to protect citizens from displacement, including the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies, ONE DC or Empower DC. She said, “Contact those guardians of public housing that are fighting everyday to protect public housing.”
“These four organizations have done quite a bit to try to raise people’s awareness about the right to have agency, the right to participate and develop, [and] the right to make Barry Farm what they want,” Turé echoed.
One of the first things that should be done is to “bring the sunshine,” he says. People need to be aware of what’s going on and they need to take a position that people have a right to live and stay in the capital. “They have a right to live in the city, not just to be in the city,” he said.
People interested in forwarding this fight, he explained, could continue to challenge the Deputy Mayor’s Office of Planning and Development, along with the D.C. Housing Authority.
“It’s simple,” Turé explained. “Some people are looking for genie-in-the-bottle kind of answers, but it’s not complex.”