Empower DC works to Organize Public Housing Residents

Councilmember Marion Barry speaks at the Barry Farm Recreation Center last month.

Over the last ten years thousands of units of public housing in the District, most of them east of the river, have been redeveloped, scattering hundreds of residents to the wind, declares Schyla Pondexter-Moore, a resident of Highland Addition public housing property off Wahler Place SE and Public Housing Organizer for Empower DC.

This past October Pondexter-Moore and members of Highland Dwellings Together We Stand, working alongside pro-bono counsel, reached a groundbreaking settlement with the DC Housing Authority (DCHA). Although renovation of the 208-unit Highland Dwellings, jumpstarted with federal stimulus funds and now coupled with private capital, has been on and off for more than two years, when completed it will remain a public housing property for 40 years, according to the settlement. DC Superior Court Judge Joan Zeldon presided over the case and in a press release called the outcome “unchartered territory.” All of Highland’s former residents will be able to return to the renovated property as a matter of right, without going through additional procedures such as credit and background checks that have kept residents from returning to other redevelopments, says Pondexter-Moore.

The Goal Is Self-Advocacy

Empower DC was formed nine years ago as a grassroots, membership-based organization committed to organizing low-income communities directly impacted by issues of displacement. It focuses on self-advocacy and building coalitions to magnify the political power of residents. During the past nine years the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has changed the branding of its redevelopment grants from “Hope VI” to “Choice Neighborhoods Initiative,” but the goal of “transforming areas of concentrated poverty into viable and sustainable mixed-income neighborhoods” has not changed.

Under Hope VI the 650 units at the Frederick Douglass and Stanton Dwellings off Alabama Avenue SE have been transformed into Henson Ridge; the 230 units at Eastgate Gardens off East Capitol Street NE have become Capitol Gateway; and only steps from the Anacostia Metro station the former Sheridan Terrace is undergoing a multi-phase construction of 183 units as Sheridan Station. Under the “Choice” banner more than 250 units at Kenilworth Courts in Ward 7 and more than 300 units at Barry Farm Dwellings in Ward 8 await redevelopment should they receive implementation grants after receiving planning grants. (In December HUD announced that DCHA, one of nine finalists this year, did not receive an implementation grant for Kenilworth.)

“What we need is community power,” says Pondexter-Moore, speaking for those whose landlord is the city. “We have the mindset to fight government but we don’t have the tools or the resources.”

To enable engagement in the planning process from public school closures to the redevelopment of public housing, Empower DC builds relationships with other service providers across the city, including Bread for the City. “But as organizers, we often take a more aggressive approach,” says Empower DC’s Executive Director, Parisa Norouzi. “Our basic purpose is to enhance low-income people’s abilities to advocate for themselves.”

“Graveyard for organizers"

“Make way, big Marion Barry coming through!” a man announced as he opened the door to the Barry Farm recreation center on Sumner Road SE on a Tuesday evening last month. Arriving a half hour late, the Ward 8 Councilmember quickly knocked heads with DCHA Director Adrianne Todman over the pace of Barry Farm’s redevelopment.

“The council approved the [redevelopment] plan in 2007,” said Barry. “In all that time I haven't seen one brick laid,” he continued, as he addressed a dozen residents, flanked by that many officials from DCHA and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DPMED). “Since then we've had meeting after meeting and nothing has happened here but we've had Sheridan and Matthews Memorial completed.”

However, in his next breath Barry said, “No offense to the people who live here, but I don't think anyone's going to buy a condo here. Look at the problems they've had at Sheridan, turning 80 [market] units into rentals.”

Before Barry arrived, Janice Burgess of DCHA walked residents through a PowerPoint presentation that outlined the criteria used by HUD to recently award Barry Farm a $300,000 Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant that the city is matching.

Barry Farm is an area of extreme poverty, a neighborhood infected by crime, most notably the violent variety, and with failing schools, according to Burgess. Representatives of HUD were scheduled to visit the site within 30 days, after which a master planning and development team would be selected along with a vendor to undertake a “comprehensive needs assessment.”

“Barry Farms has been called the graveyard for organizers,” Pondexter-Moore said. “But something strategic has to be done because people are living in fear and uncertainty." Ongoing concerns and the needs of residents of Barry Farm Dwellings led Empower DC and local college students to form the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association. The organization will conduct its own needs assessment and assist residents with organizing and representing their collective voice to “DCHA, DC GOV & any chosen developer(s) that will redevelop the Farms community,” according to the group’s initial flyer.  

The first meeting will be on Jan. 22. For more information call (202) 681-9457 or email bfwrtaa@gmail.com.

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