This post originally appeared on the HAT DC blog.
Residents of DC General and Barry Farms share a lot of common concerns. Their homes are crumbling. Their environments are toxic. And they don’t trust DC’s plan to fix it.
At DC General, the District’s shelter for homeless families, residents are dealing with hazardous dust from the demolition of other buildings on the shelter’s campus. Ambulances arrive regularly to take away residents with breathing problems exacerbated by the pollution, and Washington City Paper recently reported that lead had been found at the site.
Even before this latest health hazard, residents had to deal with vermin, problems with the hot water, and infections spread by unsanitary conditions.
At Barry Farms, a public housing complex just south of the Anacostia neighborhood in Ward 8, conditions are equally dire. A majority of the 444 homes now sit empty. Those boarded up units have become breeding grounds for rats and bed bugs, and residents contend that the Housing Authority has stopped performing routine maintenance.
But in both cases, residents and activists are fighting District plans to move residents out.
Residents at DC General have made headlines with their protests against the continued demolition work while they still live there, calling for the end of the asthma-exacerbating dust. But some residents and advocates have also called for the closing of the shelter to be postponed indefinitely, until replacement shelters are complete.
At Barry Farms, residents recently won a court challenge against the redevelopment plan for their homes, and the families that remain have now managed to stay for years longer than the District’s original relocation plans called for.
District officials have promised that residents at Barry Farms will be able to return to the shiny, new development when it is completed, and DC General is scheduled to be replaced by brand new smaller shelters across the District, better suited to meet families’ needs.
So why have residents fought so hard to stay when their homes are in such unlivable conditions?
In a word, history.
The New Communities Initiative, under which Barry Farms is being redeveloped, has a poor track record of delivering on promises. The Temple Courts community near Union Station, demolished over a decade ago, is only now in motion to begin constructing replacement units. Because of that gap, most of the community’s original residents will never exercise their right to return.
At Barry Farms, the number of affordable and family-sized units is significantly reduced under redevelopment plans, falling from 444 affordable units to just 344. A significant number of multi-bedroom apartments will also be lost.
Although the community has now been winnowed down to just over 100 families, advocates and residents have argued that loss of affordable units changes the culture and demographics of the neighborhood.
And a District judge agrees. The redevelopment is now on hold, as the judge has ordered the District to reconsider how their plans can better accommodate current residents.
At DC General, there’s a general consensus among the residents that demolition should wait until after all the families have moved out. But some are also pushing for that move-out date to be extended past September, even though it means staying in the shelter’s substandard conditions.
They fear that DC’s replacement shelters won’t be ready, in which case their families could be moved to hotels in Maryland. And there’s good reason to think their fears are correct.
Washington City Paper recently reported that despite official reassurances, several replacement shelters are significantly behind schedule—likely by about a year.
At both DC General and Barry Farms, residents have a straight-forward take: they want their new homes to be ready before they move out of their old ones, and they don’t trust officials asking them to move out on faith. Given DC’s history, it’s hard to blame them.