DC’s public housing authority renews promise to ‘build first’

Greenleaf Gardens. Photo by Abigail Williams

The board in charge of the District’s public housing has renewed a promise to prevent the displacement of residents during the planned redevelopment of their neighborhood in Southwest D.C. 

Despite the public commitment, residents of Greenleaf Gardens are not convinced the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) will deliver on its pledge, citing a lack of transparency and accountability from the agency and its development partners. As the agency moves forward with the multiyear project, residents are calling for a more influential role in planning the construction process and in the community’s future.

Constructed in 1959, Greenleaf is a collection of apartment buildings and town houses located along the rapidly changing M Street SW corridor. The dilapidated condition of the buildings at Greenleaf Gardens and Greenleaf Senior meets the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s criteria for demolition-and-disposition, and DCHA has opted for a complete overhaul of the site. Greenleaf is one of 14 public housing properties DCHA plans to entirely redevelop as part of its plan to revive its public housing portfolio of 41 properties across the city. 

Greenleaf residents report rodent infestations, toxic mold, water leaks and peeling lead paint, as well as maintenance requests that go unaddressed. Despite city investments that have begun to increase in recent years, D.C. officials have acknowledged DCHA’s budget for public housing maintenance falls short of what is needed to address all of the substandard conditions, leaving many units at Greenleaf and elsewhere in “extremely urgent” need of repair. 

Although the result of redevelopment will improve the quality of Greenleaf housing, construction promises to disrupt hundreds of residents’ lives when they will have to move from their current units. Despite DCHA’s commitment to prevent displacement, residents remain concerned. Without complete information on the developers’ plans and timeline, some residents are finding it difficult to adequately prepare for their future.

“We’ve been told bits and pieces over and over and over,” said Patricia Bishop, president of the Greenleaf Midrise Resident Council. “We need things in black and white.” 

Past DCHA redevelopment concerns residents in Southwest 

DCHA has a history of failing to meet promises made to residents impacted by the redevelopment of public housing sites. The agency’s botched “build-first” plans at Barry Farm in Ward 8 and Park Morton in Ward 1 have sown mistrust. Residents of Barry Farm have waited over 10 years already to move back to the neighborhood they left behind when construction was expected to begin soon, yet the development — mired for years in legal disputes — is still in the approval phase. Several residents from Barry Farm were moved into units at Ward 6’s Greenleaf with deteriorating conditions and rodent infestations. Now they face redevelopment for the second time. 

Greenleaf is located in one of the District’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, positioned between The Wharf and Nationals Park. The area has experienced waves of revitalization dating back to the 1950s when D.C. bulldozed much of Southwest, displacing 23,000 mostly Black and low-income residents to clear space for urban renewal projects. Decades later, community leaders have publicly questioned DCHA’s capacity to equitably redevelop in a neighborhood still scarred by the legacy of past government revitalization projects. 

Residents advocate for their right to remain

For years, Greenleaf residents have pushed for DCHA to include “build-first” into its Greenleaf redevelopment plans. By doing so, DCHA would provide all 323 current Greenleaf residents with housing units on-site or within the Southwest neighborhood before demolition.

Residents initially accepted DCHA’s plans for Greenleaf in 2017 when the agency made “build-first” its guiding principle for redevelopment. In the ensuing years, DCHA and Greenleaf Development Partners lost support from many residents as their plans for redevelopment evolved without effectively soliciting and incorporating resident input, leading to confusion and mistrust.

Brenda Donald, now in her second year as DCHA executive director, says she’s committed to renovating the agency’s aging housing stock without repeating past mistakes. 

“We have committed to ‘building-first’ on the Greenleaf property,” Donald said at the March 9 meeting of the DCHA Board of Commissioners. “That means no one will be displaced. I’ve heard ‘displacement,’ and I understand it. I’ve heard ‘right to return,’ but no one is asked to return because no one will be displaced.”

Residents and community leaders who testified at the meeting expressed concern that DCHA is straying away from its early commitments to include residents in planning and decision-making for the project. Bishop reported receiving incomplete or incorrect information from development partners in a series of resident engagement meetings. 

The Board of Commissioners voted 7-2 to approve a resolution to proceed with the Greenleaf redevelopment plans. In a last-minute amendment after the public testimony, board members added language outlining the commitment to “build-first.” DCHA and Greenleaf District Partners, which includes three development companies — Pennrose Properties, EYA, and Paramount Development — expect to break ground in 2023. Bozzuto Development, an original partner in the Greenleaf redevelopment, recently backed out of plans for off-site construction. “Bozzuto felt that the economics of the deal had changed,” DCHA official Andre Gould said at the March 9 meeting.

Board members Bill Slover and Ann Hoffman balked at the lack of detail and financial information presented to the board by the development partners and cast the dissenting votes. Slover has likened the delays in the Greenleaf deal to the early oversights in the Barry Farm and Park Morton redevelopment efforts. At the March 9 meeting, Slover said he is unconvinced that DCHA and partners will be able to execute their plans, given the lack of evidence of financial feasibility. “It’s not an actual plan,” he said. “It’s a concept.”

Greenleaf is the first of many DCHA public housing site overhauls

DCHA and Greenleaf District Partners will replace 493 public housing units and add an additional 1,410 affordable and market-rate units to the Greenleaf site. The full redevelopment of the site is anticipated to take more than 12 years and will be funded by leveraging public and private dollars. Next year, they will start with redevelopment of the senior building.

Earlier plans called for building units off-site for residents to move into as the “build-first” option. Greenleaf District Partners dropped these plans when the sites became unavailable, which stalled progress on the Greenleaf project. Donald clarified to meeting attendees that the “build-first” option will now be on-site, at an adjacent lot. Residents and community leaders said details regarding the change in plan had not made clear to them in meetings about the development.

Greenleaf’s shifting plans and timeline add pressure to residents who already face the stress of living in deteriorating units. Joan Williams, a resident of the senior building, spoke to the board about the need to protect her neighbors from adverse impacts from Greenleaf District Partners’ construction of “build-first” units in their building.

“The residents’ needs and interests are not being met, nor do they have a resolution we can even speak on to feel comfortable with,” said Williams. “It affects the mental well-being of our seniors, causing unnecessary stress to their already existing health conditions. Our seniors don’t have 10 to 20 years to wait for you guys to decide what you all are going to do.”

Community members call for meaningful engagement in future Greenleaf plans 

Like Donald and other DCHA officials, board members who voted in favor of the resolution are keen to start construction, with the redevelopment already years behind schedule. 

Community members opposed to the original resolution cautioned DCHA about the potential for disruption of residents’ lives as the project moves ahead. Although the addition of language reiterating DCHA’s “build-first” commitment addressed a major issue raised by residents, other issues — including a push for more transparency and public input — permeated their testimony as well.

“You are about to potentially put something into play that there is no return from, especially for Greenleaf residents,” Empower DC’s Daniel del Pielago said in his testimony to the board. “It will certainly lead to displacement and upheaval if residents’ voices and input aren’t central to next steps.” 

Going forward, community members and residents say more meaningful engagement is essential to build confidence in DCHA commitments. When Bishop of ​​the Greenleaf Midrise Resident Council was asked prior to the board’s vote if she would support the plan if DCHA’s pledge to “build-first” were added to the resolution, she reiterated that she would need to see all the details of the plan to be confident in DCHA’s promise to residents.

“Come to the table with us,” she said. “Let us know everything that is going on. Let us make decisions with you.”

This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Correction: 04.15.2022. This article has been updated to clarify that Bozzuto Development is no longer part of the development team and to make one name clarification.

Issues |Public Housing

Region |Washington DC

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