It’s been over nine months since DC’s highest court rejected redevelopment plans for Barry Farm, awarding a major victory to residents suspicious of relocation and the city’s approach to revitalizing public housing. But, while the project, now crawling into its 13th year, has paused indeterminately, few residents are left to celebrate.
Hundreds of public housing units stretching across Sumner, Eaton and Stevens roads now house less than a dozen residents. Abandoned satellite dishes and door decorations on empty buildings suggest hasty evacuations. Some doors have been bolted shut, while others are wide open to prove there’s nothing left inside.
Detrice Belt, president of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association (BFTAA), moved last month to Northeast’s Deanwood. A resident of Barry Farm for over 20 years, Belt left a neighborhood starkly different than the one she knew.
“I’m so hurt by it. It’s so much on my spirit,” said Belt. “I miss the action and the liveliness. It was like a breathing thing.”
This year, DC’s New Communities Initiative (NCI), a program managed by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) and a strategic partner with the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) in the redevelopment of Barry Farm, will ask the Zoning Commission to approve an amended proposal for building a mixed-income community. Per a DC Court of Appeals ruling, the improved plan must address a number of logistical concerns and reconsider the impacts of relocation on current residents.
But this acknowledgment did little to slow the mass exodus. Between April 2018 and January 2019, over one hundred families were edged out and moved to units across the city.
“It’s really been like a smack in the face,” said Dee Washington, BFTAA sergeant of arms. Washington left late last summer. “We had that win in April, yet they were moving forward as if we had already lost.”
Without a formalized plan and no timeline, no one knows what will happen to Barry Farm – while residents fear they’ve lost their homes. Nevertheless, there’s a chance they might yet shape the future of the neighborhood. Following the latest wave of difficult resettlements, the BFTAA is meeting officials with a plan of its own, and fighting for residents to decide what comes next.
Continuing Relocation and Demolition
Last September, Nicole Odom, a new Park View resident, received a DCHA housing voucher that expired a week later. Officially, she had just seven days to sign a lease. “Park View wasn’t something I picked,” said Odom, an assistant organizer with Ward 8 nonprofit Empower DC. “It was a last effort to get in before my voucher expired. I moved because I had to.”
Seeking vouchers was Odom’s second choice after public housing, yet when she looked into available units, she dismissed them as “terrible.” Not until she voiced concerns with DCHA did she receive a voucher. She didn’t officially move until a month later.
DCHA, a federally funded independent agency, owns the Barry Farm plot and oversees federal funding procurement, demolition, housing subsidies and community management, in coordination with NCI. In 2013, DCHA’s board of commissioners also secured a contract for the plot’s future developers, A&R Development and the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH). Despite the court’s decision to vacate the zoning order, these developers will see the project through.
The court’s dismissal of the zoning order also had minimal impact on DCHA’s timeline for demolition. In 2017, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development granted demolition approval for Barry Farm, which is authorized to continue independently of redevelopment plans. In March 2018, a month before the court’s decision, the DCHA approved over a hundred project-based vouchers (PBVs) that were issued to families, like Odom’s, who chose to relocate.
Odom considers herself lucky for having worked with officials on alternatives, especially considering she missed the voucher’s initial application deadline. Others weren’t as fortunate. Limited by housing availability and a lack of information, many residents scrambled to relocate under pressing deadlines.
“Residents that didn’t get an opportunity to take a voucher didn’t know anything about the voucher. They were scared to take something they didn’t know what it was,” said Odom. “A month before the vouchers expired, [DCHA] had an information session about them,” she added, “and that information session was two days before the deadline to apply for them.” According to Odom, other residents leased homes that had failed inspections or didn’t compare to previous homes’ size or standard of living.
Belt, going from a house to a no-pets apartment, had to get rid of her two dogs. “Even though these people moved, they are still having issues,” she said. “We’re having more issues off the property than we did on the property.”
While there is no official timeline for Barry Farm’s redevelopment, DCHA said in a statement that families planned to return to the redeveloped site in 2020. “DCHA remains committed to the development of Barry Farm and is evaluating its next steps,” said the agency. “Over the last several months, numerous Ward 8 families made the decision to relocate from the Barry Farm community while demolition and redevelopment are underway. These families will not be overlooked or forgotten.”
By Christmas, Barry Farm was all but cleared out, and hundreds had settled elsewhere. Now, a quiet has fallen over the hollowed-out properties. Few clues remain that suggest a housing controversy. A door on Eaton Road still reads, “We not moving” in spray paint. Another sign on a boarded-up Sumner Road house claims that the move-outs are illegal.
In just under a year, residents gained a victory, followed by a major loss. “A lot of people are feeling defeated. It may look like we lost,” said Belt.
“Although there’s a resolution for residents to return [to Barry Farm], the more we see a delay in [redevelopment], the harder it is for residents to come back,” said Daniel del Pielago, an organizing director for Empower DC. The nonprofit organization advocates for Barry Farm residents and is critical of the city’s treatment toward the neighborhood.
Since the ruling, the New Communities Initiative has begun collecting community feedback on a new proposal. A series of six meetings from September to October provided criticism of the old plan and asked residents what they would want from a new and improved Barry Farm.
According to NCI director Angie Rodgers, the new plan will reduce the number of units to 1,100, some 300 fewer than originally proposed. Fewer units would mean more backyards and parks and bigger bedrooms. Additionally, Rodgers is planning for a new community center.
“We came out of this process with a plan that was different than what we went into it with,” said Rodgers. The plan “really responded to all of the folks who plugged into the process, either by coming to the meetings that we hosted or by us going to other already planned community meetings.”
As a mixed-income community, the complex would be divided evenly between public housing, affordable housing and market-rate units. Critics of the original plan pointed out this would result in 100 fewer public housing units. Rodgers countered that some Barry Farm residents are already living in public housing replacements, located in nearby Sheridan Station and Matthew’s Memorial, that make up for any lost units.
“When people make a criticism of communities or of mixed-income development, we’re listening, and we’re tinkering, and we’re trying to make this development better than the last,” said Rodgers.
NCI and DMPED received support from DC Councilmember Anita Bonds, chair of the Committee on Housing and Urban Revitalization. “I am grateful that DCHA and DMPED have held numerous community meetings to engage with the residents and make them aware of the returning process,” said Bonds in a statement. “I trust that residents will receive the support they need.”
Belt thinks now’s the time for the residents to lead development. Since the neighborhood was cleared, Belt has been coordinating rides and planning conferences to keep residents involved in the fight for Barry Farm.
The fight is changing, though. Amid relocation and disorganization, after countless meetings with city and housing officials alike, the BFTAA wants Barry Farm to determine its own fate. The redevelopment planning process is back at square one, and Belt thinks it’s time to meet officials toe-to-toe.
“We’re trying to build our own plan,” she said. “It’s at the same stage as the Housing Authority – talking with residents about what they would like to see,” she added. “We want home ownership opportunities. We want town homes back. And we want some businesses in there.”
According to Rodgers, the NCI will begin collaborating with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C next month on a new submission for Barry Farm, with hopes of delivering it to the Zoning Commission this spring.
Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White could not be reached for comment.
The Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association holds meetings on the third Saturday of each month at Empower DC. All Barry Farm residents are welcome.