Paulette Matthews has lived at Barry Farm for more than a decade. For much of that time, the District has been planning to tear down the public housing complex and rebuild it as mixed-income housing.
In 1867, the U.S. government bought a large farm, just across the Anacostia River from the Navy Yard. Known as Barry Farm, for the former owners, it would be sold off in one-to-two acre parcels to freed blacks.
“Barry Farm, the settlement of freedmen after the Civil War was set up because during the Civil War, Washington was absolutely inundated with people who were literally walking away from slavery,” explains Jane Freundel Levey, a D.C. historian, who works for the Historical Society of Washington, and the George Washington University Museum.
Today, only a portion of that settlement is still known as Barry Farm. It’s one of D.C.’s largest public housing complexes, home to more than 300 families. But those families are in limbo. For years the city has been planning a major redevelopment, and residents don’t know when or whether it will happen, or where they'll end up if it does.
Walking down Sumner Road, through the middle of Barry Farm, residents Phyllissa Bilal and Paulette Matthews point out the units in disrepair.
“So look, four bedroom unit boarded up. Four bedroom unit boarded up. I think that’s a three bedroom,” says Bilal. Many of the beige and brown townhouses have plywood over the windows, painted dark brown to match.
“Through every area you go, you'll see three to four, six homes that are boarded up,” says Matthews.
On one unit, chunks of plaster have come off the exterior, exposing the cinder block beneath.
“In between that outer shell here and those concrete cinder blocks is water,” explains Bilal. “Everybody’s complaining about water drips in between the two of them. And a lot of the roofs — like mine — my unit has structural damage.”
As the units here fall into disrepair, instead of fixing them up, the city is boarding them up.
Adrianne Todman is executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority, which runs the city’s public housing — a total of 8,000 units across the District. She says to update all the units that need updating the housing authority would need an additional $1 billion.
“If I had all the money in the world, I would take all of the units that we have at Barry Farm or elsewhere and fix them up.”
But she says at Barry Farm, where the buildings are 70 years old, any rehab would only be a Band-Aid.
“It won’t actually heal the problem. The problem is the building itself. We want to fix the problem, and to do that we have to start fresh.”
Holding on to affordable housing
The city has already tried this approach of starting fresh, right across the street from the Housing Authority headquarters. In 2008, two affordable apartment complexes were torn down, to be rebuilt as a mixed income community.
This was the pilot project, the model that Barry Farm and three other sites would follow, as part of the city’s New Communities Initiative. Seven years after demolishing 250 affordable units, just over half have been rebuilt. But Todman says it’s wrong to say families are being displaced.
“Our mission is to provide affordable housing to families. Sometimes that location may change, but there’s never an instance where because there’s some development we're going to undertake, that we take affordable housing away from our clients.”
She says over the past 15 years, her agency has relocated more than 1,700 families and less than 70 have ended up moving out of D.C.
“So that idea that when we move folks, they scatter to the wind, is just not the case.”
Under the redevelopment plan, Barry Farm would be transformed into from 444 public housing units, into 1,400 mixed-income units. The public housing would be replaced one to one, and most residents would be able to return. Todman says working with private developers is the only way to pay for rebuilding Barry Farm.
“The private sector does not build public housing, because there’s no money in it. So to make these deals work, we need to bring partners to the table, who will get something out of it as well.”
But advocates for the poor question this partnership.
“The city is starting with: ‘What do the developers want?’ And not starting with: ‘How do we make sure we are preserving quality, permanent affordable housing?’” says Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower D.C., an activist group that has been organizing residents at Barry Farm, and fighting the redevelopment.
“What we've seen over the last 10 years is one after another of redevelopment projects where the affordable units were actually never rebuilt, the people never came back.”
Urban renewal, but for whom?
“That’s a... it’s such an old story,” says historian Jane Freundel Levey.
Barry Farm was built in 1943 as housing for “war workers” — civilians flocking to the city for jobs in the booming war economy.
But starting in the 1950s, many of the people moving to Barry Farm weren't government workers, but families displaced by redevelopment across the river in Southwest.
“Urban renewal comes to Southwest Washington and practically overnight, the homes of thousands and thousands of people, mainly African American, are wiped out.”
Ninety-nine percent of the buildings were torn down across a vast 560 acres. At the time, it was the largest such effort ever undertaken in the U.S.
“Urban renewal was supposed to be a process whereby these old and dilapidated rundown neighborhoods were exchanged for new ones. And the people who lived in the old neighborhoods were supposed to be housed in the new neighborhoods. The reality is it didn't work out that way.”
More than 20,000 people were displaced. They moved to African American neighborhoods like Shaw, in Northwest, and east of the Anacostia, unable to afford the luxury condos and apartments rising in Southwest.
“Developers came in and basically cut deals with the redevelopment authorities to buy the land for more than the redevelopment authorities thought it was going to be worth, in exchange for being given permission to put up housing that was going to be more expensive. So everyone wins. Except for the low income people expecting to come back to their neighborhood.”
Today, Barry Farm residents worry something similar could happen.
“We know that temporary moves usually don't result in people coming back,” says Phyllissa Bilal. “So no, not even a temporary move. We encourage all of our neighbors not to move. Stand your ground.”
She says despite how run-down Barry Farm is now, and despite problems with crime, it feels like home.
“I grew up on military bases all my life, so there was a close-knit family kind of environment, and I find that to be here too. And when you think about it, military people often have to deal with their mortality, they go and fight oversees, and you never know if your loved one is going to come back. It’s kind of similar here too – people seem to be drawn together because of that.”
Bilal’s neighbor Paulette Matthews, is more open to the idea of moving.
“If I was to move, I mean, I can adjust to everything. But this is my neighborhood, this is where I was, and I feel as though, if I can live through the rough times and the bad times and the maintenance not being able to come and get done, then when they rebuild, I should be able to come – we should be able to come – and all get a brand new and fresh start.”
For now, that fresh start is still on hold. The city has chosen two developers to work on the project, and has gotten initial zoning approval. But, says Housing Authority Director Adrianne Todman, “It all depends on financing, but I feel very good that in short order we’ll be able to put a better timeline out there for the community.”
Next year will mark ten years since the Barry Farm redevelopment plan was first approved by the D.C. Council.
Music: "Inner City Blues" by Marvin Gaye from What's Going On