DC Zoning Commission hearings don’t typically draw large crowds, but on the evening of February 23, 2017, over 200 people rallied outside a
DC government building in advance of a hearing that would last well into the night as scores of community members testified before the five-member Commission. The occasion was a hearing on the second stage Planned Unit Development that would fundamentally alter the Brookland Manor community in Northeast Washington, DC. With Ms. Minnie Elliott at the helm as president, members and neighbors of the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association, as well as neighbors and community members in solidarity, have engaged in the zoning process as part of their overall struggle to preserve family-sized affordable units at Brookland Manor.
Due to the outpouring of community support for the Residents Association, the Zoning Commission had to split the hearing between two dates – video recordings of the hearings are available here and here. Will Merrifield, of the Legal Clinic’s Affordable Housing Initiative, represented the Residents Association before the DC Zoning Commission.
The World War II-era buildings at Brookland Manor sit on over 20 acres of land in DC’s Ward 5, and contain 535 affordable units, including family-sized units of 3, 4 and 5 bedrooms. The ample green space the acreage offers, family-sized units, and affordable rent has made Brookland Manor home to working class families for decades. Many households in this primarily Black community are composed of tight-knit, intergenerational families whose ability to remain at the property is now at risk because the proposed redevelopment will result in an overall loss both of family-sized and affordable units.
The property owner, Mid-City Financial Corp., has proposed a redevelopment plan with the following affordable housing implications:
- Demolition of the existing 535 units, and construction of over 1,750 new, mostly luxury, apartments. Five and four bedroom units will be completely eliminated in the new redevelopment. The number of three bedroom apartments will be reduced significantly from what currently exists.
- Of the 1,750+ new units, only 373 will remain affordable via a Section 8 Project Based contract (an overall reduction of 162 affordable units).
- Of those 373 units, 200 will be for senior-citizens only, and composed primarily of one-bedroom units that would not serve the needs of the many seniors at Brookland Manor who currently live in intergenerational households.
- Outside of the 373 units under the project-based contract, the redevelopment will be composed of luxury apartments with a much higher market rate rent than what currently exists at the property. This could potentially create displacement pressures for hundreds of tenants who live at the property with the support of a Housing Choice Voucher, because the new units may to be too expensive for the Tenant Based program to cover the rent. Tenants would have to leave the redeveloped property and most likely would have to move to more segregated parts of the city where the rent is lower and housing conditions are substandard.
The Brookland Manor Brentwood Village Residents Association does not oppose redevelopment of the aging buildings – or even the increased density – but it does demand that the number of all affordable and family-sized units be preserved so that current residents can remain in their community.
Resident Association leaders have offered repeatedly to work collaboratively with Mid-City, and partner with them in order to seek gap financing from the Housing Production Trust Fund to facilitate the retention of affordable units at Brookland Manor. These offers, which remain on the table, have gained no traction with the developer or with Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. So Ms. Elliott and the Association board – largely made up of women who lived through segregation and have raised multiple generations of Washingtonians – continue to seek other avenues to fight for their community. They are keenly aware of the families they have seen evicted already from the property, and the families that have ended up in DC’s emergency shelter system. They fight not only for the sake of their own households and neighbors, they do so in the context of the affordable housing crisis that grips all of DC, but that has caused the most damage and continues to loom most threateningly in working class and low-income communities of color.
Demands of the Brookland Manor Brentwood Village Residents Association:
- The 535 units of affordable housing must be preserved at the current bedroom sizes and current subsidy levels.
- Residents must be able to remain on the property during the process of redevelopment (redevelopment in phases to prevent displacement) i.e.: build first.
- Residents must have the ability to access employment opportunities through the rebuilding of their own community, of which they have a fundamental right to be a part.
The Brookland Manor Brentwood Village Residents Association’s position is straightforward: A redevelopment plan that seeks to triple overall density on-site (building 1,750+ units where 535 units currently stand ) while significantly reducing overall affordability (decreasing the amount of affordable units from 535 that currently exist to 373 in the redeveloped property) while also eliminating family-sized units, in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, cannot be considered a public benefit. It does not promote the health, safety, and welfare of the existing community. It is not sustainable for Washington, DC to continue to approve redevelopment projects that substantially decrease overall affordability onsite, and displace residents. To allow such a redevelopment plan to continue unchallenged will exacerbate the current affordable housing crisis, contribute to the hyper segregation DC is already facing, and force families into DC’s emergency shelter program. In short, Mid-City’s plan, as currently proposed, is a case study in displacement.
Because of the vastly increased density it proposes, Mid-City Financial Corp. has to seek approval from the DC Zoning Commission in order to build this project. In order for zoning relief to be granted for a project that increases height and density, the project must offer public benefits for the community it will impact. Thus far, the Zoning Commission has given its blessing to Mid-City to proceed with the Planned Unit Development. However, the Brookland Manor case has shone light on a bureaucratic ritual that typically takes place between developers and Zoning Commissioners beyond most DC residents’ realm of civic engagement.
Brookland Manor residents waited over a year to receive a decision from the DC Zoning Commission. When the order was finally issued in April 2018, it was clear that the ritual between developer and Zoning Commissioners had gone uninterrupted by the overwhelming community input in support of the residents association: Commissioners approved Mid-City’s second-stage Planned Unit Development application unanimously. This was not wholly surprising – the Zoning Commission routinely acts as a rubber stamp for these large scale redevelopment projects. However, the order was damning in that it laid bare the Commission’s failure to contextualize the District’s affordable housing crisis and take into account existing communities’ health, safety, and welfare when analyzing what should be considered a public benefit in the Planned Unit Development process.
Key takeaways from the DC Zoning Commission April 5, 2018 order on the Brookland Manor application:
- The order indicates that Mid-City Financial Corp. “does not have an obligation to ensure that future rents in the redeveloped property meet the Section 8 payment standard.” As we referenced earlier, this means that households that currently live at Brookland Manor and are able to afford rent with the help of a housing voucher, might be unable to remain in their community after the redevelopment.
- The order indicates that through the zoning process, Mid-City Financial Corp. does not have a legal obligation to build housing for families that require larger units with more bedrooms.
- The zoning order also goes on to state that whether Mid-City Financial Corp. decides to build affordable housing or not build affordable housing is of “little relevance” to the Zoning Commission.
Residents Association President Minnie Elliott has begun the process of appealing the Zoning Commission’s order, thus continuing the legal challenge to the proposed redevelopment. The Legal Clinic will represent Ms. Elliott in this endeavor. Legal challenges are important tools in this struggle, but Residents Association leaders know that their goals won’t be reached without political action. The Association is committed to engaging the surrounding community, and is taking an on-the-ground approach to working with their neighbors to build political will to make this a victory for the community. It is important to note that these redevelopment projects could not move forward without the support of Councilmembers, ANC Commissioners, and the Mayor. It is incumbent on community members to make their voices heard and let elected officials know that they are in solidarity with the demands of the Brookland Manor/Brentwood.
If you’re looking for concrete ways to get involved with and support this grassroots housing campaign, check out the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association website and make sure you’re on the community mailing list. The Association will keep the list updated on upcoming Civic Association meetings, ANC meetings, and on-the-ground organizing where residents will participate and the community can show up in support.
The Affordable Housing Initiative was established in 2002 to intensify Legal Clinic efforts to preserve and expand affordable housing for low-income District residents. For information on current Affordable Housing Initiative work, please contact staff attorneys Akela Crawford (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Will Merrifield (email@example.com).