Part two of the New Neighbors Three-Part Series

By Katrina Forrest

Public housing has a complicated history in the United States.  Though well-intentioned, over the years, subsidized apartments have become the housing of last resort due to the high concentrations of poverty, property mismanagement, and more.  There is no one factor that has led to the failure of public housing but, throughout history, we have seen defining moments that have forever changed the housing landscape in cities across the country.  Unfortunately, we must reckon with a painful truth:  much of the housing ills of today were born out of government-sponsored discrimination.

In 1933, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created as part of the New Deal to refinance mortgages that were going into foreclosure.  During its short three-year existence, only one percent of HOLC’s assistance went to Black mortgage holders.  Further, HOLC policy followed closely to the already well-established principle in the real estate industry at that time: White neighborhoods were more stable and presented the lowest risk.  In 1935, the HOLC would create “residential security maps,” to indicate the level of security for real estate investments with four color grades.  The communities “redlined” on those maps were viewed as extremely high risk.  The vast majority of those neighborhoods were comprised of largely Black populations.  Around the same time, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) developed a “risk rating system.”  Its underwriting manual specifically noted that mixed-race areas were not viable because they would inevitably lead to declining property values. 

The message was loud and clear:  non-White neighborhoods were risky.  The effect of these federal policies was to strip people of color of the opportunity to access credit and for decades, people of color would be denied the great American dream of owning a home; one of their few opportunities to pass along generational wealth.

The Housing Act of 1937, also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act, sought to address the needs of low-income families by increasing the affordable rental housing stock in cities and allowing for federal subsidies to be paid to local public housing agencies.   Not surprisingly, however, public housing was not exempt from the historical patterns of racial segmentation.  Under new public housing programs the racial character of a neighborhood would dictate the race of the occupants for public housing.  In 1938, Langston Terrace Dwellings opened in the Kingman Park neighborhood of Northeast D.C.; it was the first federally funded housing project in the District of Columbia and only the second in the nation. 

Public housing was essentially a band-aid for housing reform.  With no loans available to people of color, public housing was their only viable option and even its design kept residents poor.  Properties did not receive timely maintenance and upkeep, crime was rampant, and there were few social services available to help meet other needs. 

Even for the people of color who were able to purchase their homes, their American Dream would soon be cut short.  Prior to the 1950s, the Southwest quadrant of D.C. was home to many Black-owned businesses and largely Black homeowners.  This was a thriving community; however, city planners working closely with the federal government would determine that Southwest should undergo massive “urban renewal.”  What this meant was that some 550 acres of small Black-owned businesses, row homes and more were completely leveled to make room for new office complexes, shopping centers and residential high rise buildings.   The effect of this project was to eviscerate the culture of a thriving historic Black neighborhood and displace residents in volumes.  For communities of color it became evident that the government, neither federal nor local, had their best interest in mind.  Residents and civil rights leaders would protest the conditions, but not much changed.

Known as a “cultural decade,” the 1960’s was a time of great political and social unrest.  The nation was in the midst of the Vietnam War, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the civil rights movement continued on after some key legislative wins—but when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on Thursday, April 4, 1968, riots erupted in cities across the country. Washington, D.C. burned for four days.  When the dust settled on April 8, twelve were dead, over 1,000 were injured and roughly 1,200 buildings had been set aflame. 

The riots devastated the D.C.’s urban corridors and with the destruction of businesses came the loss of jobs, increased crime, depressed property values and the flight of residents to surrounding suburbs.  The crack epidemic of the 1980’s only helped to exacerbate things, leaving little hope for economic prosperity.  These events, coupled with patterns and practices of racial discrimination facilitated by the United States government, significantly contributed to decades of community disinvestment in D.C.  Rebuilding the local economy after such catastrophic financial events did not occur overnight.  With a diminished tax base, D.C. would need an enormous financial commitment but economic challenges would persist for the city until the late 1990s when new leadership and energy was ushered in.   

Both locally and nationally, the 1990s brought about significant change in housing policy and strategy.  In 1992, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development established the HOPE VI program to provide funding support to revitalize the nation’s most severely distressed public housing.  The program represented a dramatic policy shift, moving away from providing project-based assistance for the low-income to promoting mixed-income housing and the use of housing subsidies.   This program would prove to be pivotal for D.C.

In 1999, Anthony Williams was elected as the city’s fifth mayor.  His two terms in office brought about incredible transformation.  Under his leadership, Mayor Williams balanced the city’s budget, a previously unconscionable feat as the city lay in financial crisis resulting in the commission of a Financial Control Board.  Mayor Williams attracted new businesses to D.C. spurring billions of dollars of investment, but public frustration would arise as many low-income residents found themselves priced out of their communities due to the gentrification taking place across the city. Furthermore, the issues with public housing that had not been addressed for decades continued.

In October 2001, the District of Columbia’s Housing Authority (DCHA) would receive a $34.9 million HOPE VI grant award to revitalize the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg community located near the Navy Yard in the Southeast quadrant of the city.  With the addition of private funding and public investment, this initial grant award grew to more than $750 million, forming one of the largest urban redevelopment projects in the country.  To date, DCHA has received seven HOPE VI grants but progress has been slow.  The Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg project, when completed, will be the first HOPE VI project in the country to provide one-for-one replacement of demolished public housing units in the same footprint as the original developments. 

Drawing on the HOPE VI model, Mayor Williams launched the New Communities Initiative in 2005.  The project’s goal was to address the needs of poverty-stricken and crime laden neighborhoods by reinvesting in communities and breaking up concentrations of poverty.  New Communities promised to deliver the one-for-one replacement of existing affordable housing units, the creation of mixed-income housing to end the concentration of poverty and build new housing to minimize displacement.  The original plan only intended to redevelop the Northwest One neighborhood in Ward 6.  The plan would have served as a pilot and given the District the opportunity to measure the intended outcomes; however, under the Fenty administration, an additional three neighborhoods, Park Morton in Ward 1, Lincoln Heights-Richardson Dwelling in Ward 7 and Barry Farm in Ward 8, were added.  This decision, in hindsight, likely contributed to the painfully slow progress of this initiative—too much at once.

One of the greatest challenges for government officials, as it relates to housing, is the lack of continuity in setting an agenda.  From one administration to the next, plans and priorities constantly change.  The New Communities Initiative has suffered through three administrations and while the program is slowly getting back on track, the families in those affected communities have been trapped in limbo for nearly a decade.  Making matters worse, the affordability of housing in D.C. continues to erode as evidenced by the impending loss of 45 low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) properties in the next 5 years.

This lack of continuity has also hindered the growth of the city’s inclusionary zoning program, which was initiated by a vote of the D.C. Council in 2007 and became effective in 2009.  The program requires residential developers to set aside eight to 10 percent of new dwelling units for low and moderate-income residents at below-market rates; however, at the end of 2012 not a single IZ unit had been rented or sold.  While participation in this program will likely pick up, District residents cannot afford to wait four or 10 years before the housing they deserve is finally ready for their move-in.  This is particularly true when considering that more than 70,000 people were waitlisted last year for the 8,000 existing public housing units, forcing DCHA to close the list in an effort to reimagine it and increase the program’s effectiveness.   

There are many factors that have contributed to the city’s housing crisis; from years of federal government-sponsored discrimination, to social unrest, to uneven local attempts to address the problem and unchecked personal bias; we have all, in some way, contributed to the problem.  Moving forward, we must work to ensure that all citizens, regardless of race, disability, age, religious affiliation, etc. have the same opportunities and access to housing and banking services, capital and education. There must be a concerted effort to identify and address the barriers that continue to perpetuate segregation and isolate poor communities of color.  So how do we bridge a path forward?  How do we foster inclusive communities to promote diversity and access to opportunity for all?

Part 3 to follow….stay tuned!

*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso.