Homelessness has long haunted Washington, and it may be on track to get worse

Attorney Catherine Cone attends a tenant’s association meeting in northeast Washington. Cone is a member of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
(Photo by Terrence Kane)

WASHINGTON – Homelessness has long been a thorn in the side of the District of Columbia, which has enacted numerous plans in an effort to curb the issue. However, the district is set for a sizable challenge in trying to balance the eradication of homelessness with its pursuit of redevelopment.

The district zoning commission authorized development company MidCity to demolish and rebuild the Brookland Manor apartment building in northeast Washington. The move would replace the current 535 units with about 1,700 smaller, less affordable apartments, putting hundreds of residents at risk of displacement or homelessness.

The district government created, and steadily increased the funding for, several programs to reduce the number of homeless people in the city of Washington. The most notable of these programs are the housing voucher programs which, despite their positive impact, have a troubled reputation.

There are currently several housing voucher programs in the district that are designed to ease the burden of rising rent prices in Washington. These programs, which have been effective in quickly rehousing people, have earned criticism for their inability to maintain long-term housing stability for their participants.

In spite of its failure to properly manage the current housing crisis, the city of Washington is poised to make the situation significantly worse. With affordable apartment buildings slated for redevelopment, scores of families may be faced with near-imminent displacement from their current homes, forcing them into the already broken housing programs.

Among the more notorious programs is the Rapid Rehousing program, which aims to make housing the first priority in combatting homelessness. However, this program has also garnered some of the most severe criticism.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless cited internal data that estimates less than 50% of families who enter the Rapid Rehousing program will exit into a permanent, independent living situation. Caitlin Cocilova, a staff attorney at the legal clinic, did not mince her words: “Rapid rehousing has not been effective. …The numbers don’t add up.”

The redevelopment is specifically negative for families living in these properties; the new buildings simply won’t have the capacity to hold them. While many of the current properties have three-, four- and five-bedroom apartments designed especially for low-income families, the plans revealed for the new building house almost exclusively one- or two-bedroom apartments.

This redevelopment plan, however, faces serious legal challenges filed on behalf of the residents by local legal organizations. The tenants are attempting to halt the plan in it’s tracks by claiming that the change will unjustly discriminate against families.

“What we are arguing in the case is that families who lives in a three-, four- or five-bedroom units with children who are under 18 are at risk of displacement,” said Catherine Cone, a lawyer representing One DC. Their justification for the lawsuit is simple, Cone says: “What everyone who is part of the lawsuit is fighting for is just an inclusive redevelopment, an inclusive community that will provide a home for the families.”

The familial bias is only one ground on which tenants are challenging the legality of the redevelopment plan. Will Merrifield, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who is working on the case, said they are challenging the city’s ability to displace hundreds of residents.

“We are appealing the fact that they want to build these over 1,700 units and eliminate families from Brookland Manor,” Merrifield said. Tenants assert that they were promised a place to live through and following the redevelopment, but that the building plans don’t appear to match that promise. Merrifield put his argument into even more succinct terms saying, “If you want to build your 1,700 units, everybody stays.”

The participants in the lawsuit have faced intimidation and the loss of one of their plaintiffs during their lengthy legal battle. Cone described a memo that was distributed through Brookland Manor property calling the lead plaintiff an impediment to redevelopment.

“There’s no need to call people out and make it seem like she is standing in the way of new homes,” Cone said. “That is not true.” While the redevelopment would create new housing opportunities for incoming residents, it will fall short in continuing to provide housing to its current tenants.

The redevelopment project will prove a significant problem if the current trend of homelessness management is not altered. While there have been sporadic changes to Washington’s homelessness policies, some experts say that the overhauls have caused more problems than they have solved.

The participants in the lawsuit have faced intimidation and the loss of one of their plaintiffs during their lengthy legal battle. Cone described a memo that was distributed through Brookland Manor property calling the lead plaintiff an impediment to redevelopment.

“There’s no need to call people out and make it seem like she is standing in the way of new homes,” Cone said. “That is not true.” While the redevelopment would create new housing opportunities for incoming residents, it will fall short in continuing to provide housing to its current tenants.

The redevelopment project will prove a significant problem if the current trend of homelessness management is not altered. While there have been sporadic changes to Washington’s homelessness policies, some experts say that the overhauls have caused more problems than they have solved.

“The changes that we’ve seen haven’t been super positive, unfortunately,” said Cocilova regarding updates to the Homeless Services Reform Act, which is essentially the constitution for homelessness law. The change updates the aspect of the law that required families seeking shelter to prove their residency in Washington; the law now requires two forms of residency verification.

Cocilova said she was surprised by the change, which she had hoped would make it easier to offer homelessness relief. “Instead what we saw was greater restrictions on people’s access to shelter,” she added.

The redevelopment in Washington has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable groups in the city. According to Cocilova, “Most of our clients are poor. Most of our clients are black. Most of them have been harmed by either ineffective or inefficient or just programs that haven’t worked for them.” Not only were these groups vulnerable to begin with, they were then further harmed by programs put in place to protect them.

The future of the housing crisis in Washington remains murky as the lawsuit continues to make its way through the court system. But the impact that the redevelopment could have on the homelessness crisis is clear.

The project could displace scores of families, families who will now find it even more difficult to seek shelter as a result of policies changes in the District. Cocilova described the potential crisis as a reflection of Washington’s culture: “All the cases have to do with the fact that we’ve created a society that, and a system in D.C. that values money over people.”

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