By Paul Duggan
August 29, 2016
Lorretta Holloman, the breadwinner of her household, is “really, really happy” in her four-bedroom apartment. The place is spacious enough for her family of six, its location in Northeast Washington suits their daily routines, and at $1,675 a month, the rent is affordable (if just barely) on her moderate income.
“It allows for us all to be together,” said Holloman, 36, sitting on her sofa one night last week. Her daughters — a prekindergartner and a college student — live with her. So does her adolescent son, who has special-education needs; and her adult brother, who is profoundly autistic; and her jobless mother, 62, who lost a house to foreclosure.
“We’re not on top of each other like we used to be,” Holloman said, recalling life in the two-bedroom apartment she used to rent in Prince George’s County. “We can still be close as a family without tearing one another’s heads off.”
But now their days are numbered at sprawling Brookland Manor, a World War II-era development of 19 squat brick blockhouses with 535 no-frills apartments. A few miles north of the U.S. Capitol — the dome is visible on the horizon — the complex is occupied mainly by low-income tenants whose rents are government-subsidized.
As the District’s growing affluence spreads in every direction, the tide of prosperity is rolling northeast from downtown toward Brookland Manor, in a historically industrial and working-class neighborhood near Catholic University. For Brookland’s owner, the time is right to raze and rebuild, to erect a modern, denser, more aesthetically attractive complex of 1,760 residences with an array of amenities — and far pricier rents for most tenants.
But in a city with a critical shortage of affordable housing, the massive redevelopment off Rhode Island Avenue NE has become for some a symbol of the problems faced by those of modest means who are fearful of being displaced by moneyed newcomers in the District’s hot real estate market.
Such fears are especially acute for large families such as Holloman’s that are overrepresented among the city’s poor.
Brookland Manor today has 134 four- and five-bedroom apartments. Yet when the new community is built, none of its 1,646 apartments or 114 for-sale townhouses will have more than three bedrooms, and a vast majority will have only one or two.
Brookland’s owner, Mid-City Financial Corp., based in Germantown, Md., told the city’s Zoning Commission that four- and five-bedroom apartments “are not consistent with the creation of a vibrant new community.”
Tenants’ advocates, who filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday alleging housing discrimination, interpret Mid-City’s assertions as a polite way of saying that the company is worried that the multi-generational families will make the soon-to-be-rebranded “Brentwood Village” a harder sell to the affluent professionals flocking to the nation’s capital.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that Mid-City’s plan would result in scores of families being forced out of Brookland in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and the D.C. Human Rights Act. Mid-City Executive Vice President Michael Meers said that those concerns are overblown and that his company is committed to accommodating most current residents.
“This is all 100 percent orchestrated by the tenant advocates,” Meers said. “It never stops. We honor, acknowledge, recognize all the tenants’ rights. But we also have the view that the community has rights, too. Ownership has rights. And we have an obligation to make sure this project is successful and works for everybody.”
He declined to comment on specifics of the lawsuit, saying he had not yet read it.
Will Merrifield, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, called the situation at Brookland Manor “a perfect snapshot of a broader problem.”
He was referring not just to the dearth of low and moderately priced housing in the District but also to the particular scarcity of affordable housing big enough for large families, many of whom end up in the crowded, decrepit shelter for homeless families at the old D.C. General Hospital.
Holloman, who makes $50,000 a year working in human resources, is one of just 60 or so Brookland tenants who pay unsubsidized market rents. As she searched for a new place recently, she said, the only similarly priced apartments of equal size that she found in the District were in crime-scarred pockets of poverty east of the Anacostia River, as yet untouched by gentrification.
“Plus I’d have to pay all the utilities, which I don’t pay utilities here, and it becomes an issue of us trying to finagle our budget,” she said. “That’s something that I can’t do, because our budget is already tight.”
Holloman’s income, supplemented by her brother’s $733 in monthly disability payments, is a fortune compared with what many of her poorer neighbors in subsidized units get by on. For them, relocating could be even more daunting.
Four- and five-bedroom units in the District constitute just 8 percent and 4 percent of available rental housing, respectively, with most of the properties in Wards 7 and 8, the city’s poorest areas, according a report last year by the Urban Institute, a public-policy research group. Brookland is in Ward 5, a largely working- and middle-class precinct that is on the rise.
In gaining zoning approval for the project last year, Mid-City, which has owned Brookland Manor since 1975, assured the commission that all of the complex’s current low-income tenants would be offered apartments in the new community.
For decades, 373 Brookland apartments have been reserved for tenants getting assistance from the federal rent-subsidy program known as Section 8. About 100 other units are occupied by residents with subsidy vouchers from the city, while roughly 60 apartments, including Holloman’s, are leased at market prices.
Mid-City promised to retain 373 Section 8 units in the vastly expanded Brentwood Village, each with a federal rent ceiling, and also pledged to try to accommodate the 100 or so tenants holding city vouchers. But that low-income population includes families in the four- and five-bedroom apartments, which are going away.
After conducting “detailed demographic research” of Brookland residents, Mid-City told zoning officials, the company determined that with few exceptions, each of those large-apartment families could be moved to a smaller unit, or divided into multiple smaller units, without violating federal rent-subsidy regulations.
Tenants’ advocates, including lawyers who filed the lawsuit, dispute this, contending that a lot of poor families will be forced out of the complex and cast into a brutal D.C. market for affordable housing. Only 64 of the planned 1,760 residences in the new community will have three bedrooms, and the rest will be smaller, Mid-City told the Zoning Commission.
That sort of squeeze, occurring in many parts of the city, not only is exacerbating homelessness but also is hardening a landscape of “economic segregation,” said Jonathan Smith, director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit.
Referring to the impoverished areas where such displaced families wind up, Smith said: “Look at what happens to children. We know that the outcome for a kid is predicted more by the income of their census tract than by the income of their family.”
The plaintiffs, also represented pro bono by the major law firm Covington & Burling, hope to force Mid-City to include affordable four- and five-bedroom units in the redevelopment.
In an interview, Mid-City’s Meers described the Brookland redevelopment as a “legacy” project championed by Eugene F. Ford Sr., who founded the company in 1965 and died in October at age 86. For decades, Meers said, Ford enjoyed a reputation as a responsible owner of subsidized housing in the Washington region.
Meers said that in 1977, after acquiring Brookland Manor, Mid-City signed contracts with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In return for a 40-year, low-interest HUD mortgage, the company set aside the 373 apartments for tenants with rent subsidies. The complex has been meticulously kept up, Meers said.
Of the 535 apartments, fewer than 500 are occupied, because Mid-City is reducing the tenant population through attrition as it prepares for the redevelopment. Albeit austere, the complex is clean and reasonably well functioning, Meers said.
“Our founder did more for affordable housing than all these advocates combined,” he said. “We’ve owned this property for 40 years. The owner never made a penny. There hasn’t been a [revenue] distribution in all that time. Everything that’s been generated by the property in rents and subsidies has been reinvested in the property.”
Now, with maintenance costs getting prohibitive at the 75-year-old complex and with the HUD mortgage due to be paid off next August, ending redevelopment restrictions, Meers said, the time has come to ambitiously revitalize the 20-acre site, as a monument to Ford and in response to the lucrative emerging market along Rhode Island Avenue.
Although it doesn’t have to, Mid-City has negotiated with HUD to keep the 373 affordable apartments “in perpetuity,” Meers said. He declined to talk in detail about the elimination of three- and four-bedroom units, saying, “We went over this for hours with the Zoning Commission.”
Holloman has lived at Brookland for five years. But because she isn’t a low-income tenant with a subsidy — and because rent at the new Brentwood Village, even for a smaller apartment, is almost certain to be well beyond her means — she eventually will have to leave unless Mid-City alters its plans.
Of the five others in her family whose lives would be disrupted by a move, the one she worries about most is Derek, her 33-year-old autistic brother.
“He can become very agitated by new things,” Holloman said one recent evening.
As she spoke, Derek appeared in the kitchen, only to vanish, a burly figure in dark slacks and a white undershirt, lumbering silently from room to room. “He’ll isolate himself, get very confused and withdrawn,” she said.
“You know, Derek, he doesn’t do well with change.”