“(The New Communities Initiative) is a tremendous opportunity for our city, one of the most important things we have done in the last 10 years.” —Mayor Anthony Williams, July 2005
When Williams uttered these words, New Communities seemed a bold leap, setting a new standard for “urban renewal,” in which long-term, low-income residents would benefit most from the changes. The pledge was to build new affordable housing with wrap-around services adjacent to decaying complexes, so that tenants got new homes in their own community while a larger mixed-income redevelopment took place.
The program began with a pair of murders, the most obvious being the January 2004 execution of 14-year-old Jahkema “Princess” Hansen in the Sursum Corda complex near First and M streets NW, cut down for having witnessed an earlier killing. Hovering ghost-like in the background, however, was another death: that of a tight-knit Southwest D.C. community in the first wave of inner-city renewal in the 1950s.
That history fed community skepticism of New Communities in Northwest One—the North Capitol Street area adjacent to Sursum Corda, where the whole program began—as residents questioned whether demolition and displacement would trump the building of new units in the community. But neighborhood advocates like me helped overcome the suspicion, arguing that this time would be different, and we would fight to make it so.
Now the New Communities Initiative is in serious trouble, with the biggest news in its 10th year being a city-commissioned report detailing its fundamental failings. The recommendations for reviving the program in the report by Quadel Consulting and Training only magnify the danger. Underneath the measured, wonkish tones is an unmistakable message: New Communities can only be saved by breaking its original promises—those, that is, that haven’t already been broken.
One measure of this betrayal: The New Communities program in Northwest One has resulted in a net loss of more than 100 deeply subsidized—read: truly affordable—units thus far.
This is not how it was supposed to be… and I speak as someone in the room when this all came together, in community meetings at St. Aloysius Catholic Church following the highly publicized murders, failed HUD inspections, and consequent feared loss of hundreds of units of affordable housing.
Over the years, I have been heartbroken as, one by one, those hopes were dashed, those pledges compromised, even discarded. Now the last chance to salvage the essentials of the original vision and keep faith with the long-term, low-income residents lies in the hands of a new mayor and D.C. Council. Read more How D.C.’s Plan to Save Low-Income Housing Went Wrong