Tent City on a Hill: What Will the Fight for Parcel 42 Achieve?
There’s no mercy from the midday sun on the empty lot at 7th and R Streets in Shaw, and the fierce rain just sinks through the rocky soil. At this point, though, the elements aren’t the worst thing the people who’ve set up a tent city there over the last week will have to face. The police have decided to leave them alone.
Having missed out on the compelling imagery that a forcible eviction would have produced, the land liberators are feathering their nest. About a dozen people puttered around the space last night setting up new tents, adorning the fences and sidewalks, and erecting a huge back plastic shelter to provide some shade during the day. Later, OneDC—the organization that put it all together—ceremonially handed over the administration of the slowly growing encampment to the neighborhood volunteers.
The “intentional community,” by some standards of community organizing, has been a success: It’s brought people together and raised the profile of affordable housing as a pressing issue in Shaw and around the city. It’s made public space out of a corner that has lain useless for too long. It’s also managed to tell the story of Parcel 42, as the plot of land is known, from OneDC’s perspective: signs reading “FENTY BROKE HIS PROMISE” are posted all around, and tent city denizens are happy to tell passerby about how he stole their affordable housing.
But on their primary goal—achieving rooms reserved for the very lowest income renters in the eventual development—OneDC is unlikely to succeed. They failed to get the verbal promise in writing in the first place. And now, they don’t have enough of a coalition to get it back.
Here’s the story in a nutshell. In 2007, the city worked out a memorandum of understanding with community groups by which a plot by the Shaw metro station, Parcel 33, would be developed as the headquarters of Radio One and 112 units of housing. In exchange for some of the units going for market rate, the city threw in rental housing at Parcel 42 for residents making less than 50 percent of the area median income (AMI).
The project moved slowly, though—Radio One ended up pulling out earlier this year, and the city scrambled to bring in the United Negro College Fund to buy part of the planned building. Meanwhile, the development team selected for Parcel 42 (whom OneDC supported) struggled to pull together the financing as the market turned south. In June, the news came out that the number of units would be almost cut in half, requiring millions of dollars less in city subsidies.
Every one of the units will still be rented at less than 50 percent of AMI—a fact that OneDC rarely mentions. But there are no apparent plans to rent the units in tiers under the 50 percent level, helping households making even less than $25,000 per year. That’s where OneDC takes exception.
Rosemary Ndubuizu, a OneDC community organizer, recalls having Ketan Gada, a development manager with the Department of Planning and Economic Development, sit in her conference room and work out a spreadsheet of tiered rents. But that rent schedule never made it into the final, signed MOU. So when OneDC shouts that Fenty broke his promise, technically speaking, he didn’t—which is perhaps why they’re not posting the document all around their camp as well.
“Perhaps there was an explicit level of trust that shouldn’t have been there,” Ndubuizu admits. “We now know, don’t trust the Fenty administration.”
The Fenty administration hasn’t done much to counter OneDC’s narrative. When I tried to get Gada on the phone, I was routed to the Mayor’s spokeswoman Mafara Hobson, who (as per usual!) had no information to share except that the city had never agreed to a tiered schedule of rents.
Really, though, they don’t have to—ignoring the issue is a much more effective way of making it go away. Other than partnering with the national Take Back the Land organization, OneDC hasn’t built a local coalition to force the administration to change course. While sympathetic to their position, community leaders like ANC commissioner Alex Padro–another original signatory to the MOU–haven’t shown up in solidarity. Other local housing and tenant advocacy groups aren’t lending their names to the campaign. (Meanwhile, Gada will be speaking at the next meeting of the Convention Center Civic Association, whose president Martin Moulton called the tent city denizens "squatters" in a broadside to the Shaw listserv.)
Even at-large city councilmember Michael Brown, who chairs the housing and workforce development committee, isn’t much of a champion. While expressing support for the effort in general terms in a swing by the corner, when Kojo Nnamdi pressed him on the issue, Brown faded back to talk about legislation that would address the broader issue of affordability in D.C. by redefining the area median income to just encompass the District, rather than wealthier surrounding jurisdictions.
The most successful advocacy campaigns have protesters raising a ruckus in the streets as well as allies working the halls of power. A good example locally is Save Our Safety Net, which brought together groups from policy shops to labor unions to churches around D.C.’s budget negotiations—they didn’t get the higher taxes they wanted, but the cuts were shallower than they might have otherwise been.
Virginia Lee, OneDC’s representative who originally signed the MOU with the city, had a simple explanation for why more groups and influential figures don’t support OneDC’s cause.
“Like many other organizations, with many other agendas, they move on,” she said. “Our reality is apparently not their reality.”
“Yeah, that’s the truth,” murmured Ndubuizu.