Housing Complex

Tent City on a Hill: What Will the Fight for Parcel 42 Achieve?

At least the space will look nicer. (Lydia DePillis)

At least the space will look nicer. (Lydia DePillis)

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.

  • MistrKnucklz

    If you can't afford the neighborhood, there are two options: (1) come up with more money; or (2) live somewhere else.

  • Rick Mangus

    NOTHING!, liberal whites go home to mommy and daddy, except for that 80 year old crazy white women who should just go!

  • Northwesterner

    oh Noodlez, I like your account as Rick even better

  • Time for them to go!

    If even Council's Official Pander Bear, Michael Brown, won't stand up for these clowns, that should tell them something. They don't have the sense to get out of the hot sun - or the driving rain. And everyone knows it.

    They should go home and find some other hopeless - or worthless - cause. Right now, as the saying goes, they can't even get arrested.

  • Sally

    What if you have a protest, and no one cares? Did you actually have a protest?

  • Chris

    Wow, I have never witnessed such a sense of entitlement as I have in DC.

    "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." -- so in reality, they're mad that the mayor isn't going to put the burden of their desire to live on expensive real estate onto the backs of the rest of us.

    Let me know if anyone needs me to help chip in on a bulldozer to clear them off this piece of someone else's property.

  • LFG

    There's a basic piece missing in this article. No new affordable housing has been developed in Shaw for decades, while rents have been rising and rising, and other subsidized housing has been decaying.

    What low-income Shaw residents need is deeply subsidized housing, i.e. housing that is at a price they can afford on limited incomes. Market rates are absurdly inflated, but the city can step in to protect housing for people at all income levels.

    That means subsidies and housing for families who only make 25 or 30 or 40 thousand dollars per year, which is most families in Shaw. That's much less than 50% or 60% of the AMI.

    Although they've been here forever, they're getting pushed out because they can't afford to pay as much as other prospective tenants and buyers.

    Fenty, it's quite obvious, doesn't see their expulsion as a problem.

    ONE DC does.

    I think ONE DC is clearly doing the right thing in this situation. Whether or not the Tent City is the catalyst for change on the issue, it's a struggle in a large battle to protect low-income DC residents.

    It's something more people should be on board with.

  • Jason

    I must be confused: what right does anyone have to live in a specific neighborhood? It's sad that people who have lived in a neighborhood for may years are forced to leave because they can't afford the taxes, rent, etc. But is it their right to live there? No it is not. We all live where we do based on our income levels, not based on our sense of entitlement.

  • Chris

    Jason - that's a point clearly lost on these people.

  • Frances

    So Jason, your landlord sells the property and/or raises your rent beyond what you can afford, and you are forced to move far away from the neighborhood where you have raised your kids, where you know your community, where you have lived for decades, and developed friends and a sense of home, you don't think anyone should stand up for you and say it's unfair for your landlord to destroy the life and community you have built just because they want to make more money off it?

    I think most people would see your comment as hypocritical, coming from someone who clearly has never been in that situation and thus doesn't know what he's talking about.

  • c

    the more i read about this the less sympathetic i am with the plight of the affordable housing advocates.
    its people like frances that don't get it, not jason.

  • Rick Mangus

    Hey!, everyone look at the photo on top of this article! Since when do POOR people have $500.00 powertools! You ALL are being SCAMMED by CON-ARTIST!

  • bland

    rick,
    skil and black and decker drills are less than $80 each.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com Jason Cherkis

    Love that the Tea Party is in full effect in the comments. Always a pleasure, Rick and Sally! Why not just go ahead an quote your muse, Sharron Angle:

    http://motherjones.com/mojo/2010/06/video-sharron-angle-unemployed-are-spoiled

  • se resident

    Insert sarcasm font: yes, let's set it up that every neighborhood is income-based: rich people live with rich people, poor and working class people live with poor and working class people. Rich people get first pick, so when suburbia was pleasing, they lived there, and when living closer to work was pleasing, they moved back to town. Now the poor and working class are being pushed out to suburbia, where they also get to shoulder higher transportation costs to get to where the rich people live and work to cook and serve their food and clean their homes and offices and babies. See "South Africa, 1970's."
    Please note the absence of a middle-class in this scenario.

  • Rick Mangus

    'Jason Cherkis', go and try and write that pathetic thing that you call a column and show your ignorance somewhere else!

  • downtown rez

    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.
    Point of Clarification- Local AMI (Area Median Income) is $103K for a family of 4. So, $25K is ~25% AMI for a family of 4. Given DC's minimum wage law, that's basically one parent working full time plus a little overtime, and 3 kids who don't work at all.
    There are families like that out there, but most live with relatives or share homes- most can't afford their own place.
    My point is that the money has to come from somewhere. Either it comes from the people who work to pay for their own housing, as is usual, or it comes from the government, who taxes those people, as the government does. But the big financial picture is that it costs more to help those who earn less and so <fewer people in the lower brackets can be helped for the same amount of dollars. In other words, you can help twice as many who earn 50% or AMI as you can who earn 25% of AMI.
    So it seems that OneDC, if they had their way, would actually prefer fewer people be helped. Otherwise, they'd be out there stumping for higher taxes, not talking about a specific project with a specific budget.

  • On the Contrary

    wow - how many of these "protestors" are actually from the neighborhood? anyone who thinks MORE public housing is needed in shaw isnt kept awake by all the gun shots and corner boys. shaw has enough already and parcel 42 will provide even more. ONE DC is a mile wide and an inch deep. pick and issue and do it well! amateur hour indeed! cant wait for mpd to bust this up!

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  • DCAdvocate

    I really am sympathetic to the plight of poor families in the District and believe that the City could and should do more for its neediest residents. This isn’t the way though. Squatting on land that isn’t yours and trying to build support for your cause by doing this is destined to fail. However, DC has the capacity, resources, and finances to eradicate homelessness, stabilize low-income families into affordable housing, and implement the right policies to move people up the economic ladder. Some of you will argue that we’re facing a huge budget deficit and the City can’t afford to do things like this, well that’s bullshit. DC has the highest per resident budget in the ENTIRE COUNTRY. With 600k residents, we have a budget one $16k per person. NYC has a budget of $3500 a person. The difference for us is that our elected officials are idiots, fiscally irresponsible, and only care about winning elections. So instead of focusing on the real needs, they focus on something that is popular- education. We’ll spend 25% of our entire City’s budget on Education but less than 2% on affordable housing. Without stable housing, you can’t have a stable school system. When will they learn this? DC has one of the highest poverty rates in the ENTIRE COUNTRY but we also have largest amount of residents who have master degrees or higher. We live in a divided City that is only widening margins not bridging gaps with each passing day. The poor are human beings too.

  • downtown rez

    DCAdvocate:
    Where are you getting your figures that show DC has a $9.6 billion annual budget? Last I heard, it was $2.6 billion- less than 1/3 that.

  • downtown rez

    Oops. $5.3 billion. Not $2.6 billion.

  • DCAdvocate

    Check your numbers Rez. The DC budget for FY 11 is a little over $10 billion: http://cfo.dc.gov/cfo/cwp/view,a,1321,q,645445.asp.

  • downtown rez

    Your link is bad.
    DC FPI and WP both report considerably less, especially when federal dollars (which are lost if not spent on specific things and under specific terms and conditions) and other mandatory spending obligations (salaries,pensions, health care, etc) are removed.
    I'm not a huge fan of the DC FPI, but at least their bias is up-front, and here's a link:
    http://www.dcfpi.org/fy11-budget-toolkit

  • Rick Mangus

    'On the Contrary', NONE! I will say it again and again, these assholes are not from DC, they are a traveling band of guilt ridden white socialist liberal trust fund babies who are here to start trouble. They had a protest rally two weeks ago and no one came! They tried to get people to show up by bribing them with sandwichs and sodas! The media knows what these people are all about, all but this rag!

  • Shawresident

    I actually live in Shaw. We're the dumping ground for subsidized housing in NW DC.

    It's fine that they're here, but the idea of building more is absurd.

    There are 3 buildings at the corner where Parcel 42 is. 1 is a public housing project, another is a public housing project and the other is... wait for it... a public housing project.

    Lets shove another one in there, because concentrating poverty as much as possible in one area is the humane thing to do....

    OneDC etc. are a bunch of idiots.

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  • DCAdvocate

    Rez- Do yourself a favor and actually read the DCFPI report. I got mine direct from the CFO, but even the DCFPI report supports my range more so than yours. DCFPI has $9.4 Billion. And read the pie chart as well. My statements are spot on. Take care.

  • downtown rez

    Not to belabor the matter, but your analysis is seriously flawed. To start, Federal dollars come with serious strings, and schools make up much less than 25% of our budget.

  • DCAdvocate

    Schools make up 23% of our budget, so yes, you are right it's less, but not by much. My analysis is grounded in experience. Yours is not. Federal Dollars have strings attached only when it's designated for a specific purpose or program, but suppose all Fed dollars were restricted, what about the rest of our budget from local revenue sources? What prohibits us from prioritize a basic human need? Increasing the housing budget even to 5% will have a dramatic and immediate effect. Why spend so much on failing schools when a vast portion of the population isn't even housed properly. It's common sense.

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  • http://borderstan.com/04/martin-moulton-39/ @CCCAPrez #39

    I dislike how WCP slices dices and minces quotes to suit its own agenda. I applaud any citizens right to form a respectful civil protest. But you have to pay the consequences and clean up after yourselves when necessary. ONE DC cut and run and tax payers paid for the clean up. Shame.

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