Housing Complex

Housing Authority Director Chats with Highland Dweller

Highland Dwellings are getting renovated, and residents are getting scared. (Lydia DePillis)

Highland Dwellings are getting renovated, and residents are getting scared. (Lydia DePillis)

A couple weeks ago, we looked at all the confusion surrounding renovations at Highland Dwellings, a public housing project near the Maryland border in Ward 8. Yesterday, WPFW's Pete Tucker aired a conversation between D.C. Housing Authority interim director Adrianne Todman and Schyla Pondexter-Moore, a skeptical resident. I've transcribed chunks of the conversation that illustrate one of the dynamics I was trying to get at in my story: The discomfort around private capital being used for the project, which is understandable but not entirely justified.

Pondexter-Moore began by speaking about the rough move-out process, and fear that some residents would be unable to return to their homes.

"Part of what we're doing is creating a new vocabulary in terms of what we're doing here," Todman responded. "Folks are very familiar with HOPE VI, we have seven HOPE VI sites, it's the only model that a lot of our clients are used to about when we talk about a revitalization. The difference is, with HOPE VI, that's correct, there is no presumption of return. HOPE VI tends to be more a public-private partnership, and at the end of the day, the Housing Authority tends not to be the owner. And so we work cooperatively with the clients of those sites to see what the re-entry criteria would be. And I think particularly here in D.C., with the number of HOPE VI sites that we've had, we have been very very successful inasmuch as trying to be transparent there."

"What's different with this model is that I can look every residnt in the eye and say, I expect you to return. The only residents who would not return would be perhaps the residents who have faced eviction for anything they have done during their relocation period. But I am singly focused on those residents who want to return can return to the site."

Pondexter-Moore then explained why people were feeling so nervous.

"I think some of the concern does come from the $8 million in private money that's being used for these renovations. Once you hear the word private, you start to think OK, anything can happen at this point. If there's a eonly reason why the loan goes into default or the payment's not paid, anything can happen. The private developer, it seems to me–I'm not quite 100 percent sure on these things, I'm still kind of researching it–but when you hear the word private, if something goes wrong, then that private person can do whatever they want. And as it goes, public housing is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking, so if that happens, where will those people go?"

"Jus tthe word private," she finished. "You hear the word private, you start to get scared."

Todman tried to reassure her.

"As I said, we're building a new vocabulary. Private doesn't seem like a scary word to me, private means money I made to try to make life better for residents here at Highland Dwellings. But that doesn't mean we are going to change fundamentally our relationship with our clients. It's my intention that even though we have private money coming here–because I'm sad to say, we don't have enough public money coming here–and I think as somebody who's in the nation's capital happy to lend my voice to all of our congressional leadership to say: the more public money we have to invest in public housing units at a capital level, there might be less need for these kinds of strategies. But right now, these are the tools that we have. And I am not saying we are going to wait for public money that we need to do the kinds of things we need to do here. We just don't have that kind of public support. "

Pondexter-Moore's response: "I've been living here since November 2007. Initially, people start saying things about the high crime, but once you get here, it's a sense of comunity, I like living here, I like my neighbords, I like the view, I like the area, and when you hear renovation and private developers, you start think gentrification, because it's been happening ward by ward by ward. You start thinking OK, Homeland Security's being built dwown the street, things are changing, you see construction being done at Barry Farms. So you start thinking, what are they really trying to do, what is really going on. The places need renovation, they need them bad, but at what expense? What is gonna happen to us? Because this is all we have."

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