Housing Complex

The Lessons of Temple Courts

Capitol Riverfront, much less rough than it used to be.

The Washington Post's Robert Samuels has a great in-depth story today on the years-long screw-up that's turned a low-income housing complex into a semi-permanent parking lot. In 2008, Temple Courts, on North Capitol Street between K and L streets NW, was demolished to make way for a planned mixed-use, mixed-income development on the increasingly valuable site, replacing a squalid hotbed of crime that culminated in the 2004 execution-style murder of a 14-year-old girl. Since then, a whole bunch of things have gone wrong and left the site flattened, raising the questions of 1) what went wrong, 2) what happens now, 3) who exactly is in charge, and 4) how we prevent this from happening again.

Samuels' Post colleague (and my Housing Complex predecessor) Lydia DePillis blogs that the moral of the story is that "big, complicated public land deals involving private investment, churches and mixed-up property records are really hard to pull off." That's certainly true. I'd add one other takeaway: It's all about the medium term.

In the short term, every project sucks, no matter the eventual benefits. Few people would argue now that the city shouldn't have built a Metro system, but boy were they hollering when the construction was waking them up in the morning and hurting business on their torn-up streets and complicating their commutes. Likewise with the redevelopment of public housing, through programs like Hope VI and New Communities and Choice Neighborhoods. The first step is usually some form of displacement, and nobody likes to be displaced from his or her home, no matter how rough it might be.

In the long term, these projects are probably for the best. If you take an area of concentrated poverty, with a few hundred crime-ridden public housing units and nothing else, and turn it into a higher-density, greener, mixed-income community with the same number of low-income housing units but also a few hundred middle-class households and amenities like restaurants and shops, that's likely to look like a wise move 50 years from now.

But it's in the medium term that a project is made or broken. Is the necessary displacement during construction as quick and painless as it could be? Do all the residents who were promised the ability to return to the improved buildings on the land where they once lived actually get to move back? This is where good planning and administration come in. At Temple Courts, the city dropped the ball. At the Capper/Carrollsburg redevelopment in what's now the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, it's done a better job so far, though the recession and other factors have meant much longer displacement than the city initially promised.

DePillis pines for a Robert Moses-like despot who can brush away the red tape and see projects through from start to finish. That probably isn't possible, or even desirable, given that Moses' accumulating power helped transform him from parks champion to disastrously single-minded highway builder. But what we can realistically hope for is a mayor's office and Housing Authority that are sensitive to the pain of displacement and don't whip out the wrecking ball until they're certain there aren't any hurdles to completing a project in a reasonable time frame.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • David

    This post puts into perspective a somewhat troubling sense that I had in your reporting on the Barry Farms community meetings that seemed to lack sensitivity to the displacement fears of the current residents, and a seemingly snide attitude towards the organizers attempting to help them secure a fair deal (at least, from their perspective). Perhaps this was a result of the emotion of the meetings creeping into your reporting, or my own gut sense to distrust the take you had on those meetings, or the comments that seemed to deny these residents any right to make a deal in the first place and would simply erase them from the story. Either way, I plan to look in your reporting for more explicit answers on overcoming medium term barriers from the various officials and developers on whom you report. Thanks for posting your thoughts on this.

  • Mrs. D

    While Capper/Carrollsburg had some hiccups, it FINALLY turned the now-defunct Hope VI into a decent redevelopment idea. Many years ago in a college far away, I did my capstone project on the Hope VI project, and, at the time, the statistics were dismal. Only about 20% of displaced residents found housing in the new developments, and 11% (well over half as many as were allowed back into where they used to live) were "lost." HUD pretended that these folks had simply moved into market-rate housing, but almost no one jumps from fully public housing (most developments torn down weren't subsidized low-income, but fully public housing) to market rate in just a few years time. And, yes, HUD knew how many former residents were using Section 8, so, while some *might* be explained by people moving out of the area (though official reports did try to track people who obtained public/subsidized housing outside of the area in which they were displaced), it was obvious that most were homeless or couch surfing with friends and relatives because there was no other place to go.

    Good redevelopment CAN be done, but, you're right, they need to have a plan for where the displaced folks will go and how they will be allowed to return (while I found the "new communities" Hope VI created were FAR too selective about who to let back in (examples included new developments that disallowed boys between 12 and 20, extremely restrictive crime-record restrictions (had a DUI or public intox conviction? YOU'RE OUT!), and employment requirements - mostly longevity of current job - that were WAY too high of a hurdle for someone making under 30% of the AMI to jump), SOME criteria is not necessarily a bad thing). And, most importantly, they HAVE to be shovel-ready before anyone is moved out.

    I don't think the aggressive techniques used to disrupt the Barry Farms meetings are warranted, but the city does need a solid plan. From what I've read, they're very much so on the right track. They just need to nail down the details and COMMUNICATE that. Specifics go a long way. We CAN provide solid, modern residential communities that improve everyone's quality of life, but we need to do it carefully and deliberately.

  • Anon2

    I agree these things should be better managed. I will note that the original WaPo article, though it had lots about the mistakes of the city (most egregiously the housing authority not being able to move its own offices) there were some quotes that made the residents look a tad less than worthy.

    'Dews-Hall no longer dreams of doormen and granite countertops. Nowadays, she’d just be grateful for an elevator.'

    Dreams of doormen and granite? sheesh.

    '“They got their stadium; they got their young people,” she said. “But they didn’t get me the housing'

    Aside from this being unrelated to the ball park, its a tad presumptuous coming from someone relying on subsidies for their housing.

    "When the building opened, Williams said the church began offering half of its 60 units to former Golden Rule residents, as it promised.

    Only nine said yes. The rest were scared."

    These allegedly desperate, homeless people, turned down the units offered to them. They are holding out for what is "rightfully theirs"

    '“They have praised us for building but are worried that the neighborhood hasn’t gotten much better,” Williams said.'

    IE they want the fruits of gentrification. They don't want "old DC, the neighborhood as it was"

    "Invitations were extended to the displaced residents of Temple Courts. Some said no because they liked their new neighborhoods. "

    fair enough, but then maybe this 'displacement' is not such a tragedy as its made out to be?

    'Others thought the rooms were too small.'

    Sheesh.

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  • Tom

    I'm really put off by the sense of entitlement from people who live in public housing. I don't see public housing as their "homes". It's government property that they are using temporarily because they are destitute. Living their for the long term should not be their goal. They shouldn't be demanding anything and they should never have been promised anything. These people make our city worse by taking our tax dollars and committing crimes. Am I worried about their displacement? Yes. I don't think it's happening fast enough.

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  • Mike Madden

    @ Tom:

    By your logic, I assume you'd also be in favor of denying the mortgage interest tax deduction to anyone who committed, say, a white-collar crime? They are also taking our tax dollars and committing crimes.

  • SEis4ME

    Others thought the rooms were too small

    These people make our city worse by taking our tax dollars and committing crimes.

    Gotta love the classicism/elitism of these two.

    How DARE "these" people complain about having small rooms!
    How DARE "these" people complain about anything at all when they are taking our money and committing crimes.

    The latter silliness assumes that the people (largely women) who commit crimes are Section 8 tenants. It also continues to same elitist/Romney meme that people who receive gov't assistance can't possibly work...or pay any taxes like the rest of "us."

  • SEis4ME

    And yes, this was a better write up than the Barry Farms one...

    Good job Aaron.

  • SEis4ME

    @MM, Go get 'em brotha!

    But that would be a yes. Yes, Tom would be offended by that as well....

  • Anon2

    personally, I'd be glad to drop the mortgage interest deduction altogether. A needless subsidy that encourages middle and upper income people to consume more home than they would otherwise, and one that encourages home ownership among people who would be better off renting.

    of course not all public or subsidized housing residents are criminals.

    But yeah, when you're getting housing subsidized like this, I think it be appropriate to be thankful and not complain about the small rooms. Quite a lot of folks in market rate housing have to live in small rooms.

    I also think there is an issue with the "lonog term communities" - even multigenerational its suggested. Is not the idea that these folks should eventually move to market rate?

    The article also complains that the new building on North Capital will be 2/3 market rate instead of 1/3. Isn't it better for all (including the poor) to have that higher percent of market rate? If a building is to be 2/3 guaranteed affordable, have we gone far enough in deconcentrating the poor?

  • shawchica

    Also think it's important to note the effect that the different mayor's administrations have on these projects. Tha plan was created under Williams and then seemed to crumble under Fenty. Yes the economy changed but one also wonders how much egos had to do with the failures. It wasn't one of Fenty's programs so it didn't seem to get the money and attention it was promised. In the end the people in the community seem to get lost in the shuffle.

  • ShawGuy

    I recently read a post online about a selfish bride who complained to a guest at her wedding that she had spent over $200 per person on the event but her wedding gift from this guest and her plus one was only $100, and that she felt that was insufficient. This bride was, rightfully, vilified in the comments section.

    I don't understand why these residents are treated differently than this bride. "The rooms were too small"? Seriously? Are they bigger than the cardboard box in an underpass? Then quit your crying. A gift is just that - a gift. A present. And especially if that gift is something you cannot afford on your own, it is something you should be thrilled to get no matter what it is, big or small. Unfortunately, in public housing residents, there is an *incredible* sense of entitlement. "I am living and breathing, and therefore I DESERVE my own washer dryer, my own dishwasher, and a bedroom big enough to also have a nice sitting area".

    But that just isn't true. I was probably 30 years old before I had a home with my own private washer dryer. I probably paid $150,000 for housing in my 20s (about $1,250 per month x 12 months x 10 years) and STILL had to deal with people taking my clothes out of the basement laundry room MID-CYCLE to wash their own clothes. And I just dealt with it because that was a problem my income bracket left me with - unable to afford my own machines. Same with washing dishes by hand for a decade.

    So why is it that normal people like me see having to do laundry in a communal room and not having on-site parking as a fact of life for those who aren't rich, and public housing residents feel like this is somehow "owed" to them?

  • http://westnorth.com PCC

    Ms D's HOPE VI statistics are sadly pretty typical of many cities. Amidst the rush to clear out the public housing towers, a lot of other priorities fell by the wayside: not only resident assistance, but even (as shown in the Temple Courts saga) doing due diligence on the property. Over at Capper-Carrollsburg in SE, DCHA is still inexplicably sitting on blocks of vacant land even as cranes all around them build market-rate apartments.

    In some cases, where the housing project isn't a no-go zone for outsiders, it may be possible to use phasing (with a first phase built nearby, or on vacant land) to gradually introduce replacement housing. For instance, at this site (had fumigation not forced the city's hand) the parking lot at the SE corner could have been developed first, then moving on to replacing the occupied buildings.

  • Typical DC BS

    How trite - another liberal diatribe by Mike Madden. Since when is it appropriate for perfectly healthy people, both physically and mentally, to DEMAND that government subsidize or fund their housing long-term?

    Sorry your pseudo-socialistic nonsense doesn't pass the smell test. For ANYONE to claim that they are OWED something by the government long-term, outside of having some sort of physical or mental handicaps, is ABSURD.

    Try writing about the elephant in the room - the people whose sense of entitlement is outrageous. Why not ask these "long term residents" why, after DECADES of being on the public dole, and living in the squalid conditions, they can't be bothered to educate themselves or work 2 or 3 jobs to provide their OWN housing.

  • ShawGuy

    @Typical - I agree with you. At the end of the day, the only thing that we are "owed" by anybody is "life, liberty, and the PURSUIT of happiness" - we are not "owed" happiness itself, just the right to pursue it. And if you work hard, and get paid a good wage, you will get more happiness than someone who does not work hard or make much money despite hard work. And that all comes down to CHOICES. I would have really enjoyed being a schoolteacher, but they require an expensive education to become one and they don't pay enough. So, I made different choices. And who knows? Maybe, fifteen or twenty years down the line, the government will realize that subsidizing things like athletic stadiums isn't as important as funding our public schools and they'll pay stadiums less and teachers more. And maybe then I'll change careers. But in the meantime, I had to decide what kind of life I wanted and take steps to get there.

    That girl in the article who had a baby at 19 should have realized her CHOICE to become a teenage mother would preclude her dream of moving back "uptown". If she didn't realize that then, I hope she now realizes she has learned a costly lesson. I did not have children when I was 19. Why should my good choices subsidize her bad choices?

  • SEis4ME

    My My My. And people complained about Mitt Romney? He has nothing on the elitists here.

    Let's talk entitlement. The democrat party, led by Barack Obama, ran an entire campaign based on entitlements. The overwhelming majority of supporters felt "entitled" to tax cuts. Yes, they all felt "entitled" to middle class tax cuts that they were not "owed" and did not work for. They felt "entitled" to have health care. People on both sides feel "entitled" to child tax credits, home mortgage deductions and every other "subsidy" the gov't provides.

    So why didn't we hear rarely a whimper from people like the WCP elites about those things? It's because they feel as if the money they make and children they have "ENTITLES" them to these subsidies. We can go down the various and sundry list of other "entitlements" the gov't provides. So it's ok for middle class people to complain about tax cuts but how dare those making much less than us do the same.

    they're poor. So (as has been stated here) they can choose their own cardboard box to sleep under but should never comment on the state of their living conditions.

    You elitists would make slum landlords proud.

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