In Defense of Affordability at Parkway Overlook
My column this week on the ghost town at the former Parkway Overlook Apartments has sparked a debate in the comments and on Twitter over whether the complex should really be restored as affordable housing. The 20 buildings on the property housed more than 1,000 low-income residents receiving Section 8 assistance from the federal government until 2007, when the property owner went bust after failing several inspections. Since then, the D.C. Housing Finance Agency has struggled to dispose of the property.
In the column, I argue that the city should help ensure that Parkway Overlook remain affordable. That drew some criticism from readers.
"'A Parkway Overlook that’s not primarily dedicated to affordable housing would be a mistake,'" quotes Eric Fidler on Twitter. "I paused."
The Congress Heights on the Rise blog responds with a lengthy post opposing the idea of bringing more affordable housing to Ward 8, the city's poorest ward, and advocating more economic diversity. The blog's author, under the pseudonym The Advoc8te, also comments on my column, "I tend to think affordable housing and housing for the working poor would be of more use in neighborhoods with JOBS and AMENITIES. Not in the ward with the highest unemployment in the city."
These are valid points. The city is moving away from a model of concentrated poverty toward one of economic integration, with Hope VI projects like the Capitol Riverfront redevelopment and Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grants for Barry Farm and possibly the Greenleaf complex in Southwest. These efforts at conversion of public housing ghettos to mixed-income communities hasn't always been perfectly executed, but the basic logic is solid: Mixed-income neighborhoods tend to have less crime and greater potential to attract restaurants and grocery stores and other amenities than neighborhoods with only poor people.
So how about Parkway Overlook? Certainly, we don't want simply to restore what was there 10 years ago, a crime-ravaged, isolated public housing complex whose only mention in the press came when people got shot.
But a few things could be different this time around. First, the neighborhood doesn't have to be isolated. By connecting it to St. Elizabeths—right in its backyard—Parkway Overlook could gain easy access to amenities, offices, and the Metro. It would also gain through traffic, both automotive and pedestrian, which would put more eyes on the street and likely reduce crime.
And second, Parkway Overlook is very unlikely to be 100 percent Section 8 again. Even if it's 100 percent "affordable," it could be something like one-third set aside for people making under 30 percent of area median income, one-third 50 percent AMI, and one-third 80 percent AMI. Let's remember that 80 percent AMI, while technically considered "affordable," is $86,000 a year for a four-person household, which is more than most families are likely to be earning in an economically depressed part of the city.
But I maintain that it would be a mistake not to keep the complex primarily affordable—and at least partly truly affordable, under 30 or 50 percent AMI. Nearly 1,000 low-income people were displaced when Parkway Overlook shut down in 2007. The D.C. Housing Authority's waiting list for housing assistance was around 70,000 people long before it was closed in April. There's a tremendous need for affordable housing, and when we have a 266-unit affordable housing complex that already exists—albeit in need of repairs—it makes no sense to tear it down in favor of fancy new condos, especially when demand in this part of town is unlikely to sustain them.
We absolutely want to see a mix of uses and incomes in new Ward 8 development, and to see affordable housing spread out all over the District. But that's not an excuse to turn down a prime opportunity to keep Parkway Overlook affordable when buildings like it are so sorely lacking across the city.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery