Brookland Manor, D.C.’s largest affordable housing community, is under attack
Community members and allies prepare to head out for flyering in 2018. | Yasmina Mrabet via Brookland Manor Residents Association

WASHINGTON—Brookland Manor has roots that run deep in D.C. Across the District, it is widely known as a vibrant historically Black neighborhood that has housed multi-generational families since the late 1930s. Comprising 19 buildings situated on a 22-acre plot of land in the Northeast corner, it is a place that thousands of D.C. residents warmly call home.

Brookland Manor is not just one of the longest-standing communities in D.C., though; it is also one of the few large affordable housing complexes remaining in the District, especially unique for its many 3, 4, and 5-bedroom units that provide homes for large families. In the most rapidly gentrifying city in the nation, large families have been hit hardest in the District. More than 40,000 families still languish on D.C.’s Housing Authority voucher waitlist even though the list closed in 2013, according to the most recent Urban Institute report. Amid the proliferation of luxury studios and one-bedrooms, Brookland Manor stands as one of the last bastions of affordable living for D.C. families.

And at this moment, it’s under attack. In fact, the community has been living in imminent danger of displacement for the last seven years. But the struggle to keep the neighborhood intact is intensifying daily in the face of an active removal campaign waged by a corporate developer.

A community built for each other, by each other

Following a long tradition of redlined Black communities neglected and abused by the government, Brookland Manor takes care of its own. Over the course of its long history, the community has supported healthy resident living with such initiatives as bringing a doctor’s office to the property, organizing consistent grocery drop-off services, including Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs delivering fresh vegetables, and providing on-site education to young people about sexual and mental health. Minnie Elliott, a retired grandmother and the president of the Brookland Manor Residents Association, spends her days driving community members to appointments and collecting their medications.

Residents have cultivated a camaraderie between their neighbors by bringing a community church on site, forging recreational partnerships with nearby properties, developing a thriving Boys and Girls Club program, and supporting a grant-based recording studio for teens conceived and run by a resident committed to helping kids transition to adulthood.

Now, the strong community bonds between residents that have helped the neighborhood thrive over the years are being called on to help it survive.

MidCity Financial, the corporate real-estate firm that is the developer and owner of the property where Brookland Manor is located, has been pushing a redevelopment plan—and pushing residents out—since 2014. The redevelopment, despite tripling the density of units on site from 535 to 1,760, will displace thousands of residents, many of them children who have lived at Brookland Manor for their entire lives.

MidCity’s plan, created and proposed without any engagement with the community, eliminates more than 100 large family units. At a time when affordable family units in D.C. are in extreme shortage, reducing their number here would shatter the Brookland Manor community and force many families out of the District or even into homelessness. It is evident that adding this level of density while cutting over 100 affordable housing units serves one incentive alone: profit for MidCity’s shareholders.

The redevelopment plan only guarantees 373 affordable units, 200 of which are reserved for senior citizens only, forcing intergenerational households to choose between their families and their homes. Keep in mind, the Brookland Manor community does not even currently house 200 senior citizens, according to Cheryl Brunson, treasurer of the Residents Association.

Though it has been clear from the start that this plainly exclusionary and profit-driven redevelopment plan would displace thousands of residents, the plan could not legally move forward before it received explicit governmental approval during its early stages.

D.C. government green-lights gentrification

MidCity’s plan to triple density violates zoning ordinances, which supposedly exist to protect public interests. But the D.C. Zoning Commission ruled that a variance was justified on the grounds that MidCity’s project was publicly beneficial. Hundreds of residents, D.C. community members, and organizers from ONE D.C. turned out to the Zoning Commission hearings in 2017 to oppose the plan. Residents testified they would support redevelopment, provided the 535 existing affordable units were brought back.

The Zoning Commission ignored the Brookland Manor residents and approved the plan as is, finding that the supposed benefit of new luxury buildings outweighed the displacement of thousands of Black people. It erroneously deemed MidCity’s plan as “publicly beneficial” and authorized them to redevelop the property with only a fraction of the current affordable units remaining intact.

It was a clear endorsement of gentrification by the Zoning Commission, showing a blatant disregard of public interest.

The D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser are just as complicit as the Zoning Commission in displacing Brookland Manor Residents, if not more so. Instead of putting pressure on MidCity to bring back the affordable units in their redevelopment plan, every single council member voted to grant MidCity $47 million in taxpayer money to complete the project in exchange for only minor concessions. Adding insult to injury, despite persistent demands from the Brookland Manor Residents Association for a public hearing on the funding, every council member agreed to place the issue on the ‘consent agenda’ to avoid public discussion.

Essentially, the mayor and the council are funneling resident tax dollars into a project that will directly deprive low and middle-income residents of housing. If it was not abundantly clear at this point, the D.C. government is directly funding displacement and gentrification with actions like these.

The young residents of Brookland Manor are also involved in the struggle to save their community. | Brookland Manor Residents Association via Twitter

Brookland Manor residents fight back

Though MidCity feverishly attempts to claim their plan is in the interest of the community, residents tell a different story.

Tarshia McCoy has lived at Brookland Manor for her entire life. She now shares a 3-bedroom unit on the property with her mother and 13-year-old niece. McCoy and other tenants have been protesting the Zoning Commission’s April 2018 order, which allows MidCity to construct a 200-unit senior building and relegate current residents to a 131-unit affordable building. Her family and many others have been relocated on site due to the redevelopment. The order means that seniors who live at Brookland Manor with their family members may have to choose between living alone in a senior-only facility or leaving the property with their relatives. McCoy explains, “Basically, we’re going to end up homeless because some of us don’t have what [MidCity] think[s] we’ve got. We’re struggling.”

Many other residents have been speaking up loudly for years about their frustrations with MidCity. Cheryl Brunson of the Residents Association firmly believes “MidCity does not have our best interests at heart.” She says, “We’ve been lied to and pushed around by these people for too long.” Despite the ongoing global pandemic, Brunson says MidCity is forcing families to move off and around the property at will, “Residents don’t have a say in this; MidCity has been double-handed every step of the way in our talks with them.”

The ongoing mistreatment of residents is part of a coordinated campaign to preemptively displace as many of them as possible to lend plausibility to MidCity’s claim that the redevelopment will not displace anyone.

In recent years, MidCity hired private security to police the residents. These guards aggressively harass the community and have been reported on numerous occasions for assaulting residents with pepper spray, forcing invited guests out of resident homes, fallaciously charging residents with destruction of property, and threatening residents for minor offenses such as leaning on fences or standing in their yards. The security company documents these citations—known as infractions—to use later on as the basis for eviction claims. MidCity has hired and fired numerous private security companies as a result of harassment reports, but resident complaints persist.

Minnie Elliot, head of the Residents Association, says neither private security nor the D.C. police keep the neighborhood safe. In fact, she says their presence has heightened tensions between residents and non-residents who convene in the area. “The security guards have locked the gates to the grassy areas…where children play” and have increased policing in the areas where residents congregate instead. This has led to increased harassment from security and an inflow of people congregating on the 1300-1400 blocks of Saratoga Avenue. If disagreements arise in these areas between residents and/or non-residents, security guards do not help defuse the situations, and neither do the police. According to Elliot, they continue to ignore tenants’ repeated concerns that increased traffic in the area is a direct result of security closing off other parts of the property.

Residents are fed up. They’ve been ignored and lied to by MidCity and sold out by their representatives. The redevelopment process could have been win-win, as Elliott testified before the Zoning Commission in 2017. It could have increased the number of affordable units and made a significant positive impact on the housing situation in D.C. Per usual, the priorities of the developer in this situation have been to maximize the firm’s profit margin. MidCity has no interest in negotiating with community members when it does not serve this primary interest. The bigger question is: Why did anyone ever expect them to act responsibly in the community’s interest in the first place? They are a corporate firm with no ties to the local people.

Most importantly, the leadership in D.C. does not prioritize holding developers like MidCity accountable to protect the public interest. This should come as no surprise. Though D.C. is often portrayed from the outside as a conclave of progressive leadership, many of its so-called progressive leaders are beholden to real estate developers like MidCity for financial contributions to fund their election campaigns—a situation that repeats in so many cities.

This financial dependency allows the corporations who fund the Democratic leadership here to fancy themselves as purveyors of “corporate social responsibility,” as they actively bring about the destruction of social safety nets such as affordable housing. Far too many leaders, in turn, allow them to do so with zero accountability time and time again, even as they have the audacity to claim they stand for social justice when they run for re-election.

‘Redevelopment’ usually equals gentrification

Brunson remembers the D.C. she used to live in, back when it was known as “Chocolate City.” She remembers when Brookland Manor’s management kept the place in great shape, and when residents felt safe and secure in their homes. She describes how D.C. used to be “a nurturing place, where people were more loving, and people looked after each other.” Brunson does not recognize the D.C. of today compared to what she knew back then.

Since then, luxury homes have skyrocketed in number, housing prices have reached astronomical rates, and low and middle-income people of color have been pushed to the outskirts of southeast D.C. and various locations in Maryland or Virginia. Today’s D.C. is openly hostile towards poor and working-class people of color, especially in neighborhoods like Brookland Manor. It is in the interest of corporate entities like MidCity to increase this hostility, and they do so effectively by partnering with the local D.C. government to push these redevelopment plans.

All D.C. residents and anyone around the nation who stands in solidarity with poor and working-class folx should be indignant about this blatant abuse of power by the D.C. government and its masters in the corporate world. D.C. residents must call on their local government to stop all demolition of affordable housing through the zoning process. It must invest heavily in public housing to meet the needs of a city facing the largest housing disaster since the Great Depression. It must expand rent control across the city to ensure no one is displaced. Housing is a right, and neither corporations nor the government should be able to take it away like they are trying to do with redevelopment plans such as this one.

The D.C. government must:

  1. Clawback the $47 million in public funds it appropriated for the redevelopment plan.

  2. Preserve the 535 units of affordable housing in Brookland Manor at the current bedroom sizes and current subsidy levels.

  3. Allow residents to remain on the property during redevelopment and give them priority access to employment opportunities through the rebuilding of their own community.

What you can do

Sign this petition and spread the word around the country. No matter where you live, you can also answer the call for volunteers and help protect Brookland Manor. Contact ewagner1776@gmail.com to be invited to the weekly volunteer Zoom meetings and learn about other ways to participate

In the upcoming Nov. 3 election for D.C. Council, check out Will Merrifield, who’s defended the Brookland Manor Residents Association as an attorney in court and prioritized the protection of the property as a central pillar of his platform. Most importantly, he refuses all corporate donations to his campaign, relying on 100% grassroots donations as part of D.C.’s Fair Elections Program.

Brookland Manor is a vital part of the D.C. community, and we will not allow profiteering corporations like MidCity or the shallow indifference of the local D.C. government towards gentrifying forces to threaten it any longer. As community members and co-conspirators in the fight for economic and racial justice, we must act swiftly and stand with Brookland Manor as it engages in this struggle against capitalist real estate developer exploitation. It will be a fight every step of the way to ward off entities like MidCity from exploiting our communities, but it is a fight that is absolutely necessary if we wish to advance justice, freedom, and democracy in this country.


CONTRIBUTOR

Sean Sullivan
Sean Sullivan

Long time D.C. resident, high-school English teacher, and community organizer for the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.

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