WASHINGTON, DC -As the District seeks to demolish and redevelop the historic Barry Farm public housing property, long-standing resident families of Barry Farm—most of whom are African American—along with the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association (BFTAA) and community-based organization Empower DC, have filed a class action lawsuit challenging the discriminatory redevelopment by the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) and its private developer partners. For years, DCHA has forced families to either live in deplorable conditions or to leave—all in furtherance of the redevelopment. This despite constant delays in the development timeline and no assurances that families who leave the property due to the worsening conditions will have an enforceable right to return. In addition, as planned, the redevelopment will significantly reduce the number of two-, three-, four-, and six-bedroom units, and likely leave more than one hundred and fifty current and former resident families without homes in the new property.
Many tenants who have lived at Barry Farm with their families for years are united in fighting to preserve their community. BFTAA President, Detrice Belt, comments on why this is the case: “This is our home, and we want to preserve low-income homes not only for us but future residents in need. This is a community where I know my neighbors—people I’ve grown up with. For my daughter, it would be devastating for her to leave her friends and the people we’ve come to know and depend on.” Ms. Belt has lived at Barry Farm for 20 years and wants to continue raising her minor daughter at the property. With no assurances that she will have a right to return if she is forced to move off the property, Ms. Belt explains that all of her support structures, including her mother who helps care for Ms. Belt’s daughter, are within a close radius of Barry Farm. Moving to another neighborhood or out of the District entirely would greatly harm Ms. Belt’s family.
Named plaintiff Ismael Vazquez, his wife, and six minor children share Ms. Belt’s views: “We moved to Barry Farm in 2010 hoping to have an affordable home large enough for our family and have worked hard since then to establish a sense of community with our neighbors. If we are forced to move to one of the properties suggested by DCHA, we’d face significantly extended commute times because Metro would be inaccessible and we’d be placing our children into an unfamiliar environment where we’d have to start over building community.” Given the current redevelopment plans, Mr. Vazquez worries that his family may be displaced from Barry Farm because there will be a reduced number of units large enough to house families of his size. Four-bedroom units like the one where Mr. Vazquez’s family resides are in short supply in the District as are three- and six-bedroom homes, which will also be reduced as a result of the redevelopment.
Former Barry Farm resident and named plaintiff Jackie Thrash has already been forced to move from the property because of the egregious conditions in which she and her family were forced to live, including a rat infestation and lack of heat during the winter months. Nonetheless, Ms. Thrash is eager to return to Barry Farm where she had lived for fifteen years rather than continue to feel displaced. Ms. Thrash misses her church and the community. That said, Ms. Thrash believes all residents should receive timely and adequate maintenance.
The complaint filed today details how residents of Barry Farm have experienced ongoing neglect of their homes in furtherance of the redevelopment. Unlike other similarly situated public housing properties, Plaintiffs allege that DCHA intentionally provided disparate maintenance to Barry Farm residents on a level below the standard offered at other similarly-situated public housing properties because of their place of residence—a property scheduled for redevelopment. Relatedly, DCHA failed to maintain the units at the property in safe and habitable conditions prior to receiving official federal approval for demolition of Barry Farm, in violation of federal law.
Further, Defendants’ redevelopment plan will have a discriminatory and disproportional impact on families by significantly reducing the number of family-sized units (a reduction of 163 two-, three-, four- and six-bedroom units). If left unchecked, the redevelopment may leave affected families—particularly larger families—at serious risk of displacement from their community or homeless if they are unable to find similar, appropriately-sized homes in other public housing properties where vacancies are limited or in the private housing market, even with vouchers.
Joseph Edmondson, a partner at Foley & Lardner LLP (Foley), notes the importance of the issues at stake in the case, stating: “The residents of Barry Farm have been speaking out for more than a decade seeking to improve their living conditions, but their voices have not been heard. Now, with redevelopment at hand, families with children stand to be left behind in a manner that is discriminatory and illegal. Even worse, living conditions there are deteriorating as the redevelopment plan progresses. It appears Barry Farm residents are being written off by the very public housing administrators with responsibility for providing them with safe and habitable housing in an attempt to clear the property and squelch dissent. Through this important litigation, we will shine a light on their situation and seek to remedy the discriminatory aspects of the redevelopment plan.”
Jonathan Smith, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, agrees: “The District is undergoing a transformation through development and gentrification. Families who have built communities in neighborhoods long ignored and denied investment are now being displaced as redevelopment brings amenities to the area. The exclusion of many families from Barry Farm and the practice of eviction through neglect accelerates displacement and segregation.” The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Foley jointly represent the Plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Speaking on behalf of organizational plaintiff Empower DC, who joined the BFTAA and Barry Farm tenants in bringing this action, Executive Director Parisa Norouzi notes: “We hear a lot about ‘affordable housing’ from city government officials, but little about public housing. DC needs public housing because it is the only truly affordable and accessible housing for tens of thousands of DC residents. In filing this suit we are sounding an alarm bell that DC officials must wake up, invest in public housing, provide oversight and stop the illegal displacement of public housing residents.”
The Barry Farm complaint can be accessed here. The action was filed by Foley and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on behalf of the BFTAA, resident families and Empower DC.
The DCist (August 29, 2017)
The Washington Post (August 29, 2017)
Washington Business Journal (August 30, 2017)
Washington City Paper (August 30, 2017)
Courthouse News Service (August 30, 2017)
AFRO (September 7, 2017)
Street Sense (Spetember 20, 2017)
Jill E. Chanen, Manager, Public Relations
Foley & Lardner LLP
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Gregg Kelley, Director of Development & Communications
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