Confusion mires Zoning Commission meeting about Barry Farm and residents’ right to return
There’s not much left of Deatrice Belt’s old neighborhood, the public housing community on Eaton Road SE known as Barry Farm. There’s the old basketball court, a surface now cracked and covered over with weeds, where people used to gather to watch intense Friday night games. There are the old metal U.S. Postal Service boxes, some still filled to the brim with uncollected mail.
An empty patch of grass is all that remains of the house where Belt, the chair of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, grew up. Nearby, a handful of vacant buildings were saved from destruction by their designation as historic landmarks.
On July 1, the Zoning Commission met to consider approving a map amendment that would allow for denser housing development on the former Barry Farm property, located in Ward 8. The Zoning Commission ultimately did not reach a decision at the hearing, with further discussion scheduled later this month.
This was the third time in three months the commission put off action on the map amendment, one of several steps needed for Boston-based nonprofit developer Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) to start constructing a new mixed-use development slated to replace the old public housing complex. These delays are only the latest for a plan that has been in the works in some form since 2005. Concerns over equity and fears of displacement have led to years of debate as all involved seek to shape what is ultimately built.
At last week’s hearing, Zoning Commission chair Anthony Hood urged action to move the process for redevelopment forward.
“I know it’s a map amendment. But we’re talking about peoples’ lives here,” Hood said.
As the meeting proceeded, however, the commission opted instead to direct the city’s Office of Planning to obtain more information about the developer’s plan to welcome former residents back to the property once construction is complete and to provide further clarification on the affordability of the new homes. Members also asked for input from the District’s new Office of Racial Equity. The commission is set to consider the case again on July 26 at 4 p.m.
The broad debate: What is ‘affordable’?
The majority of former residents and their advocates who testified at the hearing focused their remarks beyond the narrow zoning change; instead, they either raised core questions about the redevelopment plan or called for changes and guarantees that the Zoning Commission’s members deemed beyond their authority in the current case.
POAH — the firm selected by the D.C. Housing Authority to handle the redevelopment — plans to build a total of 1,100 units to replace the previous 444 public housing units. However, just over one-third of the homes in the developer’s plan would be reserved for people making less than 30% of the median family income (MFI): those units would go to people earning no more than $27,100 for an individual or somewhat higher depending on the number of children in the household. The remaining units would be a mix of affordable housing reserved for families making up to 80% MFI — as much as $57,650 for an individual — and market-rate housing.
The D.C. Office of Planning noted that 200 of the 1,100 units would be set aside for homeownership, 160 at market rate and 40 at an “affordable” cost.
Michael Turnbull, who serves on the commission as a representative of the Architect of the Capitol, said he found it “disturbing” the proposal uses a formula that defines affordable as “up to 80% MFI.”
“We really need a breakdown of what is planned or what could be considered,” Turnbull said. “I think we need a little bit more definition on this, that can really explain what that really means.”
The affordability of the units could determine the ability of former Barry Farm residents to return to the property, and whether or not they could afford to live in some of the new units. Barry Farm previously consisted of 444 public housing units, but only 380 of the new units are meant for extremely low-income households.
Members of the Zoning Commission and representatives of the Office of Planning also seemed unsure how many former Barry Farm residents have the right to return and how many are expected to do so. In 2018, the D.C. Court of Appeals remanded a 2014 zoning decision that would have allowed for a planned unit development (PUD) of 380 public housing replacement units and 1,000 mixed-income units at the property. Throughout the period between the commission’s original decision and the court ruling, the former Barry Farm residents were offered housing vouchers and were relocated to different apartment buildings across the city.
Families began moving out of Barry Farm in 2012, according to Hood, scattering all over the city and region to make way for the large construction machines that would demolish their old homes. The replacement, POAH’s website proclaims, will transform the place into a “vibrant” mixed-income community blending residential and commercial space.
But Belt, like many other former residents of Barry Farm, said she is still unsure whether she will be able to return to the area. None of those who testified at the hearing expressed dissatisfaction with the developer’s plan to build on the property, focusing instead on the question of whether they will be welcomed back to benefit from it.
The narrow process at hand: A map amendment
The map amendment under consideration on July 1 is a narrow action that defines the boundaries of a zoning classification. When the commission reconvenes later this month, members will vote on a proposed action for both the map amendment and a corresponding text amendment, which would define the regulations for a new zone designated specifically for parts of Barry Farm.
Assuming the proposed actions are approved, the commission will provide a 30-day comment period before taking a second vote on a final action, which will allow the development to move forward.
Former Barry Farm residents at the hearing expressed confusion over what approval of the map amendment might allow.
Addressing a group of former Barry Farm residents POAH had encouraged to attend so they could speak up in support of the map amendment, the Zoning Commission’s chair at one point asked whether they supported the pending proposal.
“Can everybody just wave or yell out for me to let me know that you support the map amendment?” Hood asked.
The former residents — who had brought signs and pompoms and wore identical black T-shirts that read “No place like home” — appeared uncertain about the question and asked Hood to briefly explain the map amendment to them.
Looking out at the group of confused faces, Hood said, “Let me rephrase it like this, do you all support what we’re doing here today, which will allow you to go back home?”
This time, his question was met with cheers.
Still, procedural issues came up repeatedly as Hood and other commissioners explained the scope of the hearing and the map amendment.
“We’re not amending the text nor can we make some of the stipulations that I think you’d like us to make. Do you understand what we are considering today?” commissioner Peter May, the National Park Service designee, said in response to a call from a housing rights advocate to include “clear and specific” requirements for the development in the commission’s order.
Ari Theresa, a land use attorney who represents the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, said at the hearing that he also did not fully understand the full potential impact of the proposed map amendment.
“It’s hard to know if I support this map amendment or not because I don’t know what’s in the text,” Theresa said, alluding to a related but separate case also under consideration by the Zoning Commission.
In a phone interview with Street Sense Media and The DC Line, Theresa explained that he believes many of the residents testifying were looking to address concerns related to a text amendment and not a map amendment.
A text amendment, he said, is where tenants would find the kinds of detail that might specify whether they would have a guaranteed right to return.
According to Theresa, “it’s not necessarily normal” to act on a map amendment prior to a text amendment that has established the parameters of development in a given zone, as in this case. They would generally proceed concurrently or in the reverse order.
“I don’t know why they decided to do it that way,” he said.
According to Theresa, what’s more relevant than the confusion over a text and map amendment is the deep desire from former Barry Farm residents to be given a guaranteed right to return. As of now, Theresa said, all they have to act on is “faith” that the developer and city will act on their word — notwithstanding a history of broken promises.
Little confidence in the right to return
Belt, speaking at the hearing, echoed the sentiments of many other Barry Farm residents who participated.
“I currently live in Ward 7, now going on three years, and I want to return to Barry Farm. [But] in order to do so I need to know that I have the right to do so,” she said.
In 2016, the D.C. Housing Authority passed a resolution establishing guidelines for relocating residents from public housing slated for redevelopment, but there is disagreement over whether the policy includes a specific mechanism for enforcing a resident’s right to return after construction is complete. In the pending case, the issue is complicated as well by uncertainty over the number of impacted households.
“Are there any residents still on Barry Farm? How many? And where is everyone else? And do they have what we put into the PUD order — the famous, infamous PUD order — the right to return?” Zoning Commission vice chair Rob Miller asked.
Jennifer Steingasser from the city’s Office of Planning responded by saying that she believed the developer, POAH, “did provide some information” about the right to return. She also added that the developer has contact information for all the former residents and remains in touch with them.
In addition to seeking clarity on how many former tenants have the right to return, the commission also directed the Office of Planning to reach out to the city’s new Office of Racial Equity for help in reviewing the plan. The new agency was created by the Racial Equity Achieves Results Act passed by D.C. Council last year. In April, Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed Dr. Amber Hewitt to head the office and serve as the city’s first chief equity officer.
In June, the Zoning Commission directed the Office of Planning to conduct an equity analysis on the potential impact of the new zoning action in accordance with the city’s newly approved Comprehensive Plan. That report was completed before the July 1 hearing, but the updated plan — which was transmitted this week to the mayor — directs government agencies to examine the impact of policies through a racial equity lens.
Commissioners said they hoped the Office of Racial Equity could assist them in avoiding gaps in their zoning decisions on cases such as those related to the Barry Farm development.
[Read more: Activists rally to stop demolition at Barry Farm]
On a recent walk around her old neighborhood, Belt reminisced about her time at Barry Farm. She had lived in the community since the late ’90s, moving into her home from another public housing apartment across the Anacostia River in Potomac Gardens.
“We had cookouts all the time, parties, everybody got together,” Belt said excitedly before coming across something in a vacant field that triggered a particular memory.
“[A friend of mine] lived over here through this pathway,” Belt said. “Her house is gone now. All of ours are demolished.”
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.