Photo: Lilah Burke

Residents of the Barry Farm public housing community have filed a class action lawsuit against the D.C. Housing Authority claiming discriminatory practices. The suit alleges that the housing authority’s plans to redevelop Barry Farm will create a shortage of larger, multi-bedroom apartments, forcing families with children to look elsewhere for housing. The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights assisted the residents.

The redevelopment is part of the housing authority’s New Communities Initiative, a D.C. government program designed to “revitalize severely distressed subsidized housing and redevelop neighborhoods into vibrant mixed-income communities,” according to its website. Barry Farm has been slated for redevelopment since 2006. Funding for the project arrived in 2016.

The program was created as a response to federal budget cuts to housing revitalization projects. Planners hope that by making the community mixed-income, they might be able to disperse the concentration of poverty in Barry Farm, ending some of the crime and bringing more opportunities to the area.

The New Communities Initiative has made a commitment to build in place — constructing new developments without moving current residents. However, all Barry Farm residents will be moved off the property before construction can begin. Although the housing authority has pledged that all residents will have the right and ability to return to Barry Farm, the suit alleges that the replacement units will not be suitable for all current families. The number of total public housing units is set to remain the same, but the new development will have fewer multi-bedroom apartments, forcing large families with children out. The development is set to have 163 fewer multi-bedroom apartments.

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The plaintiffs believe that the loss of multi-bedroom apartments constitutes a discriminatory housing practice and violates the Fair Housing Act and the D.C. Human Rights Act. “Any time either a private or a public actor has a policy that has a disproportionately negative impact on a protected category of people, that policy or practice would violate the Fair Housing Act,” said Brook Hill, a law fellow with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who is working on the case. “Families with children are a protected category under the Fair Housing Act just like race, or religion, or color, or national origin. And the policy that the housing authority has, of eliminating units that have two, three, four bedrooms, will have a disproportionately negative impact on families with children.”

Detrice Belt, head of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, lives with her daughter and needs a two-bedroom unit. She says she worries about her neighbors who have even more kids.

“It’s kind of like they’re forcing me not to have any more kids,” she said.

The Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association is another plaintiff in the case, along with Empower D.C., which helped form the association and lent manpower to the organizing.

Hill believes there is a citywide trend towards smaller units, pushing families out of the city. “The homeless population [in D.C.] for individuals has sort of remained about steady over the past many years. But for families with children, or mothers with children, but families generally, it’s increased by 50 percent,” Hill said. “Even if you have money in D.C., even if you’re somebody that’s of means, it’s hard to find housing if you need more than two or three bedrooms. Yet, at the same time, there is a trend, not only with the D.C. Housing Authority, but also with the private development community, to be building smaller units.”

The suit also alleges that the housing authority has discriminated against Barry Farm residents by not responding to their maintenance requests in a timely manner because their buildings are set to be torn down, constituting discrimination. Federal regulations set standards for public housing conditions, committing officials to keeping the spaces sanitary, safe, and habitable. But Barry Farm may not be meeting these requirements. The suit alleges that broken heating systems have sometimes remained unfixed through the winter and one family on the property went without heat for two years. One tenant had the tiles on her floor lifted, and had to walk on gravel in her home instead of flooring. In another case, severe flood damage caused a hole into which a resident’s child fell.

Belt said that the maintenance was always inefficient, requiring residents to stay home from work and wait all day. The lawsuit suggests that in 2016 it took DCHA eight more days to respond to maintenance requests at Barry Farm than at similar properties. DCHA does not comment on pending litigation.

About half of the residents have already been relocated to other public housing complexes, giving the neighborhood an abandoned feel. Empty units have been boarded up with red-painted wood. Residents have said that the housing authority has not been fixing broken locks, allowing strangers to store guns and drugs in abandoned units. “It’s very depressing to see boarded up units,” Belt said. “We don’t have as much fun seeing our neighbors and kids play.”

At noon on a Friday in September in the neighborhood there are fathers pushing baby strollers and young kids in uniforms at the new recreation center. But there are also men on the streets, drinking from bottles of wine or smoking “dippers,” cigarettes dipped in PCP.

A young man named Tez said he has lived there for 20 years, his whole life. He supports the lawsuit, but doesn’t think the redevelopment will be successful either way. “It’s not going to work, them trying to move white people in here,” he said. “They’re going to move here, but after a while they’re gonna leave. . . There’s too many shootings around here. People get killed too much.”

At the corner bodega, all the merchandise is behind plexiglass. Dollar bills and chips move only through a swiveling compartment, the kind banks have for large deposits.

Lincoln Heights, the public housing complex that many Barry Farm residents are being moved to, is also slated for redevelopment. “How many times am I going to have to move?” Belt asked. “Am I going to have to leave the city altogether?”