Institutionalized: Paint Color Used as Psychological Weapon

I recently visited friends in Greenleaf Family Midrise Apartments. It was an otherwise uneventful start. I signed in with security and took the elevator. With my bike in tow, I stepped off the elevators. To my shock and horror, the recent renovations in Greenleaf had taken a turn for the worse. The distinct blue color used in prisons confronted me. The doors and trim were all painted in the same color as in the stock image of a prison above. Each door had a foot-wide blue area on the left that ran the length of the door (left).

This was "psychological," noted someone in the hallway. "Intentional," exclaimed another. This shade of cobalt blue is used for institutions, often associated with law and order and places with institutionalized populations. "I don't live in a prison, but they sure painted it to make me look like I live in one," said Patricia Bishop, President of Greenleaf Family Midrise Apartments. "When I do a walk-through with the newly elected (DCHA) Board, I will request a more positive color to represent Greenleaf." DCHA's color choice is intended to convey authority and control. It appears on the outside doors of the Metropolitan Police Department First District building on M Street, just across the street from Greenleaf (see below).

We questioned whether the contractor also painted prisons and opted to use leftover paint. We were open to several explanations, even willing to give DCHA the benefit of the doubt. This notion was dispelled following a visit to another Greenleaf property. This was no accident because Greenleaf Senior Apartments had been painted years ago in the same prison blue (see below). Walking into the lobby of the Senior building feels deeply institutional. A first-time visitor could easily mistake it for an institution with gurneys, captured populations, and guards with cell keys. Institutional colors had no business being in a residential community. I have never lived in a community in which the choice of color was not made with the utmost detail and intention. Colors matter. They set the tone and communicate subtle messages. Red is urgent. Yellow is caution. Blue is institutional.

It was self-revealing how the DC Housing Authority perceived families in public housing. DCHA feels that it has latitude to exercise control over residents that is inconsistent with normal landlord-tenant relations, part of a broader narrative about its perceived exceptionalism beyond the reach of government. As noted in HUD's damning report of the agency, DCHA failed residents with dozens of violations of federal law for years. According to the Washington Post, the HUD report "reveal(s) dangerous conditions at properties that form one of the last lines of defense for District residents who cannot afford homes, including violence, lead-paint hazards, out-of-code plumbing, water damage and mold." The rot inside the agency is irreparable without federal receivership. The HUD report did not discuss the underlying attitudes of the agency that supported their mistreatment of residents and illegalities, but those attitudes are equally important to understand DCHA's dysfunction and provide evidence that DCHA is beyond repair.

Seeing those painted walls and doors made me realize that more discussion is needed about DCHA's perceptions and attitudes about people living in public housing. I immediately recalled that Councilor Anita Bonds, former Housing Committee Chair, explained during an oversight hearing a couple of years ago that public housing was not intended for people to live in forever. She had repeated this insult many times over the years. The District government and DCHA had all the resources and tools to provide for upward mobility. Blaming residents who rely on government housing was insensitive at say the least. Residents live in public housing because they have no other choice for any number of reasons. Besides, she was wrong. There is no legislative intent or statutory language aimed at making the goal of public housing to be temporary. She was parroting language from developer circles that sought to cast low-income residents in the worst light to support redevelopment and displacement. It is remarkable that she had been in office since 2012, just reelected to her fourth term. Anita Bonds no longer serves as the chair of the DC Council Committee on Housing.

DCHA officials tend to be more careful in their public language, but that it not a reason for less harsh judgment. They tend to say what they don't mean and mean what they don't say. They often start a redevelopment by saying, "This time will be different." It is almost always a lie. They have promised "Build First" - constructing a new building first to prevent displacement - to no fewer than four properties. DCHA has not once delivered Build First. I anticipated that Greenleaf would not have a Build First site in 2018, writing in Hill Rag. Greenleaf is still without a Build First site, though DCHA claims that it is now looking at using Greenleaf's parking lot. Both the request for qualifications and proposals defined "Build First" as a nearby off-site location. The development team did not have site control for a Build First site, raising questions about procurement legalities. In 2022, a DCHA whistleblower alleged procurement violations involving the Greenleaf redevelopment in Southwest Voice.

DCHA feels that they have the upper hand because they think residents are uninformed and uneducated. They are wrong on this account. Public housing residents are highly engaged and educated about their rights and errant DCHA practices. DCHA feels that they can pull the wool over residents' eyes because DCHA shares similar attitudes with many in society. There are many influential and everyday people like Anita Bonds who feel that low-income residents are moochers, a harmful stereotype that compounds the singular, deleterious effects of just being low-income in a deeply unequal society. Public housing residents work like all of us. Those who cannot have good reason due to disabilities, age, or other limitations, which all would have been documented and supported during the application process. They pay rent. They raise their families.

DCHA thinks they are exempt from landlord laws on security, property conditions, and resident rights. Actually, they do not see themselves primarily as a landlord, which is why it took a HUD report to force the matter and why the DC Office of Attorney General sued over lax security. A basic practice of any law-abiding landlord is to anticipate water emergencies by having an on-call team that can be deployed at a moment's notice to address flooding.

In early January, a resident in Greenleaf Family Midrise Apartments recently had to wait at least 6 hours after reporting flooding throughout her apartment. Video footage shows her desperate attempt to use newspaper to absorb the water. From 11pm - 5am, she and Patricia Bishop, President of the Greenleaf Family Midrise Apartments, waited for DCHA personnel to come on-site. The first technician to arrive did not have access to shut off the water system, resulting in more delay for the key to arrive. The resident's request to be moved has not been fulfilled despite deteriorated ceilings.

DCHA's lack of an effective emergency management team reflects deep-seated beliefs that it is not primarily a landlord. It has ignored its mission to preserve and expand affordable housing in the District and safeguard the health and well-being of residents. DCHA sees itself as an "institution" exempt from laws. As with the prison blue walls, they can engage in forms of psychological warfare to wear down resident populations through property neglect, unjust practices of displacement, and allowance of criminal activity, which were allegations in OAG's and HUD's reports. DCHA also regards its public assets in the form of land, housing properties, and funding as part of an exploitative schema. "It's a criminal enterprise," explained a former senior DCHA official.

We hear that DCHA Executive Director is scheduled to appear at the ANC6D meeting on Monday. There is little that she can say to convince residents that DCHA is turning a corner.