The District Must Protect Black Women and Families Against Structural Violence

By Christopher Williams, MPH
Southwest Voice editor-in-chief and university public health educator

Public housing redevelopment in Washington, DC must be viewed as structural violence against Black women and families

Southwest Voice urgently calls for DC Council to immediately fund legal support for public housing communities under active or future redevelopment. The DC Housing Authority is seeking to demolish or privatize 3,055 units across nine properties in its FY22-23 Moving to Work (MTW) plan that risks more Black displacement and structural violence. Although the previous year's MTW plan was similar, neither federal nor District oversight has reined in the agency's excesses. "DCHA is one of the worst housing authorities in the country," said a senior official at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in a recent interview. No major reform is in sight. Until such time, Southwest Voice is calling for DC Council to provide public housing resident councils with legal support to protect their families and communities against harm. These councils are overwhelmingly made up of Black women. MTW redevelopment has evolved as a modern form of racial violence to spur Black displacement and gentrification, much like mid-century urban renewal policies before. Public housing resident leaders should have access to a fund to retain legal counsel of their own choosing. There are growing concerns about the impartiality and capacity of many public and non-profit legal aid programs. Under the current paradigm, vulnerable communities are made more vulnerable due to DCHA policies that directly lead to displacement, ghettoization, and collective trauma.

Southwest Voice strongly implores the Black middle class and advocates of housing, gender, and racial equity to oppose structural violence against Black families and to lobby their DC councilmembers for this legislation. Black male advocacy and co-leadership in defense of our Black women leaders and families in public housing are desperately needed. Our Black mothers, sisters, and daughters are carrying the weight of their community on their shoulders and paying a high cost to their own health.

The psychological and physical toil that communities, especially leaders, embody is a pressing public health issue. The emotional distress is readily apparent at DCHA public meetings. “All this redevelopment is causing me so much stress,” said Patricia Bishop, Southwest Voice Board Vice Chair and Greenleaf Midrise President. Mrs. Bishop has already suffered two heart attacks, a disclosure that was previously published in a Washington Post article on Greenleaf. She has seen residents removed from Greenleaf under the guise of "resident choice," but was a relocation plan for redevelopment that did not secure HUD approval as it should have. Mrs. Bishop is a highly engaged, resilient, and well-informed resident leader yet finds it all overwhelming at times, even for her.

DC Council has struggled to reform the agency, largely stymied by the Committee on Housing chair Anita Bonds. Several reform bills before the Committee on Housing never came before a vote. Seven councilors had endorsed the Public Housing Preservation and Tenant Protection Amendment Act of 2020, which would have provided an enumeration of rights for residents. “This government has a responsibility to it most vulnerable residents not only to provide them with safe, dignified housing, but also to ensure that in doing so we are not displacing them,” said Councilmember Brianne Nadeau in 2020 after introducing that bill. It suffered the same fate as so many others - the Committee on Housing chair Anita Bonds failed to move it out of committee. This legal fund could get around Councilor Bonds' tight grip on housing policy by going to any number of other committees. As a preview to our election issue, Southwest Voice strongly opposes Ms. Bonds' reelection bid.

HUD was recently on-site to conduct an active investigation, presumably in response to several allegations. One involved Neil Albert, former DCHA Board of Commissioners chair. In March of this year, the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability ordered Mr. Albert to pay a $15,000 ethics fine for failing to disclose that he was romantically linked to a recipient of DCHA contracts. A separate federal investigation is ongoing. Mr. Albert's fall from grace is not isolated. The culture and practices of DCHA are in need of fundamental reform and federal receivership. We recently reported on the injustices in Greenleaf under the headline, "Greenleaf Betrayed: The Plan Does Not Include Build First."

The MTW plan is a continuation of policies that have reduced the number of residents that DCHA serves in violation of federal law. This paper initiated an investigation into the agency's compliance with MTW minimum statutory requirements. Based on our reading of the federal law, we suspected that DCHA was not in compliance with at least two requirements - the "substantially the same (STS)" and "comparable mix (CM)" requirements. The federal STS requirement requires DCHA "to assist substantially the same total number of eligible low-income families as would have been served absent the MTW demonstration," while the CM requirement seeks to maintain "a comparable mix of families". The STS requirement is generally understood to mean serving no fewer than 75% of residents than in 2000 when DCHA entered the MTW program. HUD has found that DCHA is in compliance with the family requirement, but we are not at all convinced that conclusion relied on accurate information or a correct interpretation of the law. When we reached out to DCHA Director Brenda Donald in February of this year to inquire about compliance, she replied, "We are well aware that we are in not in compliance with the STS requirement. In fact, DCHA has been operating under a Corrective Action Plan (sic) for several years regarding this." Many, if not most, Board members were unaware of the remediation plan until our prompting. As an illustration for how much DCHA is in the rears, the agency has yet to restore one-third of affordable housing units, roughly 200, from the 2001 demolition of Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg.

Despite DCHA's non-compliance and remediation in perpetuity, HUD approved the current MTW plan. African Americans disproportionately shoulder the burden of the housing crisis in the Washington, DC metropolitan region, yet DCHA is engaged in redevelopment that cater to high incomes. The Greenleaf redevelopment has caused immense emotional distress and physical displacement to make room for a project that will be build for at least 75% market renters. If DC Council is serious about racial and gender equity, it must seek to equip resident councils with legal protection against threats of structural violence and racism. Southwest Voice calls for a legal fund immediately.