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DCHA tenants ask to manage complex

(Published July 2, 2001)


Staff Writer

Citing "gross mismanagement" by the District’s housing authority, a group of public housing residents has appealed to the federal government for the right to take over control of their public housing complex for themselves.

And in a related move, the resident group also filed a petition with HUD to wrest control of a $35 million grant to demolish and then redevelop their community away from a development team led by that same D.C. housing agency.

The group is composed of residents of the Arthur Capper and Carrolsburg Dwellings, located near Capitol Hill and the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, along with supporters from other public housing projects and the broader community.

The group delivered the two requests to federal Department of Housing and Urban Development officials at a press conference outside HUD headquarters on June 22. The date was selected, group members said, because the D.C. Housing Authority development team’s bid for the $35 million in redevelopment funds was being submitted to HUD the same day.

Paula Blount, HUD’s acting secretary for public and Indian housing, accepted the petitions from group representatives Leonardo Wood and Brian Green-White, saying that the agency would consider the requests.

HUD spokesman Jerry Brown confirmed June 29 that HUD regulations do permit the kind of management transfer the residents are requesting. He said he believes this is the first time HUD has received such a request.

"So we’re going to have to figure out what the watermarks are for a decision here," he said. "We’re weighing this to see if there’s any merit here. If they do break away from the local housing authority, who does it benefit? Who’s responsible for upkeep?"

Carl Messineo, a D.C. consumer law attorney who has offered legal help to the resident group, said HUD regulations provide for a transfer of management to a resident group under certain conditions.

"If you get 51 percent of the residents to sign on, they can assume management control," Messineo said.

The Arthur Capper/Carrolsburg group included a petition signed by 218 residents with their requests. Wood, a Carrolsburg resident, said his group had not yet determined the exact number of residents in the combined Arthur Capper and Carrolsburg complexes. There are approximately 700 townhouses and apartments in the two units, including an Arthur Capper residence for senior citizens. Wood said his group is continuing to collect signatures.

"This is a shot across the bow," said Messineo. "These folks have been out collecting signatures for only a week," he said, adding, "This is the start of a democratic uprising that’s about the right of public housing residents to define themselves and to be free of ‘profit development’ instead of ‘community development.’"

The resident group’s first request to HUD asks that control of the Arthur Capper and Carrolsburg complexes, which border each other, be taken away from the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) and handed to a resident management corporation composed of residents of the two complexes.

Besides "gross mismanagement," the petition cites "deferred maintenance" and "physical deterioration" of the properties, as well as being "subject to recurrent vandalism and criminal activity."

"The maintenance of the houses is terrible," Wood said. "They do inspections, but then they don’t fix anything." In winter, he said, "Lots of times there’s no heat or hot water, because the pipes are so bad." In addition, he said, "Doors are off of hinges, bannisters are falling off the staircases. There are very many broken storm windows."

The complex also has a serious problem with rat and cockroach infestation, he said. "Just recently, I woke up and found a rat swimming around in my toilet bowl, trying to get out. I keep the lid down now," he said.

Wood also charged that the housing authority police fail to prevent outsiders from coming into the complex to sell illegal drugs. "The housing authority cops just drive around the perimeter of the area. But they rarely actually come into the neighborhood to really do anything," he said.

D.C. housing authority officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the residents’ charges.

The second of the group’s pair of requests asks HUD to refuse a bid to redevelop the Arthur Capper/Carrolsburg neighborhood by a team pairing DCHA and the Silver Spring-based private development firm Mid-City Urban LLC.

According to the partners’ application to HUD for Hope VI funding, the proposed $35 million federal grant would be the largest ever nationwide — and the partners hope to leverage that grant for up to $400 million in total public and private investment capital.

To date, HUD has approved four HOPE VI-funded projects in the District.

At Arthur Capper/Carrolsburg, the DCHA/Mid-City team "proposes to demolish every structure at the site," according to their application, and replace them with 1,150 new townhouses and apartments (with an additional 436 new units in the surrounding area), 600,000 square feet of office space and 75,000 square feet of retail space, as well as a new community center. The new development would mix publicly subsidized, moderate-income and market-rate housing.

But those opposing the proposed redevelopment question the credibility of both DCHA and Mid-City Urban.

"The housing authority has basically abandoned these properties," said Messineo. "Why should (these residents) trust them to redevelop them in the best interests of the people who live here?"

And Wood attacked DCHA’s choice of Mid-City Urban as its development partner.

"Why should we be putting our future and the people’s tax dollars into the hands of a convicted felon?" he asked.

The Common Denominator reported last month that Scott Nordheimer, a "principal" with Mid-City Urban, was sentenced to serve two years in prison in 1993 for his role in a real estate scam that swindled more than $2 million dollars from a Seattle investment firm. Nordheimer and his brother, Gary Nordheimer, who was sentenced to serve 27 months in prison for the same offense, also were ordered to repay the Seattle company $2.4 million.

Additionally, according to the DCHA/Mid-City Urban team’s HOPE VI application, at least three companies affiliated with Mid-City Urban are also slated to participate in the redevelopment deal.

The NOAH group, which shares offices with Mid-City Urban, has responsibility for providing residents with the services needed to make the transition from a government-funded lifestyle to the more financially independent way of life that entry to the new mixed-income community will require: services such as job referrals, computer skills development, and credit management.

In addition, Mid-City Advisors LLC will structure the financing for the deal. And Edgewood Management Corp., another Mid-City Urban affiliate, will manage the residential rental portion of the finished development.

According to HUD’s official HOPE VI guidelines, the first purpose of the HOPE VI program is to "improve the living environment for public housing residents of severely distressed public housing projects through the demolition, rehabilitation, reconfiguration, or replacement of obsolete public housing projects."

But opponents of the DCHA/Mid-City Urban proposal said that meetings with development team members convinced them that the team is not serious about helping residents attain the kind of secure financial standing that would allow them to move back into the planned mixed-income development.

Green-White said that at a recent meeting, he asked DCHA executive director Michael Kelly how many current residents were expected to be able to come back and buy homes in the new development.

"I guess he didn’t realize he was talking to a resident," said Green-White. "He thought I was someone working with the development team, because he just said, ‘Probably zero.’ And then he laughed."

But, added Green-White, "His face really changed when he realized that I live here."

"Mid-City and the housing authority keep saying, ‘Let us get the (HOPE VI) application in first, and then we’ll talk about relocation,’" said Green-White. "But that’s totally backwards: I want to know what you’re going to do before you get the power to do it."

Madeleine Fletcher, a Capitol Hill resident and advocate for the poor who is working with the resident group, pointed to the experience of residents at the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, where a HOPE VI project was recently completed. "Very few of the original residents there made it back," she said.

That assertion was backed up by Joyce Mallory, who worked for the development team that spearheaded the Ellen Wilson HOPE VI project on Capitol Hill — a partnership between DCHA and private developer Telesis Corp. Mallory said she worked as the lead liaison to the Ellen Wilson resident community.

"I’d say less than 5 percent of the residents made it back to the new Ellen Wilson," Mallory said. "Some senior residents and disabled residents qualified to return, but just about nobody else."

Once the new Ellen Wilson opened as a mixed-income community, low-income people were not permitted to apply, Mallory said. "Seventy-five percent of the (original) residents were on welfare," she said. And when Ellen Wilson re-opened, anyone earning under $15,000 a year in income couldn’t submit an application, she said.

While some residents chose not to return, Mallory said the main problem was that the DCHA-Telesis team failed to offer job-training and other programs to help the original residents prepare to qualify for the new development.

"Nothing was put in place," she said. "They didn’t have any program to help the residents come back."

Mallory said that for moderate-income applicants attracted to the new development, "there were some support programs after they got in." But she said, "Beforehand, for the original residents, they had nothing."

Mary Ann Barrett, president of the Arthur Capper resident council, said she recently considered resigning her position because of fears that residents of the complex would be permanently displaced by the DCHA/Mid-City plan.

"I considered stepping down because of my concern for the residents," she said. "I’m sure a lot of residents won’t be able to come back. In all of the HOPE VIs that have been done, that’s what happened."

Wood said housing authority officials "forget" that public housing residents know each other.

"I used to live in Fred Douglass," he said, a public housing complex in Ward 8 that is currently being torn down to make way for another HOPE VI-financed redevelopment.

"We know all about this re-location game," he said. "This is my second time around.

"You would think that the title of this program — HOPE VI — would mean that they are going to give the people hope," he said. "But as far as we can see, this program is just about redeveloping the buildings, not the people who live here."

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator