Say Ward 8 public housing tenants after winning a victory over the DC Housing Authority.
Judge calls the Groundbreaking Tenants’ Right Case HIGHLAND TOGETHER WE STAND VS. DC HOUSING AUTHORITY “Unchartered Territory”
Schyla Pondexter-Moore, a Ward 8 public housing resident and mother of four, became fearful for her community when the DC Housing Authority informed tenants back in 2010 that Highland Dwellings would be undergoing “complete, substantial, modernization” and everyone on the property would have to move very quickly. After researching Hope VI and finding out about the scope of displacement under the program, and encouraged by her ANC Commissioner K. Armstead, Schyla took action and founded the organization Highland Together We Stand, filing suit against the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) and fighting for over a year to achieve the victory of October 9th 2012 when DCHA settled with Highland Tenants. Now working as an Affordable Housing Organizer for the community based organization Empower DC, Schyla is taking her message to other public housing communities throughout the District.
“You can fight back. You can save your housing. You have rights. Look at what we did at Highland. You can do that too, and Empower DC is here to help.”
The number of public housing units in Washington DC has been drastically cut over the years. Where there used to be at least 20,000 units of public housing (before formal recognition of HOPE VI legislation in 1998) there are now only about 8,000. Public housing complexes have been demolished and redeveloped WITHOUT providing the often-promised one-for-one replacement of public housing units on the properties. Properties such as Valley Green, Arthur Cappers, Frederick Douglass, Stanton Dwellings, Parkside, Temple Courts, Sheridan Terrace, Ellen Wilson and more, most of which are located in Wards 7 & 8, have been demolished and redeveloped for private use.
But the residents of the 208-unit Highland Dwellings community in Ward 8 decided to organize and fight back rather than risk displacement. On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, after a year and half of back and forth litigation, the DC Housing Authority agreed to a settlement which presiding Judge Zeldon called “unchartered territory,” and which secures two major victories in the fight to preserve public housing:
In accordance with settlement guidelines, Highland Dwelling “shall remain a public housing property for 40 years” even after extensive renovation and modernization of Highland Dwellings, which is being funded both publicly and privately, is complete. In addition, “All residents at Highland Dwellings shall be afforded the benefit of the terms and conditions applicable to all other public housing complexes in the District of Columbia as those terms and conditions are defined by federal and District of Columbia laws and regulation governing the public housing program.“
In other words, tenants will have the same rights as tenants in all other public housing complexes despite the involvement of private
developers. The 208 units at Highland Dwellings for all intents and purposes will remain for PUBLIC HOUSING after renovations for 40 years. There can be no new criteria set forth that is not applicable to public housing regulations–for example, tenants cannot be asked to pay utilities, pay more than 30% of their income, meet minimum income requirements, undergo credit checks, or other such provisions which have been common in other redevelopment projects and present clear barriers to public housing tenants returning after modernization.
The settlement also states, “Current Residents and Former Residents shall have the right of first refusal to return to Highland Dwellings.” Residents sought and won this legally binding written agreement in order to ensure that all residents living on the property prior to the renovation will be able to return to the property after the renovation is complete.
“We fought a good fight. Housing knew what they did was unjust and a lot of wrong doing. Myself and other tenants in Highland Dwellings fought back and now I can say justice was served,” said Ms. Renee Patterson, another plaintiff in the case.
There have been at least ten DC Housing Authority public housing properties demolished in recent years. Seven were converted through Hope VI or similar programs and taken out of the public housing inventory. But the residents of Highland Dwellings have proven that public housing tenants do have the power to speak out and act to save their homes.
“Unfortunately, many residents do not know their rights and are intimidated by the Housing Authority,” said Schyla. “My organizing efforts concentrate on making sure people feel informed and empowered to advocate for themselves within public housing.” Highland Dwellings tenants worked alongside Neighborhood Legal Services and pro bono attorneys Weil Gotschal and Manges.
Despite this victory, the need for public housing remains a huge problem in DC. Recently DCHA stated they are considering closing their waiting list citing its unmanageable size. According to the Washington Post there are 61,000 households on the city’s waiting list and some wait as long as 20 years for an opening.
“With so many people in need of housing, why does the Mayor continue to allow public housing to be demolished and not be replaced? Where do the Mayor and Council expect people to live? There is a direct connection between the demolition of public housing and the rise of homelessness. Is the District Government deliberately exacerbating the loss of public housing and rise of homelessness? These are all questions we at Empower DC believe are worthy of investigation.”