WASHINGTON (CN) — Estimating that a redevelopment project will displace nearly 150 low-income families in northeast D.C., residents brought a federal class action to protect their homes.
The controversy stems from the plan to overhaul Brookland Manor Apartments, a 20-acre apartment complex at the intersection of Rhode Island and Montana Avenues that has housed D.C. families for decades.
According to a complaint filed Thursday, Brookland Manor has offered subsidized housing under the federal Section 8 program since 1977, and less than 10 percent of the complex's 535 apartments are rented at full, market-rate without public assistance.
Adriann Borum and Lorretta Holloman, two of the plaintiffs behind this week's lawsuit, say that is set to change under a proposed redevelopment filed with the local zoning board in 2014 by Mid-City Financial Corp.
Along with property manager Brentwood Village, Mid-City is planning to expand Brookland Manor to 1,760 units, of which 1,646 will be apartments.
One critical change, the complaint says, is that "the redeveloped property would have zero four- or five-bedroom apartment units."
Borum and Holloman both rent four-bedroom apartments — just like the 116 households total at Brookland Manor residing in four- and five-bedroom apartment units, as of June 2015, according to the complait.
"They live in their apartments with their minor children or with their minor children and extended family members, and these larger-size apartments are necessary to accommodate their families," the complaint states.
Brookland Manor has 75 three-bedroom units currently, but the redeveloped property will have just 64.
Borum and Holloman say the message is clear: large families are "not consistent with the creation of a vibrant new community."
"Defendants have publicly stated that they will not build four- or five-bedroom apartment units in the redeveloped property because defendants believe that allowing large families to reside in large units at apartment complexes is unsuitable for such families, has an 'adverse' impact on residential quality of life, and is inconsistent with the new community defendants seek to create," the complaint states.
Facing homelessness, the women are accusing the developers of discriminating against them on the basis of familial status.
Catherine Cone, a staff attorney with Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, says the redevelopment of Brookland Manor is indicative of other redevelopment efforts in the city to push out long time residents, and construct properties to bring new, more affluent residents into gentrified areas.
In this instance, the redevelopment project will have a disparate impact on larger families, Cone said in an interview.
"Generally what we think this case shows is that not only can redevelopment that goes unchecked lead to displacement of longtime residents, it can also specifically affect families," Cone said.
According to the complaint, Brookland Manor is among the only affordable residences in the northeastern part of the city that offers larger units for bigger families. D.C. housing codes stipulate that large families cannot reside in smaller units. Many of the families at Brookland Manor require at least a three-bedroom apartment to be in compliance, the complaint states.
Though Mid-City refused to comment on the pending litigation, an article
on its website says the redeveloped complex, which will span eight blocks, will be "mixed income." Affordable housing will make up 20 percent of the units, and the new property will include multifamily buildings, the article says.
Mid-City's founder, the late Eugene F. Ford Sr., has been memorialized
as a champion of affordable housing.
According to the D.C. Zoning Commission's first-stage approval
of the plan, the redevelopment will have a minimal impact on current residents.
"Mr. Meers stated that the applicant's research of the families that are currently living in the four and five-bedroom units resulted in the finding that all but 13 of the existing four and five-bedroom households can be housed in smaller units based on prevailing HUD occupancy standards," the document says, referencing Michael Meers, Mid-City's vice president. "Mr. Meers stated that the Applicant would meet with those 13 families in order to ensure that they will be reasonably accommodated into the new Brentwood Village project."
But the residents who filed the complaint disagree with that assessment.
"Under the current redevelopment plan, all 183 households currently living in three, four, or five-bedroom apartments at Brookland Manor would be forced to vie for 64 three-bedroom units at the redeveloped property," the complaint alleges, adding that the remaining units will not be affordable.
Cone says the redevelopment of Brookland Manor is reflective of a general shortage of affordable housing in the district - units with more than three bedrooms are in short supply.
A 2015 Urban Institute report
on D.C. housing that Cone referenced shows that only 21 percent of housing units in the district are three bedrooms. Meanwhile, only 8 percent have four bedrooms, while only 4 percent have five or more bedrooms.
"Those are pretty stark numbers," Cone said.
Cone noted that some Brookland Manor families have already been displaced from their original units, while other families have been broken up or have already moved off of the property.
Other Brookland Manor residents have begun looking for alternative housing, but have found few units available, many of them in Wards 7 and 8, the poorest and most segregated parts of the city, she said.
Others are looking for housing in Maryland in Prince George's County, which raises a host of additional concerns, Cone added. Those forced to move outside of the district will be cut off from community support systems - access to doctors, schools and churches, she said.
The complaint goes into detail about how the redevelopment will affect Borum, a mom of five who has lived in Brookland Manor for 25 years. Borum's younger children attend school nearby, and she lives within walking distance of her job. She also says she relies on her community church for religious and communal support, and that her children enjoy recreational activities and programs at a neighborhood recreation center.
"Ms. Borum will have an extremely difficult time finding an adequately sized apartment in D.C. for her family because of the scarcity of affordable housing of her unit type," the complaint states.
When it comes to households like Borum's, the Urban Institute report found that families of five or more are at higher risk for homelessness. Just 1 percent to 2 percent of families with four or less family members are at risk for homelessness, compared with 6 percent of large households.
"Mid-City's proposed redevelopment disproportionately impacts families and exacerbates the affordable housing and homelessness crises in the district and threatens the wellbeing of the city's most vulnerable populations," according to a statement
about the lawsuit from Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Attorneys from Covington & Burling joined the Washington Lawyers' Committee in filing the class action against Mid-City, Brentwood Village LLC, Brentwood Associates LP and Edgewood Management Corp.
Along with the individual residents, Organizing Neighborhood Equity in Shaw and the District of Columbia joined the class action as a lead plaintiff.
They allege violations of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.