Last December, 59-year-old Pat Bishop, a resident of Greenleaf Senior, got stuck on her building’s second floor when the elevator stopped working. Bishop, who travels in a wheelchair, left her apartment just before 8 p.m. to pick up a neighbor’s laundry card. Because the incident happened on a holiday weekend, she waited overnight for the fire department to come to her aid.
“It took so long that I was stuck there until 5 a.m.,” Bishop said. “They (her federal landlord) don’t have money for new elevators.”
Bishop belongs to Southwest’s Greenleaf Gardens community, a five-block, 493-unit affordable housing complex in Southwest owned and operated by the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA).
An independent federal agency, DCHA is almost completely funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It is administered by an eleven-member board of commissioners. Five commissioners are nominated by the Mayor and confirmed by the DC Council. The Metropolitan Central Labor Council and the Consortium of Legal Services Providers each appoint one Commissioner. The remaining four are elected by the public housing community. The Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development also serves on the board in an ex-officio capacity.
DCHA manages more than 8,000 affordable housing units on 56 federally-owned parcels of land in the District. Half of these units require “urgent” repairs, according to the authority’s own assessments. 20,000 DC residents call DCHA their landlord.
DCHA is a partner with private landlords in another 23 mixed-income properties that include approximately 4,500 apartments, which it does not own directly. 3,900 of these are affordable at some level. Among them are 1,230 public housing units.
Greenleaf Gardens turns 60 this year, and its advanced age is glaringly apparent. The complex contains some of the city’s most dilapidated affordable housing units, according to DCHA. A cocktail of health hazards due to poor maintenance plague its residents. According to the DCHA, the costs of redeveloping Greenleaf could exceed $143 million.
In a booming city whose skyline is dominated by construction cranes, one might well ask how this desperate situation came to be.
Greenleaf at a Glance
The National Capital Housing Authority (NCHA), an arm of the federal government responsible for building and maintaining public housing until it closed in the 1970s, built Greenleaf Gardens in 1959. The site was physically distinct from adjacent modernist projects aimed at middle class residents. Greenleaf housed many who had been displaced from earlier Southwest alley dwellings and townhomes demolished by federal urban renewal.
The Greenleaf complex stretches along Delaware Avenue SW, beginning on I Street SW and ending at Greenleaf Senior at 1200 Delaware Avenue. It is within walking distance of both the Waterfront and Navy Yard Metros, Nationals Park, Arena Stage, The Wharf, Audi Stadium, and Fourth Street retail. The complex also is adjacent to the city’s King Greenleaf Recreation Center.
Greenleaf Gardens on N Street SW, the largest of the Greenleaf components, contains 208 units. A majority of these units are two and three-bedroom spaces (77 units each). There are 50 four and five-bedroom homes.
It is these larger units that distinguish Greenleaf from other public housing complexes, stated Councilmember Charles Allen (D). “We want families of all sizes to live here. We want intergenerational families.”
Greenleaf Additions and Greenleaf Extension contain five and four four-bedroom apartments, respectively. These include 27 townhouses, with an additional 17 two-bedroom units and one three-bedroom unit.
Greenleaf Senior, an eight-story high rise housing senior-aged and disabled residents, contains 46 one-bedroom apartments and 124 two-bedroom apartments.
According to DCHA’s Greenleaf Gardens website, 27 percent of the complex’s population are children. 11 percent are seniors. 25 percent are disabled 16 percent are single. As a matter of policy, DCHA will not disclose the total number of residents living within the complex.
The average median income of Greenleaf residents, according DCHA, is around $30,000 a year or less, which is just 29 percent of the average median income (AMI) in Ward 6. To qualify for Greenleaf residency, applicants must earn under 30 percent of the AMI. Rent payments vary by income.
According to Allen, some families have lived in the units for generations.
Demolition by Neglect
Strongly supported by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D, Commissioner Rhonda Hamilton (6D06) has represented Greenleaf Senior and Greenleaf Midrise for 13 years. Over that time, she has observed the complex’s decrepit state of repair. There are residents who live with mold, rodents, bugs, asbestos contamination, fallen ceilings, flood and water damage and many other issues that impact their health negatively. These largely stem from unmet critical repairs.
“I’ve been in some of the units and to see the conditions that residents live under,” Hamilton added. “No residents should be exposed to lead and forced to live in deteriorating housing.”
DCHA reports 89 of Greenleaf’s total 493 units are vacant. Over half of these are so damaged that they can no longer be occupied. 42 of these offline units are part of Greenleaf Senior. The remaining four are in Greenleaf Family.
Greenleaf Gardens apartments are widely contaminated with lead paint, according to documents obtained by WUSA9.
DCHA’s Capital Needs Assessment Report recommends the replacement of all waste and vent piping and installation of new drain pipes and thermostats. Poor ventilation and humidity contributes to mold and general deterioration, stated Hamilton.
According to Greenleaf resident Pat Bishop, inconsistent heating significantly adds to residents’ overall discomfort. “We don’t have any control over our heat,” she said. “Several people aren’t even getting any heat. I’m burning up and can’t even lay down without pouring over in sweat, and they’re freezing to death,” she told the Hill Rag.
“You getting those repairs is dependent on [DCHA] having the resources for the repairs. So, I hear from residents complaining that it takes a long time for critical repairs,” Hamilton said. “That includes mold. That’s resulted in the overall conditions of the various units deteriorating. A lot of mold, lead paint,” she said.
“The HUD funding allocation for public housing has declined precipitously over the last decade and beyond,” stated Mark Weinheimer, a retired consultant in the community development field, specializing in affordable housing and community economic development issues and programs. “This reduction in the funding of public housing capital funds — used to repair and modernize existing apartments — has led to a national backlog of some $30 to $50 billion dollars. For example, in the years 2010 to 2016, that public housing capital fund account saw a reduction of $1.6 billion, representing the largest cut in HUD funding in any category,” he stated.
Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, places the blame squarely on the federal government. “The inhumane conditions at Greenleaf and many other public housing developments is a direct result of decades of disinvestment by the federal government,” he said.
However, DCHA plans to spend $35 million on temporary repairs to public housing stock. Recognizing the dire situation, the DC Council voted in June to commit $23.5 million in local dollars to fund immediate repairs.
Lazere strongly supports local efforts to stabilize public housing. “While they [the federal government] may have walked away from public housing, the District should not. We should do all it takes to preserve this critical resource for thousands of residents,” he said.
Ultimately, DCHA does not plan to fully repair and preserve Greenleaf. Rather, the authority is looking for private partners to redevelop the entire site. It has committed to fully replace existing units, a “build-first” policy to minimize resident displacement and a 70:30 percentage ratio of market rate to affordable units.
Concerned about displacing Greenleaf residents, Councilmember Allen and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D have staunchly supported the “build first” approach for Greenleaf that guarantees existing residents the right of return. They have strongly lobbied DCHA and the mayor to commit to a one-to-one replacement of existing units which maintains their size.
In 2015, Allen sponsored successful legislation to bind any future redevelopment to the “build first” standard. Allen says he’s committed to seeing it through.
“This is important to me because I see the Greenleaf as an incredibly important community,” said Allen. “I’ve talked to families who say this is home for several generations. Imagine if that were gone.”
This article is the first part of a series of profiles of public housing complexes in Ward 6.