Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The "Constructive Demolition" of Public Housing (II)

In my previous post, I talked about how, in the 1980s, public housing authorities across the country removed the residents from projects and then abandoned the projects or significant parts of them. Public housing residents protested their displacement and this abandonment, which they understood as causing the demolition of public housing, though in a passive way, and which they called "constructive demolition." As discussed by Edward G. Goetz, public policy professor at the University of Minnesota, in his New Deal Ruins, the media and others would use what Goetz calls a "public-housing-as-disaster narrative" and blame public housing residents for the condition of public housing, which had cities had let deteriorate.

Goetz further observes that, in the 1990s, cities across the country turned to active demolition of public housing projects. The National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing (NCSDPH) and its final report were a fundamental part of this policy shift. Yesterday, in the National Archives in College Park, I came across the meeting transcripts of the NCSDPH, which are exceedingly interesting to read. (1) 

Kimi Gray and Mayor Marion Barry, Youth of Parkside
Kimi Gray visited a NCSDPH meeting in 1991. Kimi Gray was a very famous public housing organizer, who lived in the Kenilworth-Parkside public housing project in Ward 7. (She had become a darling of the Republican Party and an ally of Mayor Marion Barry, which is a story I'll discuss in later post.) In 1991, Kimi Gray recognized that cities across the nation were actively demolishing public housing because private developers wanted the land: "And all the prime land left is ours now. So now the game is to get rid of us." Public housing residents like those at Kenilworth-Parkside and Fort Dupont had organized themselves to resist this displacement and maintain permanent affordable housing for very low-income people. Public housing organizers helped residents around the country stop demolition and displacement. 

In the minutes, Kimi Gray states, "Right now we're fighting in this city to keep one of our prime properties from Capitol Hill. I mean we are physically fighting." Given the timing of the meeting, I am assuming that she and others were fighting against the demolition of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, a public housing project around 6th and I Streets, SE. The Ellen Wilson Dwellings were abandoned in 1988 and then demolished in 1996 and turned into the Townhomes on Capitol Hill, a development without any rental units. If I am correct that Kimi Gray is talking about the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, then it is interesting that public housing residents were fighting to keep public housing "from" Capitol Hill. Did "Capitol Hill" mean a space or a force fundamentally different from that of Ellen Wilson? Was "Capitol Hill" some kind of colonizing force? Did Ellen Wilson have to be kept from "Capitol Hill" to remain public housing?

(1) Transcripts of Commission Meetings, Feb. 27 - Nov. 22, 1991; National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, Box 1, Record Group 220 Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions and Boards, National Archives at College Park, MD. [I need to correct this citation today.]

Monday, June 15, 2015

The "Constructive Demolition" of Public Housing

While conducting research on a public housing project on Capitol Hill, I came across an interesting lawsuit, Edwards vs. the District of Columbia. In 1985, Brenda Edwards and 8 other current and former residents of the Fort Dupont Dwellings, a public housing project in Ward 7, sued the District government, arguing that the law required it to consult with them as tenants and it did not during its decision to demolish the Fort Dupont Dwellings (1). In their case, the plaintiffs argued that the District government intentionally let public housing fall apart in order to declare the project uninhabitable and demolish it. According to their argument, the District played a major role in creating the deteriorating public housing projects of the 1980s and 1990s.

It seems that the District was just one of many municipal governments seeking to demolish public housing during the late 1970s and through the 1980s. In 1977, HUD had approved funds to modernize 28 Fort Dupont units, but the DC public housing authority (PHA) did not do the renovation work. By 1981, citing escalating costs, the District applied to HUD for permission to demolish the units and then two years later asked to demolish 112 units. According to a 1988 article, HUD had not approved or denied these requests (2).

As described by one of the judges discussing the case brought by Edwards and her neighbors, the plaintiffs alleged "that the District has pursued a deliberate policy of evacuation and neglect that will lead inevitably to the obsolescence, abandonment and physical demolition of Fort Dupont... the failure to maintain and the evacuation of Fort Dupont tenants reflect a systematic policy designed to render this federally funded housing project 'unusable for housing purposes'...The purpose of the District's to clear the way for the ultimate actual demolition of an abandoned Fort Dupont." The plaintiffs also stated that District PHA had threatened them with eviction if they did not move. Those relocated claimed that their new housing was unsafe and unsanitary, which is illegal under public housing law (3). The plaintiffs called these actions by the District government "constructive demolition," demolishing a public housing project by evacuating the tenants and abandoning the project. Thus, the District PHA was an active agent in the creation of DC's poorly maintained public housing of the 1980s and 1990s.  

Long-time DC builder of low-income housing and former Director of the District of Columbia Housing Development Corporation, Donald F. Humphrey, testified that the Fort Dupont Dwellings should not demolished but rather should be renovated:
Based upon this consultant's initial observation, Fort Dupont Dwellings including the 112 units do not appear obsolete as to physical condition, location, or other factors, making them unusable for housing purposes.... 
The damage done to these structures has been caused by owner, not resident, neglect. Because of the quality of the original construction used at Fort Dupont, it would be unreasonable to demolish the units. Had even reasonable protection been afforded the dwellings, as required by law, major structural damage probably would not have occurred. However, based upon my initial observations, even given the lack of maintenance, Fort Dupont including the 112 units which [the local PHA] has asked to demolish can be rehabilitated at much less cost than that of building comparable replacement housing. (4)
As I understand, Brenda Edwards and her neighbors wanted to be reimbursed for the utilities they paid and other aspects of the lease they signed and were not provided. They also sought safe and sanitary public housing (5).

Figure 1: Demolition of a Pruitt-Igoe building in 1972 (Public domain image).
Nationwide in the 1970s and 1980s, public housing tenants sought to stop the demolition of public housing projects, even though these projects had been constructively demolished for decades. Residents of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis (Figure 1 above) protested the demolition of the buildings they lived in at Pruitt-Igoe. Here are just a few of the cases in which public housing residents protested against the demolition of the public housing in which they lived: 
  • McCray v. Beatty, 64 F.R.D. 107, 111-12, 115-17 (D.N.J. 1974), settlement agreement approved where tenants had engaged in rent strike to protest imminent closing of project and unfavorable living conditions.
  • Fabri v. Rutherford County, No. 80-3418, slip op. (M.D. Tenn. Feb. 11, 1983), consent decree ordered, minority plaintiffs purchased county-owned housing project after suing to stop demolition.
  • Booker T. Washington Terrace Tenants Ass'n v. Pierce (U.S. HUD filed Feb. 6, 1985), cited in 19 Clearinghouse Rev. 782 (1985), $3.8 million allocated to rehabilitate 140 of 300 units after plaintiffs complained of inadequate notice and opportunity to comment on proposed demolition, as provided under 1979 regulations.
  • Department of Housing & Urban Development Independent Agencies Appropriations Act, 1988, Pub. L. No. 202, tit. IV; 415, 1988 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News (101 Stat. 1329) 123, tenant opposition led to legislation forbidding expenditure of HUD appropriations to demolish Allen Parkway Village project in Houston and West Dallas housing projects.(6)
There are many other topics of interest here. This movement introduced new rights for public housing residents with unintended consequences. Yet, for now, it should be clear that municipal governments played a significant role in undermining public housing in the 1980s and 1990s and, even in such poorly maintained public housing, the tenants did not necessarily want to move and used the courts, sometimes successfully, to protect their homes.

Works cited
(1) The information about the case comes from "821 F. 2d 651 - Edwards v. District of Columbia,", though I will eventually look at the actual legal documents.  "Plaintiffs brought this lawsuit as a class action pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(1) & (2), "on behalf of themselves and on behalf of a class consisting of all current Fort Dupont public housing tenants, and all such tenants who have been or will be relocated to substandard housing from Fort Dupont.... [T]he class consists of approximately one hundred and fifty ... households."" 

(2) Krislov, Marvin. 1988. “Ensuring Tenant Consultation before Public Housing Is Demolished or Sold.” The Yale Law Journal 97(8):1754–64.

(3) Krislov 1988,  p. 1747.

(4) "821 F. 2d 651 - Edwards v. District of Columbia,"

(5) Patrice Gaines-Carter. "Tenants Battle District for Homes: Plan to Raze Fort Dupont Dwellings...," The Washington Post, Feb. 21, 1985, C1. 

(6) Krislov, 1988.