A rendering of RIA, a proposed development to replace Brookland Manor, an aging property in the northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. (Mid-City Financial Corp.)

Arguments about how to create and maintain affordable housing are often fierce and intractable. That is true in growing—and gentrifying—communities across the United States, and the nation’s capital is no exception. Consider the saga of a redevelopment plan for Brookland Manor, an expansive housing complex in Washington, D.C., that has provided affordable housing for 40 years.

Mid-City Financial Corporation, the Bethesda, Maryland, owner of Brookland Manor, has big plans to redevelop the property, currently a low-income housing complex, as a much denser mixed-use development that would include almost 400 affordable units—far more than are required by local law.

By voluntarily adding so many below-market-rate units, the company is going the extra mile, says Mid-City executive vice president Jamie Weinbaum. “We’re trying to do something really different,” he says. “We haven’t seen other private projects of this scope that incorporate Section 8 housing into a mixed-income community.”

But several residents who currently live on the site, and their advocates, say the plan will displace hundreds of low-income families—and they are fighting the development in court and at the D.C. Zoning Commission.

Brookland Manor is an aging property in the northeast quadrant of the District. Originally built in 1937 to house government workers, the 20-acre (8 ha) complex holds 19 garden apartment buildings containing a total of 535 units. In 1978, Mid-City founder Eugene Ford—a businessman and affordable housing champion—bought Brookland Manor and entered into a contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to turn it into a project-based Section 8 property.

Over its 40 years, the complex has been home to hundreds of low-income D.C. residents. Among its units, 373 were covered under project-based Section 8 rules, and the remainder were market rate but affordable to residents using housing choice vouchers. The neighborhood, located in a poor part of D.C., was not particularly desirable from a market standpoint. Mid-City says it made no money off the property.

“All of the funds have been reinvested into the property—all of them,” says Michael Meers, Mid-City’s executive vice president. Mid-City believed that one day the area would support more dense development, but that it would take decades before this became a reality, Weinbaum says.

Click to zoom.

A Gentrifying Area

A few years ago, the neighborhood finally began to change as the growth and construction that had swept through the heart of D.C. began to lick at the city’s fringes. With new luxury apartments rising around the Metrorail transit station—only a half mile (0.8 km) from Brookland Manor—and quirky restaurants and cafés going up nearby, the community was beginning to attract interest from developers.

Mid-City paid off its 40-year mortgage in summer 2017, which meant it could terminate its contract with HUD and do whatever it wanted with the property, including renting out all the units at market-rate prices. But Mid-City had another idea.

The company is proposing to redevelop the property into something much denser. Plans for the project, dubbed RIA (for the development site, Rhode Island Avenue), involve tripling the number of residential units to 1,760, and building up to 181,000 square feet (17,000 sq m) of retail space—including a grocery store, which is badly needed in the community—as well as a three-acre (1.2 ha) public park.

That’s all possible because the original property is large and distinctly underused by today’s standards. “Twenty acres is an incredible amount of land,” says Weinbaum. “You can accomplish a lot and provide a lot of housing here, and still not have buildings that look out of place.”

Most notable about the current proposal is its affordable housing component. The District of Columbia’s inclusionary zoning law requires that 8 to 10 percent of the housing in new residential developments be affordable to people earning 60 percent of the area median income. But citing the company’s historic focus on low-income housing, Mid-City is aiming to go well beyond that requirement. It has vowed to keep 22 percent of the new residences affordable—373 units that would remain project-based Section 8 housing, affordable to people making less than 30 percent of AMI, plus 11 affordable townhouses for sale. Some of those units would be contained in a building designated for seniors; the rest would be scattered throughout the development.

The goal, says Weinbaum, is to ensure that none of the residents who have been living in project-based Section 8 units is displaced. Residents will not have to move off the property temporarily during construction: Mid-City says it will construct its buildings sequentially so current residents can move into the new buildings as they are erected.

Weinbaum says it is virtually an unprecedented plan, and certainly not one that maximizes profits at all costs. Very few private property owners have voluntarily continued providing Section 8 housing after their obligations have lapsed, he notes. “The scale and scope, and that preservation of affordable housing, is something we haven’t seen in any private project we’ve found in the country,” Weinbaum says.

Stockton Williams, director of ULI’s Terwilliger Center for Housing, agrees that Mid-City’s plans are not common. “They’re going above and beyond what is required,” he says. “It’s definitely rare.”

Because Mid-City is planning to increase density on the property, it must undergo planned unit development hearings at the D.C. Zoning Commission to show that the development is a public benefit and protects the community’s health, safety, and welfare. The overall project has been approved by the commission, and the first stage of construction was verbally approved at a second hearing last May.

According to a transcript of that May meeting, Zoning Commission vice chair Robert Miller acknowledged Mid-City’s commitment to providing Section 8 housing “which this developer has no legal obligation to continue, because that’s expiring.”

Miller continued: “I think it ought to be recognized that that’s a commitment that should be lauded, even though somehow this case has become the poster child for displacement and gentrification. There also is the commitment to try to work for the over 100 other tenants who are assisted with the housing choice voucher program to try to make that continue. . . . This developer could just sell this building and it could all be market rate, just subject to our [the District’s] little 8 percent set-aside IZ [inclusionary zoning] program, which we’ve tried to tighten up.”

However, the Zoning Commission as of mid-March had not yet issued its written decision. Once that decision is released, the company hopes to begin construction this summer on the complex’s first new building.

A rendering of RIA—an acronym for Rhode Island Avenue, the development site. The development of RIA involves tripling the number of residential units to 1,760, and building up to 181,000 square feet (17,000 sq m) of retail space—including a grocery store, which is badly needed in the community—as well as a three-acre (1.2 ha) public park. (Mid-City Financial)

Legal Challenges

But obstacles remain. Community advocates opposed to the project assert that not everyone will be able to remain in the new complex, which is what some low-income residents object to. The roughly 100 families who currently live in market-rate units on the property and pay for them with housing choice vouchers would need to have those voucher amounts enhanced to ensure that they could afford the rent on a new unit, which could be $2,000 or more. Mid-City representatives have committed to work with residents holding housing choice vouchers and the D.C. Housing Authority to ensure that the payment standard is increased so they could afford to remain at the property after redevelopment.

Some residents and those working with them, including lawyers and advocates for economic justice, argue that because the District is experiencing a severe shortage of affordable housing, it should not allow a project that does not include a one-for-one replacement of affordable housing units.

In addition, those tenants say the new complex will include far fewer four- and five-bedroom units than currently exist. That is true: the new development would have about half as many large apartments as the current one, despite providing three times the number of units. But Mid-City representatives say actually very few families living at the site require large units, and that the site will include four-bedroom townhouses. However, all will be for-sale units; 11 will be priced for low-income residents.

The group of tenants and their advocates have testified against the project at Zoning Commission hearings and have pledged to appeal any written decision favorable to Mid-City’s proposal. Such an appeal could delay the project by a year or more. The group also is suing the company in U.S. District Court under the Fair Housing Act, alleging that Mid-City is discriminating against a class of people: large families.

“Our position is that in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, eliminating affordable units overall, and the large-bedroom units, means it can’t be considered a project that protects the health and welfare and safety of the community,” says Will Merrifield, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, who is representing the tenants association at the Zoning Commission.

Mid-City actually had more affordable housing written into a 2014 plan: 436 units were to remain affordable. But that would have required denser development overall, with more than 2,200 total residential units. In 2015, the city’s Zoning Commission shot that idea down, declaring that such density would be incompatible with the D.C. comprehensive plan for the area.

In fact, the city’s comprehensive plan has not been amended since 2011—almost an eternity for a city that has experienced enormous post-recession growth. The comprehensive plan’s prescriptions for neighborhood density, some developers say, are badly out of date and do not reflect the city’s current realities.

The city’s Office of Planning is finally embarking on an effort to update the plan and could be finished within the year. Depending on the timing and the outcome, Mid-City representatives say they might be willing to revert to the increased density in their earlier proposal should the new comprehensive plan allow greater density in the neighborhood. That could be a win-win for most stakeholders.

Meanwhile, everyone interested in the future of Brookland Manor awaits the Zoning Commission’s written decision and further steps by Mid-City and the community activists.

This article appeared on page of the Spring 2017 Global Issue of Urban Land.