By Sarah Becker ©2017
After 50 years, beginning December 2016 ARHA’s Andrew Adkins public housing project starts anew. Crime is problematic, the black middle class has bolted and concentrations of poverty remain. The multi-block parcel has been segregated since 1877.
In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson’s open housing law, a law to prohibit discrimination in the sale and rental of housing, struggled. It died in the U.S. Senate in 1966 then suffered a second Congressional defeat in 1967. In the meantime ARHA, which had obtained funding “for 225 highly disputed public housing units,” completed its 90-unit rental project.
“The location was…approved…after a series of heated public hearings,” The Washington Post wrote in 1962. “The leading objectors were representatives of the Durant Civic Association, the city’s major Negro organization. They complained that the site includes a number of Negro-owned or Negro-occupied homes which will be leveled.”
“The association [President A. Melvin Miller] particularly objected because of the availability there of vacant land for private Negro housing,” The Post continued. “This is one place open to Negroes for building…”
“The southern attitude toward the Negro provides the bedrock of southern sectionalism,” V.O. Key, Jr. wrote. “Democratic Congressman Howard W. Smith, of Alexandria, was even more extreme than Virginia Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd.” Smith served as chairman of the House Rules Committee and leader of the “hard-shelled Southern Democrats.”
In January 1964 Otto L. Tucker “challenged the city’s right to condemn land [a house and two lots] he owns for a public housing project, claiming that the site for the project was picked because its inhabitants [20 families] were Negroes.”
ARHA declared lawyer Tucker’s racist assertions “irrelevant and immaterial to the proper issues involved…” Tucker also claimed “that in order to condemn properties there, the city must prove the area is a slum, blighted or deteriorated.”
“I sent to Congress early in 1966 a program for an entirely new way of approaching the problems of the slums,” President Johnson wrote. “This new approach is based on the proposition that a slum is not merely decaying brick and mortar but also a breeding ground of human failure and despair.”
President Johnson knew “how difficult it would be…to change people’s deep-seated sense of individualism in buying and selling their homes.” Passage of the bill “would demonstrate America’s faith in its Negro citizens…It was a new beginning.” Not so for ARHA’s 1967 Andrew Adkins project. Nor the 2008 Braddock Road Small Area Plan.
As of 2008 the Braddock East planning neighborhood consisted of 365 public housing units. Subsequent additions and subtractions have yet to be tallied. Other public and affordable housing developments include Carpenter’s Shelter, The Bradley in part, and, ARHA’s Pendleton Park, Jefferson Village and Ramsey expansion.
In Alexandria, “public housing was first created during the 1930s to provide decent, safe, and sanitary low-cost housing…to predominantly working-class and middle-class households…However, over time, public housing has evolved to house lower-income families.”
Today over 83% of public housing households are extremely low income. The result is isolated communities with high concentrations of poverty and other negative impacts. “Black poverty and the state of housing are connected,” black Alexandria attorney Edwin C. Brown, Sr. said in 1954.
ARHA’s Braddock land parcels date from the city’s segregated past. Area placement was consistent with former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 Neighborhood Composition Rule. The long-standing Rule assured conservative Southern Democrats, segregated cities like Alexandria that the new federal presence would not alter the existing racial composition of any given project area.
The Rule concentrated the black population, placing all black housing projects in neighborhoods that were only partially black. Like yesterday, today’s public housing residents are 91.2% black; only 53% of households have income from wages and the mean income is low. Interestingly the public housing settlement with the highest mean income, Andrew Adkins, also has the highest crime rate.
The city’s homicide rate increased 75% in 2016. In summer 2016, for 90 consecutive days, a police “emphasis operation” devoted “2,000 man-hours to Adkins.”
ARHA’s 2012 strategic plan no longer includes dispersal of the Braddock neighborhood’s public housing population. It claims dispersal is hard, an off-site cost is implied, and only 50+ unit buildings are profitable. The settlements management structures differ; police and social services costs are rarely addressed, still Andrew Adkins residents speak publicly regarding domestic violence, murder and crime.
“Through the school system, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Department of Human Services, Office on Aging, [and] other entities, the City already provides a wide range of social and other services that are available to public housing residents,” the Braddock East Plan explains. Over 25% of ARHA residents have lived in public housing for 11 years or more.
“The term deconcentration has become central to Federal housing policy,” HUD’s Journal of Policy Development and Research claims. “But what do we actually mean by neighborhood quality and income diversity? Neighborhood characteristics include access, especially to good schools…good adult role models…and low levels of crime and violence.” Yet ARHA said nothing regarding the School Board’s 2017 redistricting plan.
HUD typically “uses 40% poverty as a level above which a neighborhood [or assisted housing project] is clearly a ghetto, slum or underclass area.” Unless ARHA shifts gears, effectively reduces its concentrations of poverty, HUD “may prohibit” new housing projects.
“I believe in the wisdom of the Bible,” President Johnson wrote. “Where there is no vision the people will perish.” ARHA now advocates mixed income development.
Johnson’s 1968 Fair Housing Act, Virginia’s 1972 Fair Housing law was the Negro’s path to freedom. From Alexandria’s 1981 Annual Report: “The 1970-1980 population figures, by race, show that a geographical shift of the City’s blacks has taken place, so that the area immediately east of the RF&P Railroad Tracks, traditionally a predominantly black neighborhood, has lost over 1300 black residents in the decade.” A. Melvin Miller was among the black middle class homeowners who fled.
Lawyer Tucker’s 1964 call was correct. Non-fleeing homeowners watched as their Jim Crow neighborhood went the way of concentrated poverty; drugs and crime. As the black-only middle school went the way of Braddock Place and failed ground floor retail.
Today’s draw: the 1984 Braddock Metro Station. Braddock Station, after 33 years, remains an underutilized facility. It will continue thus until such time as Andrew Adkins’ lower income residents are properly off-sited. ARHA’s John Roberts public housing was wholly off-sited in 1983.
Alexandria is cash strapped in part because lawmakers repeatedly forgo, “relinquish the advantage of” the tax bonanza associated with well-developed Metro stations. The 2008 Braddock East Plan references an off-siting Fund. Federal budget cuts, including $6+ billion in HUD funding, are pending.
“City officials acknowledge that the Braddock Station has been something of a stepchild,” The Washington Post reported in 1983.
Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.