8/3/18 Newsletter: D.C. Mayor Sells Out Congress Heights Tenants, Again

In this week's newsletter, we highlight the shameful dealings of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and one of the agencies she directs, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), surrounding the vacant building at 3200 13th St. S.E., part of the contested Congress Heights properties where tenants have been fighting for over five years against slum conditions, and for 200 units of quality, affordable housing.

Additionally, we provide another update on slum conditions at Montana Terrace, a public housing property in Northeast Washington, D.C., an analysis of housing and development policy under capitalism, and we highlight a recent LinkUp and People Power Action event featuring a live discussion with political prisoner and internationally celebrated journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, during which he discusses his perspective on the linkages between mass incarceration and gentrification.

Mayor Bowser Sells Out Congress Heights Tenants, Again

Photo credit: Yasmina Mrabet

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the arm of her administration that deals with housing - the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) - have engaged in shameful dealings with known bad actors on the development scene in Washington, D.C. A long-abandoned building that sits at 3200 13th St. SE, is part of the contested Congress Heights properties at which tenants have been fighting slum conditions and displacement for over five years. Tenants will need control over the 3200 building in order to move forward with their 200 unit affordable housing plan, an alternative to a luxury redevelopment plan conceived by politically connected developer and slumlord Geoff Griffis, and backed by Mayor Bowser.

The building itself, up until last year, had sat vacant for years while another developer defaulted on almost $1 million in loan money from the city. A short time after tenants went public with a demand that the city turn the building over to the tenants association through its chosen nonprofit developer (National Housing Trust) for an affordable housing plan, DHCD, without informing tenants, paid $175,000 to recover the property. Rather than work with tenants and sell them the property through the National Housing Trust, the District, through DHCD with Polly Donaldson, Director, as their spokesperson, stated that a transfer of the 3200 building to tenants was not possible, and that the building would be put through a public disposition process. Meanwhile, and throughout this time, along with the demand for the 3200 building, tenants repeatedly expressed concerns that if the property were transferred to anyone but the tenants, the transferee would flip the property back to Griffis. 

Donaldson publicly dismissed concerns expressed by tenants and their organizing team as totally unfounded, insisting that the building would go through a fair and public process, and which would additionally protect an affordable housing covenant on the 3200 building which called for 12 units of affordable housing at 0-30% of the "Area Median Income," now referred to as the "Family Median Income," which in D.C. is one of the highest in the country

However, tenant fears were realized when the DHCD transferred the property to Phinis Jones, who has well documented links to the Administration and to Geoff Griffis.

The building was sold to Jones's nonprofit for $180,000, and the District forgave the outstanding $920,000 loan on the property. Additionally, the affordable housing covenant was significantly altered, with a new affordable housing requirement that calls for a mere 7 units of affordable housing at 80% of the Area/Family Median Income. This outrageous turn of events, while shocking, is business as usual for Mayor Muriel Bowser and District agencies.

Housing Under Capitalism: The Profit Motive

-by Yasmina Mrabet, adapted from her talk at a July 28 Community Forum in Washington, D.C.


Capitalism is an economic system in which resources are organized to create wealth for a tiny number of people at the top, at the expense of the human needs of the masses of people. In other words, capitalism is an economic system where decisions are made based on what will generate profit for the corporate owning class. It does not matter if those decisions negatively impact communities, or the environment, or the ability to receive a decent education, or adequate medical treatment. All decisions are largely made based on this: what will make money and create wealth for the private corporations? Consider aspects of our lived reality that we accept as “just the way things are.” For example, minimum wage does not match the cost of living. Why? 30% of homeless adults in Washington, D.C. are employed, yet remain homeless. This does not make sense, and therefore should not be justified.

Anyone who spends their time and labor power to contribute to society should be able to live comfortably in that society. There is absolutely no reason why minimum wages should not match the cost of living - except, of course, the reason that they don’t: the profit motive.

The the self-proclaimed corporate “owners” of the earth's natural resources and land are hoarding wealth that is produced. The capitalist class has promoted a narrative that misleads the masses of working people to believe that the value of labor is measured by wages. "Skilled" workers receive higher wages, "unskilled" workers receive lower wages. Those who work in industries that have lower paying jobs (though they may be multi-billion dollar industries) are considered to be worth less. The truth is that the value of labor can be measured only by time. If workers spend their time laboring, should they not reap the fruits of their own labor?


D.C. Democrats break ground with Donald Trump and his daughter at the Trump luxury hotel building, housed in the old federal post office building, while the homeless sleep outside on grates, benches and sidewalks.

It is critical that we understand the role of politicians in the capitalist system. Many of those who claim to be “progressive” align themselves with the Democratic Party, arguing that it is the alternative to the racist, conservative Republicans. Is it the alternative? No. If capitalism is a snake, we have to think of it as having two heads. Two parties. Both represent the wealthy elite. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are the functionaries of private corporations and the managers of society, working to ensure that it functions to serve the profit interests of the corporate owners. One party is open about its racist, white supremacist agenda. The other party has a much more cunning approach to its dirty work.

The Democratic Party functions to suppress resistance, by guiding those outraged by inequity in a direction that serves the profit interests of the owning class. 


We can use current examples from housing struggles in the nation's capital to demonstrate the ways in which decisions made about housing are formulated based on a profit motive, rather than on the needs of the people.

Brookland Manor

Mid-City Financial, the developer at Brookland Manor in Northeast Washington, D.C., seeks to demolish 535 units of affordable housing in the Brookland Manor community, replace them with three times as many units, while simultaneously eliminating all 4 and 5 bedrooms, a significant number of 3 bedrooms, all while reducing the overall affordability from 535 units to 373 units, and restricting 200 of the 373 units to seniors only, 62 and older. 

Mid-City was required to present this luxury redevelopment plan to the D.C. Zoning Commission before it could move forward. If you were on the D.C. Zoning Commission, and you were aware of the following facts:

  • There is a city-wide affordable housing crisis
  • Almost 7,000 families are homeless
  • Rampant displacement and gentrification has resulted in the expulsion of tens of thousands of working class Black people from D.C.

Would you, with these facts in mind, approve a redevelopment plan in a working class Black neighborhood that would eliminate affordability and eliminate family housing? 

The D.C. Zoning commission, however, has approved Mid-City's plan. Why? Because of the profit motive. This decision was clearly made based on money, rather than the needs of the people.

Still image of demolition at Brookland Manor in Northeast, Washington, D.C. Photo credit: Francis Tatem

Montana Terrace

Tenants at public housing property Montana Terrace, in Northeast Washington, D.C., have long been subjected to slum conditions by their landlord, the D.C. Housing Authority.

If you were a local politician, and you were aware of the following facts:

  • That the city has $2.4 billion dollars in reserves
  • That the city has used many millions of dollars from its existing budget to subsidize luxury developments, build sports stadiums and dog parks
  • That the city has effectively gifted many millions of dollars worth of public land and property to private developers

Would you continue to turn a blind eye to the slum conditions that tenants at Montana Terrace and other public housing communities have been subjected to? Or might you instead, reorganize the many resources at your disposal to ensure state-of-the-art maintenance for public housing residents? Needless to say, the politicians and their bureaucratic arms continue to formulate decisions on the city's budget, made possible by tax dollars, based on a profit motive, rather than the health, safety and security of District residents.

Congress Heights

At Congress Heights in Southeast Washington, D.C., tenants have waged a five year, ongoing struggle against slum conditions and for the preservation of affordability in their community.

If you were the Mayor of D.C., and you were aware of the following facts:

  • Geoff Griffis, big time developer and known slumlord to whom $95 million worth of pubic land was given away for $1, now wants to move forward with an unaffordable, 200 unit luxury development in Congress Heights, a working class Black neighborhood in Ward 8
  • The tenants of Congress Heights meanwhile, have secured a development partner willing to purchase their properties and move forward with a plan that would build 200 units of quality, affordable housing
  • The affordable housing stock throughout the city is rapidly declining
  • Unemployment rates in Ward 8 are the highest in the city

With these facts in mind, would you elect to partner with Geoff Griffis and facilitate the building of 200 units of unaffordable, luxury apartments in a working class Black neighborhood in Ward 8, where unemployment rates are the highest in the city, or would you partner with the tenants association at Congress Heights, and facilitate the building of 200 units of quality, affordable housing?

Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., instead of working with tenants, invites Geoff Griffis to Wizards basketball games, continuing to work with him, while she and her agencies have actively ignored and undermined the tenants campaign to protect affordability in a city where housing policies continue to threaten them with displacement. One thing is clear: it is not that the Mayor cannot make different decisions, it is that she will not make different decisions. Her decisions are designed to function for profit interests, rather than the needs of the people.


Cheryl Brunson and Dorothy Davis, Brookland Manor tenants attend Housing forum at the Justice Center, July 28, 2018. Photo credit: Leta Harrison

The same thing that will stop gentrification everywhere else: the decommodification of housing. In other words, the removal of housing from the private market, such that it is no longer a product to be bought, sold and profited from, but rather a basic human right. The current "solutions" to the affordable housing crisis put forth by politicians making the decisions described in examples outlined above, as well as those touted by well meaning advocates, such as a demand for vouchers, are wholly inadequate, as they fail to initiate the decommodification of housing. Any proposed solution that does not take housing out of the private market will fail, as evidenced by the continuing failures of both the private market and attempts to reform housing policy under the private market.

The solution is a public option - a publicly owned and controlled housing market that meets the affordable housing needs of all people. We must organize immediately to expand our rights and initiate alternatives to the existing policies and structures that restrict housing options to those that can "afford" it. Decommodification of housing is a way to redistribute wealth that was extracted from us through policies that have legalized the subsidization of luxury developments through our own tax dollars - luxury developments that we, in turn, cannot afford, as our wages remain stagnant, and cost of living continues to rise.

We must not only defend communities under attack by predatory developers seeking to displace and gentrify, such as at Brookland Manor and Congress Heights, but we must additionally begin to offensively organize against this system by mainstreaming the idea of a total alternative, and organizing to demand and institute that alternative.

To read more about the concept of social housing, click here.

Montana Terrace Update

Justice First will continue to feature a weekly update on the living conditions of two families at Montana Terrace, a public housing property in Northeast Washington, D.C., managed by the D.C. Housing Authority. We are entering our sixth week of reporting on Montana Terrace, which began with interviews that exposed deliberate neglect by the Housing AuthorityThe purpose of our weekly reports on the status of the families of Yahvon Early and Gretchen Helm, is to demonstrate to the public the absurdity of a system that requires constant follow up to demand, and in many cases beg the city to protect its own residents from safety hazards caused by its own agencies.

8/2/2018 Update - Yahvon Early

Last week, Yahvon Early and her daughter noticed a damp spot in their newly repaired unit, in the same area where a ceiling had previously collapsed. The day after we released our report last week, a Housing Authority representative was sent to Ms. Early's unit to inform her that the damp spot pictured was simply a "missing paint spot." Ms. Early is monitoring the spot to see if it expands over time.

On Wednesday, July 31st, Justice First reached out to representatives of the D.C. Housing Authority by email, with Ward 5 council member Kenyan McDuffie cc'ed, to inquire about the results of a mold inspection ordered by the Housing Authority approximately one month ago.

For years, Gretchen Helm and her children have been forced to endure mold and rodent infestations in their public housing unit at Montana Terrace in Northeast Washington, D.C. Photo credit: Francis Tatem.

In the email we emphasized the importance of receiving the results, in order to have knowledge of the existing mold levels, and to consult with mold specialists to determine adverse health impacts. To-date, we have received no response.

8/2/2018 Update - Gretchen Helm

So far, Gretchen Helm and her family have gone through two inspections by representatives of the D.C. Housing Authority, in addition to a mold inspection that took place back on July 2nd, 2018.

Though we reported last week that at the most recent inspection - the "housekeeping inspection" - Ms. Helm was told that work orders would be called in, and that she would be sent a notice before work was completed over the course of a one-day period, she has unfortunately (though not surprisingly) received no further communication from the Housing Authority.

In other words, there is still no information whatsoever on when or if the rampant mold infestation in her unit will be remediated, nor if steps will be taken to address the rodent infestations, which cannot be addressed without plugging the many holes that exist throughout her unit.

The D.C. Housing Authority has moved at a snail's pace, without addressing any of the slum conditions they are responsible for as the landlord at Montana Terrace, despite knowing that young children live in this unit. In the same email referenced in Ms. Early's update above, Justice First inquired to the same Housing Authority representatives, with Ward 5 council member Kenyan McDuffie cc'ed, about the results of last month's mold inspection. This is critical for both units, but in particular for Ms. Helm and her children, as they continue to live with visible mold throughout their home.

Video: LinkUp and People Power Action Event: Live Discussion with Mumia Abu-Jamal

LinkUp and People Power Action hosted an event featuring a live discussion with political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia is a former member of the Black Panther Party and was a supporter of the radical MOVE organization in Philadelphia. He is an internationally celebrated Black writer and radio journalist. It should be emphasized that a mass worldwide movement in solidarity with Mumia prevented him from remaining on death row. This international movement represents the larger struggle to end racist policing and mass incarceration, and to free all political prisoners.

Click here to read a transcript of the live discussion on LinkUp's blog, "Breaking Illusions."

Watch the video and share the link 


Click to watch the LinkUp x People Power Action Live Conversation with Mumia Abu-Jamal, political prisoner and internationally celebrated journalist, facilitated by Delonte Wilkins and Nkechi Feaster.

Donate to Justice First to support our work with tenants fighting slum conditions, displacement, and gentrification.

—Yasmina Mrabet

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