Wednesday, May 30, 2012

article on Sursum Corda residents grappling with impending eviction

See the text of an email that I received below from writer Jazzy Wright.  I have posted both her brief message and her Sursum Corda article below.
Note that Sursum Corda -- located in the Northwest One neighborhood -- one of the New Communities initiative neighborhoods -- is located in Ward 6, across the street from Ward 5.
My name is Jazzy Wright, and I am a D.C. writer. I am particularly interested in your coverage of the Sursum Corda neighborhood (see this story).  I recently wrote an article that investigated recent activities in the Sursum Corda housing complex (see the article below). The article captures the stories of residents who live in the D.C. Sursum Corda housing development, as well as the demographic changes that have occurred in the neighborhood. It is my hope that the attached article can be of use to you.
Thank you for your time.
Jazzy Wright
Longtime Residents Make the Move Out of the City: Sursum Corda Residents Grapple with an Impending Eviction
It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in Northwest Washington and Christopher Williams, a heavyset older black man, is standing at the entrance of his townhouse observing his neighbors come and go, and waving at cars as they pass by.
Williams lives in Sursum Corda, a resident-owned, low-income housing development located less than a mile from Union Station. He enjoys the time he spends outside catching up with friends and speaking to neighbors who pass by his building.
Although Williams has called Sursum Corda home for decades, he knows that his time in the area is limited—Williams, like most of the residents in the housing complex, will have to move soon. The nearly six-acre subsidized housing development will shut down for a reconstruction project most likely within the next two to three years.
These days, development rumors spread quickly among confused Sursum Corda residents. The reconstruction project has not started yet, and residents are not completely sure when they will have to move out of the complex.
"We don't know when we're moving out," Williams said sighing. He shares a unit with his mother and brother.
While many residents believe that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has foreclosed on the property, agency officials said that the development reconstruction is a part of the New Communities Initiative, a program created by former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams to convert the land to more valuable use by bringing both market rate and low-income housing to the area.
“We’re not foreclosing on anybody," said Larry Green, who has been the HUD project manager for the Sursum Corda housing development since 1999. “The only thing that property is undergoing is a complete reconstruction."
Green said that he could not provide additional information on the housing development at this time.
Nearly all of the Sursum Corda residents could be displaced if the current reconstruction plans occur within the next few years. It is not certain yet if the residents will have the option to return to the property once the construction is complete.
Williams believes the reconstruction was inevitable and that residents could have done more to prevent the development takeover.
"We had our run and we didn't do what we needed to do to keep it ̶ and money talks," Williams said, referring to the impending Sursum Corda development reconstruction.
For many black Sursum Corda residents, the reconstruction signifies a larger city-wide gentrification problem. Over the last ten years, U.S. Census Bureau data has revealed that the District's black population has dropped by more than 38,000 residents. Most of the Sursum Corda residents are black.
Now, slightly more than 50 percent of District residents identify themselves as black, which has decreased eleven percent in the last decade. Census data shows that the black population is dropping by approximately 1 percent every year.
"90 percent of the [D.C. population] change is being pushed out," Williams said. "If it was my choice, I'd live here and die here."
For the past 30 years, Williams has learned to understand and appreciate the Sursum Corda community. It is an appreciation that he learned from his parents, who moved to the D.C.-area during the early twentieth century, joining the more than six million African-Americans who migrated from the South to the North during the Great Migration for job opportunities in cities.
His mother was a field hand who moved from North Carolina to Washington, D.C. in search of a better way of life. His father, a school teacher and serviceman, saw the area as a place of opportunity for his family. After living in the Northeast D.C. area for some time, Williams, who has worked in landscaping, moved to the Sursum Corda development for the affordable housing.
Historically, the land rights of the Sursum Corda projects have been an issue for the city government for the past 50 years. The housing development was built by a non-profit Catholic corporation and funded by HUD in 1968 to bring urban renewal to an area plagued by crime, blight and poverty.
Sursum Corda—Latin for "Lift up your hearts"—was one of first large-scale rent-supplement programs in the country.
While the development thrived initially, poor management of the property and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s transformed the complex into one of the most dangerous areas of the city. The development’s downtown location and maze-like layout structure of enclosed courtyards and dead-end streets allowed drug dealers and gangs to turn the neighborhood into an open air drug market.
By 2004, living conditions fell so steeply that HUD threatened to foreclose Sursum Corda because of chronic health and safety violations. Residents were given some hope in 2005 when residential developer KSI Services agreed to a $25 million deal with the Sursum Corda Cooperative to redevelop the property.
Residents were promised $80,000 per household, half of the redevelopment profits and the opportunity for home ownership once the complex was razed and rebuilt. The deal ended after the D.C. Council voted to allow the city to the power of eminent domain over Sursum Corda in 2006.
The housing development is now managed by Kettler Management, the company that operates KSI Services, according to Stephan Rodiger, the director of management at Kettler.
Today, residents are concerned about where they will be living in the next three years because they cannot afford to relocate. On average, most of the residents earn less than $27,000 annually, and many residents are senior citizens.
Ward 6 Advisor Neighborhood Commissioner Keith Silver believes that affordable housing is a major issue for the Sursum Corda residents, as well as for all low-income families who live in the District.
"When older black residents are being displaced and little is done to bring them back, I have concerns,” Silver said.
“Hopefully, we’ll have the option to come back to the development,” said one resident who is on the cooperative’s resident board and wished to remain anonymous. The resident, who is in her seventies, has lived in the development for the past 40 years. “If God gives me the strength, I'll still be here. I'd live here until the Lord takes me away."
Willliams is also worried about losing his status in the Sursum Corda community after he moves out. He frequently travels up north to go fishing for catfish, and brings back fresh fish for his neighbors. Long nicknamed "The Fishman," Williams enjoys his giving status in the community. He proudly hangs several lifesavers and fishing nets on the fence surrounding his townhouse.
Like most of his neighbors, Williams is beginning his search for a new place to live. Williams said that he plans to move to an area outside the city with affordable housing, such as Prince Georges County, Md. He is considering moving to Laurel, Md., where he has family.
The county has seen a boom in growth in the last decade, specifically in the numbers of African Americans who have migrated to the area. According to the Census Bureau, more than 50,000 blacks have moved to Prince George's County in the last ten years.
So many D.C. residents have moved to the area that D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) has nicknamed the area "Ward 9." During the same decade, the population of whites in the county decreased by more than 20 percent.
The declining population of blacks in D.C. falls in line with Census statistics showing the larger, nationwide trend of blacks leaving big cities in the Northeast and the Midwest.
Locally, many Maryland residents have noticed the demographic changes over the years.
Daryl Smith, 43, grew up in the Trinidad neighborhood of D.C. and currently lives in Capitol Heights, Md. He said that he has seen a change in the culture of the county.
"Where I live at, everyone is from Southeast [D.C.] and everyone came over the [state] border," he said. "People are loitering more."
Smith expressed concerns about why so many residents are moving out the city.
"The poor getting pushed out," he said. "If you own a house, nothing will happen to you. If you are on rental assistance or a housing program, I think eventually all those people are going to get pushed out. It's a slow process."
Despite living in Maryland, Smith often comes to the Sursum Corda neighborhood to attend Miles Memorial CME Church. He believes that the city's black institutions will stay intact.
"Nothing will happen to the churches," he said.
Will Watson III, 51, has lived in the D.C. area for over 37 years. While he lives in the Columbia, Md., he frequently comes to D.C. to tend for his father's home which is within walking distance of Sursum Corda in the North Capitol neighborhood. Watson works in real estate and says that the demographic changes have positively affected real estate in the area.
He said that his father, Bill Watson, Jr, bought the house in 1976 for roughly $126,000 when it was partially burned out. He said that the house is worth approximately half a million dollars now.
He has taken note of the population change in his father's neighborhood, which has increased in the numbers of white residents.
"You wouldn't see single white females jogging at night by themselves around here to save your life," he said laughing. "It's amazing how much it cost to live and buy property in D.C now."
Williams believes that the political atmosphere of the city is going to change as more black residents move out of the city.
"I think gradually D.C. is going to become more wealthy, less black, and the leaders will change," he said. "Statehood will probably happen when there's enough wealth in the city."
"The change is going to continue," he said. "Around the world, America is rare in that the cities were places you didn't want to live. The city is the place to be now—America is just returning to that. It's just happening in [D.C.] very quickly."
Back in the Sursum Corda housing development, Williams is not sure whether he should feel excited or grief-stricken about moving to Maryland. He wants to move to Laurel, where he can enjoy the land, but he is also worried about what will happen to the Sursum Corda residents after the neighborhood disperses.
"I hate leaving D.C. with a passion. It's so convenient. I'll miss it," he said, trailing off. "It's just part of life, but what can you do about it? You have to keep living."


Unknown said...

The author of this article needs to do a bit more research. A simple Google search on this issue nets a lot more information than what was provided here. It is clear that the existing residents will be allowed to come back. It is also clear that the Sursum Corda Board of Directors, which represents the residents, will have to approve any plan.

And furthermore, there is nothing in here about the Sursum Corda neighborhood having the highest instance of violent crime in the area, about the benefits of mixed income housing, etc.

These types of articles just fuel a lot of misinformation and fear. Not appropriate.

MVB said...

Bloomie Res,

I wrote the article, and I spoke with several members of the Sursum Corda Cooperative resident board, as quoted in the article. If you would like to learn more about research conducted for the article, feel free to email me at

-Jazzy Wright