Anacostia redevelopment highlights community displacement

Lacy Nelson
5 min readDec 14, 2022
Photo courtesy of East of the River News

Old photos of Barry Farm, a historic public housing neighborhood in Southeast D.C., show a small urban community lined with rows of houses and backyards with chain link fencing.

Now, Barry Farm is a construction site roped off by yellow tape and occupied by bulldozers.

Earlier this year, the neighborhood was mostly demolished to make way for a new development with a mix of shops, affordable and high-end apartments and nursing homes, senior living facilities, mixed-income housing units and commercial space.

With the plans for the new development came the displacement of hundreds of families who called Barry Farm home — some for multiple generations.

Detrice Belt, a 38-year-old former resident of Barry Farm and co-founder of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, remembers the day she found out she was going to lose her home.

“Felt like there was nothing we could do as residents, it was going to happen,” she says.

It used to be going east of the Anacostia River guaranteed you would find affordable and public housing.

But, as in other parts of D.C., the area is gentrifying, and as it does, longtime residents of historically Black communities in areas like Anacostia and Congress Heights are being forced out.

Some now fear that the areas could soon become more like Shaw and Navy Yard, similar areas where high-rise apartment buildings and office space have taken over.

Today these historic neighborhoods are largely unrecognizable from just a couple decades ago, having been replaced with luxury buildings and modern commercial spaces.

For Barry Farm residents, there is the lingering fear they might not be able to afford to move back to their old neighborhood — or even recognize it — once the new development is completed.

A Promise of Return

The former residents have been promised they can return, but there are caveats, many which are tied to financial standing.

Residents must be able to maintain their D.C. Housing Authority status, which includes not missing rent payments or getting evicted, to be able to return. These limitations can add another layer of complexity for individuals and families looking to return.

“It’s become increasingly hard to find affordable housing in the city, and if you’re low income what do you do,” says Joseph Firschein, a professor at Georgetown University who teaches a course on community development.

He says one of the biggest problems with making new public housing in the U.S. is that you first have to deal with the existing public housing and figure out how to work with the communities that already live there.

During the 1990s, the Clinton Administration created a program known as “Hope VI” that attempted to revitalize run-down housing projects into new apartments and shops.

But Firschein says that while the program was successful in some ways, many of the new developments had fewer units than before, leading to a net loss of housing.

More recently, the Obama Administration sought to guarantee one-for-one replacement of housing units being redevelopment.

But as the experience at Barry Farm shows, that doesn’t necessarily mean the people who were living there before will be able to move back in.

Currently Barry Farm Preservation of Affordable Housing, who is behind the redevelopment, is anticipating a new phase of completion every nine months — but the development in its entirety isn’t expected to be completed until 2030.

Some residents will only have to wait a few years until the opportunity to move back comes up. Residents ages 55 and older will be among the first, with senior living facilities slated to open in the next couple of years.

But others might have to wait nearly a decade, or longer.

While the current housing policy allows the opportunity for more displaced residents to move back, it doesn’t account for the fact that redevelopment can destroy a community. There might be the same amount of housing but the people who make up the place won’t be there.

Telling the Story of Displacement

When Dr. Sabihya Prince heard about the Barry Farm redevelopment, she decided it would be a great way to show what has been happening to D.C.

A local anthropologist and activist, Prince worked with filmmaker Samuel George to document the displacement of tenants, with the goal of making a documentary about it — with a focus on low-income and communities of color.

The film, “Barry Farm: Community, Land and Justice in Washington, D.C.,” which was released this summer, paints a broader picture of gentrification by focusing on the lives of the people who left Barry Farm.

She said the film was an attempt to rectify the standard account of gentrification, which rarely highlights local voices.

“Not a lot of space is given to the local stories,” Prince says.

Tanya Phillips, the community impact manager at the Barry Farm Preservation of Affordable Housing, does not disagree gentrification has had some drastic impacts on the Black community but she doesn’t believe the documentary shows the efforts the city has made to keep the community together.

“I think that the documentary does not tell the entire story,” she says.

Phillips says the redevelopment team is working alongside former residents to keep the community intact, even establishing a board of former residents who have voiced support for the project and are eager to return.

Still, even she admits there will likely be a large number of residents who will decide not to come back.

Ramon Jacobson, the Executive Director of the Washington Local Initiatives Support Coalition, an organization that works with underserved communities, says there has been little research into why displaced resident choose to not return home.

But he suggests the loss of one community doesn’t have to only have downsides, and that it can result in the development of a new sense of place and communities. He says that often is not touched on when discussing displacement.

“Maybe we lament these projects take away a sense of community, but also maybe that isn’t the case,” says Jacobson.

Belt, however, misses Barry Farm and the connection she had with her neighbors, who were like a family. The neighborhood would get together, look out for one another and even organize community activities like sporting leagues and cookouts.

For now, it is in the air if Belt, or her former neighbors, will be able to — or even want to — move back when the development is completed in 2030.

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Lacy Nelson

South Mississippian. Expat in D.C. Sno-ball enthusiast. Willie Morris fan. Avid distance runner. Congressional swamp creature. AP style purist [mostly].