Barry Farm residents prepare to fight to keep and improve their home

Schyla Pondexter-Moore at the weekly Empower DC meeting in front of an Occupy Barry Farm yard sign. Photo by Elijah Fosl

By Eli Fosl

Earlier this year, Paulette Matthews opened her door one morning to see a man lying in his doorway, shot dead. Five hours later, his body was still there.

“People here are living in foul conditions,” she says. “People get killed and they leave the bodies out for hours…. That’s how they’re getting us to move out.”

Matthews sits in a dusty lawn chair on her patio surrounded by a handful of other women. Her tight bun of hair is graying, her dark skin momentarily obscured by the smoke from her once-per-day cigarette. It doesn’t look like much, but this patio is the frontier of the next big battle against D.C. housing displacement.

These women are citizens of Barry Farm, a public housing project right across the Anacostia River. In the 1860s, it was a one-of-a-kind community established by emancipated slaves. Today its residents are being forced out so that it can be demolished and remodeled.

According to the D.C. New Communities Initiative, the redevelopment plan is aimed to protect and expand affordable housing and to create a mixed-use, mixed-income community. Simply put, the old buildings are to be torn down and replaced with newer, more diverse units and facilities.

The women on this patio, however, feel their community has been left out of this equation.

“It’s a matter of life and death,” says Schyla Pondexter-Moore, the affordable housing coordinator spearheading the campaign to protect Barry Farm. “They say they want to stop homelessness, but now they want to tear down our houses. It’s because we’re poor and we’re black.”

The D.C. Housing Authority has been moving people from Barry Farm for years, but this group argues it hasn’t done so legally.

“It’s a matter of life and death.”

Pondexter-Moore claims instead of being given proper notice, community members have been driven out by a lack of repairs and word-of-mouth warnings from property managers.

“They don’t fix anything anymore.” Pondexter-Moore sneers. “People want to stay here because this is their community, but they get tired and they give up.”

Dorene Key, a Barry Farm resident for three years, says her rent hiked over $80 for supposed “repairs,” but she’s seen none of the promised improvements. Still, she persists that she’s not going anywhere.

Key now attends the weekly meetings about resistance, which she heard about through her friend Matthews.

“My daughter goes to school right here, and she’s doing excellent,” Key insists. “I’m not gonna give that up. I’m comfortable here! I’m not going nowhere.”

At one point, six gunshots ring out through the meeting, not possibly more than a block or two away.

Besides Matthews, who sends a quick text to her children to ensure they’re okay, the group pays as little attention to the shots as they do the surrounding mosquitoes. The women don’t miss a beat in their discussion and planning, but simply raise their voices to be heard over the bullets.

The purpose of their meeting today is to finalize their list of demands to present to Mayor Muriel Bowser. Pondexter-Moore says if the demands aren’t met, they’ll occupy the premises. If it goes that way, they hope to get support and solidarity from other public housing areas in the District and nationwide.

“No one’s ever occupied a public housing project,” she mutters. “I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does it’s gonna be big.”