Testimony of Claire Zippel, Housing Policy Associate At the Public Roundtable On New Communities Initiative And The Right To Return

Good afternoon Chairperson Bonds and members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Claire Zippel and I am the Housing Policy Associate at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI is a non-profit organization that promotes budget and policy choices to expand economic opportunity and reduce income inequality in the District of Columbia.

Thank you for convening this roundtable on the New Communities Initiative. New Communities seeks to revitalize the city’s distressed public housing into quality, mixed-income developments. The program’s guiding principles include one-for-one replacement of existing units, providing residents an opportunity to return, creating mixed income housing, and building first to minimize displacement. We commend the New Communities Initiative partners, the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and DC Housing Authority, for committing to these principles. I will focus my testimony today on the importance of adhering to the second principle, the opportunity for residents to return, so that redevelopment doesn’t displace or exclude the families it is meant to help.

The right to return means that a place is saved in the redeveloped property for each family who had to move away during construction. Many relocated households will want to come back to the community they call home, and reconnect with valuable social support networks such as neighbors, friends, family, churches, and local service providers. Moreover, the residents of the original property should be able to benefit from the new, high-quality homes and mixed-income community created by the redevelopment.

  • Redeveloped properties must accommodate the needs of original residents. For relocated households to truly be able to return, there must be a unit in the new property that meets their needs — enough bedrooms for the family, or accessible features for seniors and people with disabilities. These kinds of units are nearly impossible to find at affordable rents on the private market, and even in other subsidized housing programs. Residents at the three New Communities properties set to be redeveloped need the opportunity to return to homes that meet their unique needs. Nearly two thirds of the families living at these properties have children, ten percent of households are headed by a senior, and another twenty percent are headed by an adult with disabilities.[i] Replacing units with ones of equivalent size or accessibility ensures the right to return is truly possible.
  • Additional screening can exclude many families from the new mixed-income property. Requiring families to be lease-complaint or pass credit and background checks before they can return to the redeveloped property is a serious barrier. With variable incomes and family situations, many households living in public housing are not compliant with their leases. Credit checks are very difficult for extremely low income households to pass. Residents at New Communities properties have incomes averaging 15 percent of the median for the DC area — $14,600 for a family of four, or only 60 percent of the poverty level.[ii] Rigorous screening can disqualify families that wouldn’t otherwise be penalized, and the burden tends to fall largely on households with complex challenges who have few, if any, other housing options.[iii]
  • Unclear rights and procedures make it hard for families to know if or how they can return. Lack of communication between residents and the housing authority can be a barrier to a practical right to return. Households may not know they have a right to a spot at the redeveloped property, or may inadvertently become ineligible to return if they don’t know they must report an interest in returning by a certain date. They may be offered an option to move to another property before redevelopment is fully underway, without fully understanding the relocation is permanent, and they won’t be able to return to the original site. To ensure families are clear on their rights and responsibilities, the New Communities Initiative must have a standard right to return policy that is binding, available prior to relocation, and clearly communicated to residents and their legal advocates.

The guiding principles of the New Communities Initiative hold the promise that the District could set a national example of resident-friendly, resident-centric public housing redevelopment. We urge the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and the DC Housing Authority to adhere to their commitment to provide residents an opportunity to return by incorporating the policies above.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am happy to receive any questions.


[i] US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Picture of Subsidized Households, 2014. Data are for occupied public housing units in Barry Farm, Park Morton, and Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings.

[ii] US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Picture of Subsidized Households, 2014. Data are for occupied public housing units in Barry Farm, Park Morton, and Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings.

US Department of Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines, 2014.

[iii] Urban Institute, “A Decade of HOPE VI: Research Findings and Policy Challenges,” 2004.