Muhsin "Boe Luther" Umar (left) and Wallace Kirby stand on the roof of Garfield Senior, where they have been building a rooftop garden.
The protest chants outside the Garfield Senior apartments in mid-July were a twist on the "Black lives matter" chants that have echoed across D.C. in recent months. The crowd of about 30 residents, gathered for a car caravan through Ward 1, chanted "Seniors matter too!" and "Black seniors matter."
They wanted to draw attention to the concerns of senior citizens living in public housing in Northwest D.C.
The protest, organized by Garfield Senior resident council president Muhsin 'Boe Luther' Umar and a handful of local organizations, demanded that the D.C. Housing Authority provide Umar's resident council with funds he says they are owed for resident activities and community improvements. The Housing Authority says it has frozen the resident council's access to certain funds until all current officers complete a training with the agency's office of audit and compliance. Umar, however, claims he has taken the training, and there are additional unspent funds the Housing Authority owes residents. He wants to use some of the money to buy new computers for residents and build a podcast studio — and he wants residents to have control over the Housing Authority's contract for food delivery, a service he says his resident council has been providing during the pandemic anyway.
But the protesters also rallied around a larger concern, one that residents of public housing across the District have raised. Umar says ultimately, the issues "all boil down to the same thing: Deplorable conditions."
Garfield Senior is on the list of public housing properties that the Housing Authority has identified as needing major renovations: An audit the agency conducted in 2018 revealed that more than 80% of public housing units in the city were in disrepair, ranging from "extremely urgent" threats to health and safety to "critical condition" that called into question the long-term viability of the apartment.
That disrepair was the result of years of neglect and declining federal funding for public housing, which D.C.'s elected officials have been trying to make up for by allocating larger amounts of local funding for repairs in recent budgets.
The basement of the Garfield Senior building. The D.C. Housing Authority has identified the property as being in need of major renovations.
A spokesperson for the Housing Authority says the agency is still addressing work orders at all properties, but will only be able to accomplish more extensive rehabilitation of public housing through a long-term, 20-year overhaul called the "Transformation Plan."
Thomasia Moore traveled to the Garfield Terrace protest from Potomac Gardens, a public housing complex in Capitol Hill. At Potomac Gardens, she says she and her neighbors can hear rats running through the walls — they call them "super rats." And she says she feels like the roaches in her apartment are immune to whatever the exterminator is spraying.
"I don't even have company over, because you never know who's gonna come out when the company comes," Moore says. "I'm embarrassed, I'm saddened, I'm angered, and I'm hurt. But you still want to take our money for rent and not improve the conditions. You know, it's not fair."
"We're fighting the same fight as them," says Misha Pettway, who also came from Potomac Gardens to support the Garfield Terrace protest. "We should not have to live in these conditions when there are cranes up everywhere, building all of these new developments."
People gathered at a rally and car caravan in support of residents of the Garfield Senior building.
The budget approved by the D.C. Council on Tuesday allocated $50 million towards public housing repairs for the next fiscal year, which starts in October, and also set aside additional funds for fiscal year 2022.
That amount is more than double what the council allocated for public housing repairs last year. Still, it leaves the Housing Authority short of the $2.2 billion it has said would be required to get the city's public housing modernized over the next 20 years.
To close that funding gap, the Housing Authority says it will use a mix of federal and private funds to redevelop public housing. For Garfield Senior, it plans to use the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program, which funds renovations by changing the federal funding stream that subsidizes tenants' rents.
According to plans posted on the Housing Authority's website, the residents of the Garfield Senior building will be able to remain in their homes until a new senior building is constructed next door, at the site where the Garfield Terrace low-rise townhomes currently stand. The Housing Authority plans to tear down the more severely-distressed Garfield Terrace buildings and relocate all of those residents using housing choice vouchers. (At least six of the townhomes are already boarded up because they are "uninhabitable due to mold, mildew, and structural damage from piping failures," according to Housing Authority documents.)
But as the Housing Authority continues to work through the details of its plans — and communicate them to residents — Umar and the Ward 1 Mutual Aid Network say they also are not waiting on the Housing Authority to start beautifying the property.
Umar has been working with his longtime friend and collaborator Wallace Kirby to construct and grow a rooftop garden for Garfield Senior.
Umar waters plants on the rooftop garden he built.
The apartment building is in the same neighborhood as Howard University, among the D.C. neighborhoods where the most low-income residents were displaced between 2000 and 2016. There are luxury apartments directly across the street from Garfield Senior, and a new Whole Foods Market just opened down the street. Umar and Kirby have been thinking about whether there would be an opportunity to sell some of their produce to the high-end grocer.
"That Whole Foods wasn't designed for us," Umar says, standing on the rooftop next to some recently-planted peppers. "But we was living here first."
For Natacia Knapper, an organizer with the Ward 1 Mutual Aid Network, the collaboration with Garfield Senior is a perfect example of the spirit of mutual aid, in which neighbors make themselves available to assist each other in any way they can. (The practice of mutual aid is longstanding in certain circles, but proliferated in D.C. at the start of the pandemic.)
"COVID-19 has been a very traumatic experience for a lot of reasons, but I think one of the things that at least came out of this is just like, lighting a fire under all of us," says Knapper. "It is very clear that the government is not going to take care of us. So yes — let's hold them accountable and let's put some pressure on them. But let's create something entirely separate from them so we don't have to be so reliant on them anymore."
At the end of the protest, organizers passed out seeds to Garfield Terrace seniors — and non-residents, who comprised the majority of the protest participants. For Knapper, it symbolized the beginning of what she says will be a "long-term" collaboration. Umar wants to turn the basement of Garfield Senior into a community space that residents and neighbors alike will be able to benefit from — once it is safe to gather again.
"I'll believe it when I see it," Angela Cooper, a 13-year resident of Garfield Senior, said of the Housing Authority's plans. Cooper said she thinks Garfield Senior needs to be gutted and renovated.
And while she wished more residents had come out to the protest, Cooper said she believed that good would come out of it: "If you plant a seed and you put what you want done into the atmosphere, it normally don't come back void."