Not home for the holidays; Officials’ attitudes in clearing Alexandria property for redevelopment anger residents of public housing who have to move

Denise Thompson cleans the James Bland public-housing she shares with her mother, Hattie Thompson, before moving. Some buildings are set to be razed.
Denise Thompson cleans the James Bland public-housing she shares with her mother, Hattie Thompson, before moving. Some buildings are set to be razed. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)


The Washington Post, December 21, 2009
BY: Yamiche Alcindor

Martha Holmes’s small, frail body often bumps into things in her new apartment, which seems like a maze to the 87-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s disease. In the last month, she has been hospitalized twice, and police have found her wandering the streets, attempting to walk back to the public housing apartment in Alexandria that she called home for more than 40 years.

Now living in Ladrey, a public senior-housing building five blocks away, Holmes is among those at the center of a dispute between James Bland public housing residents who say they are being disregarded and housing authorities who say the residents are uncooperative and antagonistic to development plans.

Residents say they know they have to move out of Bland, which is scheduled to be demolished early next year as part of a $55 million redevelopment plan that will usher in market-rate homes and transform the government-owned buildings constructed in 1945 near Old Town into a mixed-use neighborhood.

However, some say officials at the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority are forcing them to make hard moves during the holidays and imposing unreasonable deadlines. They also argue that housing officials are picking and choosing whom to reimburse for moves rather than paying for everyone’s expenses.

Housing officials say residents are not communicating with their offices and are attempting to slow development plans. Roy Priest, the housing authority’s chief executive officer, said postponing moves until after the holidays would hurt development plans and stall demolition of the buildings.

He also said that residents who are being moved to smaller apartments do not have to be reimbursed under the authority’s policies and can be fined for living in an apartment that has more rooms than they require. However, several residents said some were reimbursed for moving into smaller units and others were not.

The situation has left many residents angry and confused. Holmes’s daughter, Martha Crump, said housing officials forced her mother to leave her apartment in Bland because they wanted to move Holmes, who lives alone, from a two-bedroom apartment to a one-bedroom unit.

Crump said ARHA sent her mother a letter in September stating that she was being moved from Bland to Ladrey. Crump immediately filed a request for her mother to stay, arguing that although Holmes lives alone, she requires 24-hour care. That means the “extra” room is used by her mother, a nurse or a family member, Crump said. In addition to Alzheimer’s, her mother suffers from congestive heart failure, hypertension and rheumatism.

Crump and housing authority officials differ on what happened.

“Her [housing] workers never got back to me about the form,” Crump said. “I never had any feedback, and they would never answer my calls.” In October, Holmes received a letter from the authority stating she had three days to move, her daughter said. Crump said she stalled the move for weeks, hoping that her mother would receive approval to stay in the area.

For her mother, the five blocks could mean the difference between life and death because of the progression of Alzheimer’s, Crump said. She said doctors warned her that moving her mother might worsen her memory. Crump said she made multiple calls and visits to ARHA to plead for her mother to stay.

Crump said she received no word from housing officials. In the first week of November, moving officials from the housing authority appeared at her mother’s apartment. They packed up her things and moved her to Ladrey, her daughter said.

“When you pull them out of their surroundings, you just lose them,” Crump said of her mother.

Housing officials say Holmes’s family chose to have her move from the building even though she was approved to stay. They did not show written documentation to The Washington Post. Last week, Priest said he thought Crump was happy in her new home. “Our story is clear — we have done what we are legally required to do and what we are morally required to do. If we have done something wrong, sue us,” he said.

More than a dozen residents, community leaders and clergy said Holmes’s case illustrates the lack of communication between residents and the housing authority. For some who live in the areas of Bland that will be demolished next year as part of the first redevelopment phase, the last few months have been filled with stress and heartache.

Hattie Thompson, a retail worker, has been living at Bland for three years. She received 120 days’ notice that she would be relocated and said officials had promised that they would give residents a choice in where they would move. Last week, she said, she was given an address and told to move by Monday. “It’s politics and dollar signs. They don’t care about us,” Thompson said. “They want us in the shadows.”

Mae Helen Lanier, a 13-year Bland resident, is also bound by the Monday moving deadline. Her aunt died last week. She said her options are moving and missing the funeral in Atlanta, or leaving and risking being thrown out of public housing.

Last week, Lanier sat amid half-packed boxes and black trash bags with tears rolling down her face. “I’m not trying to cause any problems, but they’re just rushing us,” she said. “All I’m asking for is more time.”

Priest defended the authority’s decisions and deadlines. “The policy doesn’t say choice,” he said of ARHA’s relocation rules. “We can’t delay.” He also said it’s impossible to give individuals choices because public housing options in the area are few and vacancies are rare.

Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) said he understands the limited housing options but is dismayed that the moves are being done during the holidays. “You just don’t treat people as cattle,” he said. Euille said, however, that there is little he can do. His office does not control the decisions of the housing authority, which is overseen by a board of commissioners appointed by the City Council and the mayor.

Meanwhile, as residents move and communication problems continue, Crump hopes her mother will be allowed to return to Bland.

“My mom loved this community,” Crump said, her dark eyes filled with worry. “She isn’t going to last a whole year in Ladrey.”

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