What Public Housing Can Teach Us: Lessons Learned from Grassroots DC

By Emily McDonald

In the summer of 2016, I interned with Grassroots DC, a media organization providing computer/media training to low-income Washington, DC residents and media coverage to issues affecting underserved communities. This nonprofit organization is located in the Potomac Gardens community in Southeast Washington, DC where residents are able to access computers and receive basic computer training. Public housing is one of Grassroots DC’s main areas of focus and a major concern of low-income residents in an increasingly unaffordable District of Columbia. This paper is based on my interview with Grassroots DC President Liane Scott and my research of public housing in the District of Columbia.

In their article about public administration, Baimenov and Everest-Phillips argue that frustration with bureaucratic red tape and government idleness has existed since the dawn of modern, organized government. Yet, “efforts to undermine the motivation and morale of effective and efficient public officials working for the common good have advanced” in recent decades (2016: 389). The authors describe a transnational ideology that public service is by its nature incompetent, thus leaving government officials politically benefitting from a self-reinforcing “permanent revolution of ceaseless reforms” that do little to bring about lasting change (2016:389).

My summer as a volunteer intern consisted of reviewing the budget of the District of Columbia local government to understand how funding for public housing has changed over time. Reading the article by Baimenov and Everest-Phillips confirmed my observations, and, admittedly, frustrations, while I navigated the complicated world of public housing for the first time. In sorting through local and national archives, public housing is certainly in a permanent state of “ceaseless reforms.”

As DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Claire Zippel makes clear, there is “chronic federal underfunding,” putting public housing at risk (Zippel 2016:1). While this came with little surprise to a sociologist concerned with the shrinking public space, the most striking realization in looking through the Council of the District of Columbia and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) archives was the ever-constant change in agreements between federal and local government, each promising to maintain a more efficient, effective environment for public housing residents. This included public/private partnering in the name of better services, short-lived revitalization projects, and a renewed call on local government by city officials to fill in the gaps where the federal had fallen short (Council of the District of Columbia 2016). Programs like “Moving to Work” give local housing authorities more flexibility in how they spend their budgets mandated by HUD without the recognition that a large majority of residents are the elderly and disabled, most of whom do in fact “work” or have worked but live on an income insufficient for this area (Rivers 2016).

Shuffling in the System

As one Potomac Gardens resident described to me, living in public housing and receiving public service felt like a constant “shuffling” in a disjointed system, with “one program over here, one new program over there, and you just don’t know where to go to get what you need.” Rather than making a commitment to maintain public housing, new programs seem to develop for a short amount of time, only to go back to the same shortfalls in the overall federal budget to maintain consistent operation and maintenance.

After gaining an understanding of the system that funnels funding to public housing, I sat down with Liane Scott, President of Grassroots DC, to gain a better understanding of how her organization came to be, her connections with public housing residents through both Potomac Gardens and her career, and how she sees the future of public housing and the activism to support it.

Her organization began as a media project connected with Empower DC, then took on its own incorporation. As she describes it: “In its new incarnation as Grassroots DC, participants continue to create media that tells how low-income, working-class District of Columbia residents are affected by public policy, giving them a forum to voice their individual needs and vital community concerns. These skills are marketable not only within the media industry but in any field that requires basic literacy and computer competence.”

To connect herself with her new community in Potomac Gardens and ensure that more people are able to participate in media production, Scott added basic computer training to her list of services: “In the past, students with limited financial resources, who can only commit the hours necessary to learn media production if it leads to an immediate income, were unable to participate fully in our training program. Because media production also requires basic computer skills, potential students who are not computer literate were also left out.”

“With the addition of computer training to Grassroots DC’s programs, participants have the option of pursuing employment in any number of fields as well as the ability to take advantage of our more advanced media production classes. As a result, we are able to serve far more students from low-income communities. … [In addition] Grassroots DC provides the Potomac Gardens community with a service. I make a few, very old computers available to members of the community on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”

“When I can find a volunteer or find the time myself, we offer basic computer classes to the residents. I help residents with resumes, with job searches, with flyers for community activities, etc.”

Beyond her official duties as President of Grassroots DC, Scott recognizes her connections to residents here is much more than helping link them to resources. The struggle for affordable housing in the District reaches far and wide. Scott does not consider herself separate from public housing residents: “Years ago I applied for public housing, but as the list was so long, my name never reached the top. So, I could easily be a Potomac Gardens resident. I relate more than I’d like to the struggle for housing and the fear of losing it.” So often in conversations regarding the future and fate of public housing, those who live there are put into a class of their own. What I found through conversations about public housing was a clear distancing between residents of the District and public housing residents of the District. Scott seemed to agree with my observation.

The Class Split

The clear lack of connection between those who can afford private market housing and those who cannot is what she highlights as a problem: “I started working with housing activists regularly about a decade ago. One of the first things I learned was that there’s actually a class split within the housing activist community that I think many don’t acknowledge. Housing is so expensive in the District that you really have to be well-off not to worry about it. So, it’s no surprise that many folks who come to the District for school or for a job with the government, end up also fighting for housing.”

“The thing is, they end up fighting for things like getting money into the Housing Production Trust Fund, which benefits mainly folks who are looking to buy housing in the District. Public housing residents don’t fall into that category but really, it’s the loss of public housing stock and the lack of affordable housing that in another city would come from commercial real estate, that’s really the most pressing need in the District of Columbia.”

This class divide along with a system in a constant state of flux leads to political organizing around public housing. Scott said that: “Just as I’ve learned to accept that my offices will always be subject to occasional flooding, I’ve also had to accept that only a revolution in budget priorities will fix existing housing stock and/or begin to provide enough housing for those in need. These programs that they keep coming up with every decade or so, HOPE VI, New Communities, the Rental Assistance Demonstration Programs are all built on the premise that government need not be universally responsible for providing housing to those who can’t afford market-rate housing and that government has no responsibility to control the cost of housing provided by private industry. It’s not fixable so long as you accept those premises.”

This observation led Scott to connect the issue of public housing in the District to a much broader societal issue, one which we continue to fail to recognize: “It’s really impossible to talk about justice for public housing residents without talking about justice for everybody. If, beyond economic status, our society, as represented by our government, were to ensure that everyone’s human rights were granted then we’d have justice for public housing residents.”

“In other words, if everyone had not only a right to housing but the housing itself; if everyone had not only a right to an education but the education itself; if everyone had a right not only to healthcare but also the healthcare itself, then there would be justice.… But this is an agency, a government and a nation that doesn’t believe homelessness is unacceptable, indeed expects that the problem can only be mitigated never entirely eliminated. And so, my office will continue to be flooded every other month and there will never be anywhere near enough affordable housing for District residents.”

The Richest Communities

In an immensely expensive city with a highly competitive job market, the struggle to pay for adequate housing is not a far stretch for many. As we ask with so many other issues, why is there not more consensus among citizens to demand better? In a city that leans left of the political spectrum, why does a public commitment to maintain affordable housing for the elderly, disabled, and economically vulnerable remain unmade? As Scott describes: “American-style capitalism operates on the premise that everyone should pay their own way, pretty much regardless of circumstance. If you are unable to pay your own way, we will only grudgingly provide for you because we are far more likely to believe that the poor deserve to be poor than that there is any such thing as the deserving poor.

What our American- style capitalism fails to recognize is that the injustice visited upon the poor may not result in physical deprivation but will almost certainly result in moral depravity.” Unfortunately, it seems the same answer suffices for many other social ills: a lack of consciousness against a backdrop of classism, racism, sexism and ageism, and rugged individualist American ideology allows for little solidarity among the vast number of citizens concerned with housing affordability in the District. Public housing provides a stark example of the broader issues of interest to social thinkers, researchers, and citizens alike.

A metal fence that wraps around housing units.

Potomac Gardens. Source: Emily McDonald


Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my public housing research this summer is that the lack of society-wide support is not to say that the community is not fostered at all. One needs only to walk through the iron gates of Potomac Gardens. A host of residents taking shifts keeping eyes on the streets and sidewalks will greet you, reminding visitors that it is often the less economically privileged who create the richest communities. Such communities are iconic to cities like Washington, DC.

Baimenov, Alikhan and Max Everest-Phillips. 2016. “A Shared Perspective on Public Administration and International Development.” Public Administration Review 76:3, Pp. 389-390.
Council of the District of Columbia. 2016. Housing and Community Development. Retrieved December 22, 2016 http://dccouncil.us/budget/2016/housing-and-community-development.
District of Columbia Housing Authority. 2015. Budget Oversight Hearing. http://dccouncil.us/files/user_uploads/budget_responses/41515DCHACombinedTestimony.pdf.
Rivers, Wes. 2016. “Going, Going, Gone: DC’s Affordable Housing Crisis.” DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Retrieved December 22, 2016
Zippel, Claire. 2016. “DC’s Public Housing: An Important Resource at Risk.” DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Retrieved December 22, 2016 http://www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/16-01-27-Public-housing-paper-final.pdf

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