Where Is the Leadership?

Neighbors Inside, Outside Potomac Gardens and Hopkins Fight for Security

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— Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, president of the Potomac Gardens Family Resident Council, takes in the neighborhood she has called home for more than 20 years. Photo: Christine Rushton

A round of 30 gunshots rings out in broad daylight as families with children walk nearby. People duck for cover and ask themselves yet again: when will this neighborhood feel safe?

The incident of gunfire took place at 6:45 p.m. on May 1 near the intersection of 12th Street and G Street SE. No one was injured but anyone traversing the area on their way home could have been.

“I was one of those who ducked for cover (into Gourmet Express) to protect my three-year-old son,” one neighbor wrote on a local listserv. “It was horrifying.”

Neighbors living around the Potomac Gardens and Hopkins public housing complex have called for a redevelopment of the site to curb the violence they think stems from those who live inside. Neighbors inside of the complex want more security and support from the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) to protect from the violence that comes into their home from the outside.

DCHA has no plans to redevelop the site. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) data shows a decrease in violent crime in that area since the murder of 16-year-old Breyona McMillian on Nov. 25, 2016. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s (D) office continues to work with the agencies to improve safety in the area.

But all groups agree—DC lawmakers, agencies and community members both inside and out need to come together and discuss a better solution to the crime that drives fear around the Potomac Gardens and Hopkins communities.

Who Runs Potomac Gardens and Hopkins?
Potomac Gardens and Hopkins public housing sites were built between 1957 and 1968 on the 1200 block of G Street SE and the 1400 block of L Street SE. Potomac Gardens is divided into two complexes—senior and family. The family side has 208 two- and three-bedroom units, according to the DCHA website. The senior side has 144 one-bedroom apartments. Hopkins has about 158 two- and three-bedroom units.

All residents qualify for low-income housing in DC, and children make up around a quarter of the population in the family sections of Hopkins and Potomac Gardens. Some residents have lived there for over 40 years.

DCHA owns the complexes, but contracts out to a private property management company for on-site work. DCHA uses funds from the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency for this site and its others throughout the city.

So, much of the funding power for any redevelopment or plans for the sites lays in the hands of the federal government.

DC and DCHA need to start thinking about the future of these complexes, though, said Councilmember Allen.

“It’s something we’ve been talking about for quite some time,” he said. “I’d like to think about the redevelopment of Potomac Gardens and separate that from public safety.”

Security Inside and Outside
MPD First District Commander Morgan Kane doesn’t accept 30 rounds of gunfire and violence as a norm anywhere in her District, she said. Her officers have worked to reduce crime in the Hill East area, and the numbers reflect declining violent crime between November 2016 and now.

“We’re not seeing what people are perceiving,” Kane said. She noted that they work closely with DCHA security officers to help keep those who have stay-away orders from the site.

“We don’t target the people,” Kane said. “We target the people who are committing violent crimes.”

DCHA employs a combination of security officers, special police officers and patrol officers to watch over all of their public housing complexes, said DCHA spokesperson Christy Goodman.

“In addition, deployment is augmented with contract special police officers that are contracted by the authority (DCHA),” she said.

And if they catch someone who has a stay-away order on the property, they arrest them for unlawful entry, she said.

The properties still need more manpower, though, Allen said. He said some of the targets of shootings or crimes in the area don’t actually live at the site. For example, the target of the May 1 shooting didn’t live there, but frequents the area, he said.

“That says to me that we need to work with DCHA to do a better job,” he said. “That person had a stay-away order.”

Also, a stabbing victim on May 22 was from Prince George’s County, Md. And some of the crime stems from people who lived in the area in the 1980s and 1990s—during the height of violence there—returning to a now-changed area.

What Residents Want; What Neighbors Want
Residents of Potomac Gardens and Hopkins want better security and management of their home, said Little Lights Urban Ministries founder Steve Park. Park has worked with residents inside the complex since 1997.

“They hate to hear the gunshots and worry about their kids,” Park. “But at the same time, they’re probably more numb to it because they’ve seen so much of it over the years.”

He said he and residents worry about any redevelopment because it could displace residents who have lived there for years. But at the same time, the complex needs upgrades and actual security guards at the booths in the buildings. Currently no one mans the entries or monitors who comes in and out like a regular apartment complex would.

Some residents, though, think that if DC tears down the complex that they can receive a voucher to move anywhere in the city for housing, said President of Potomac Gardens Family Council Aquarius Vann-Ghasri. Either way, DC can’t take away the affordable housing there.

“The surrounding neighbors think they can get more desirable neighbors and they think we aren’t,” she said. “First of all, they don’t know who they are.”

Gregor Young, a neighbor on the 1200 block of G Street SE, has lived with his wife in the home since July 2014. He has lived in DC for 11 years and his wife for all her life. But he remains frustrated by the violent crime in his area and thinks the site needs a redevelopment.

He added that though some people argue that the crime doesn’t come from people who live there, he thinks that statement is a convenient way to displace responsibility.

“We’ve seen it’s a tremendous drain on MPD resources and there is not a long-term plan to redevelop it,” he said.

And as for the recent 30 rounds of gunshots, he said he thinks someone inside Potomac Gardens knows something but as usual won’t talk.

Other neighbors like Richard Lukas think the whole development is a failed experiment for public housing in DC and that District leaders should take responsibility for fixing the situation.

“Beyond just the violent crime and community impacts, the PG and Hopkins residents just deserve better,” Lukas said. “I don’t think anyone would just walk up to those facilities and think they are conducive to a good quality of life.”

A fix requires conversation and a legitimate plan to solve the safety and dire living conditions, he said.

“Where is the leadership this time?” he said.

Moving Forward
So residents inside and outside of the complexes all want renewed conversation on how to improve the safety of the area. Lukas, Young, Vann-Ghasri, Kane and Allen all agreed they need to come together as a group to find solutions to the ongoing issues.

“We can’t throw stones at each other,” Vann-Ghasri said. “The best thing we can do as a community is sit at the table together.”

Kane also said it’s time to hold a safety meeting, especially since the rate of crime has a tendency to accelerate during the summer months.

Allen said he and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANC) Aimee Grace (6B07) and Daniel Chao (former 6B07) are working on securing funds in the fiscal year 2018 budget to renovate two triangle parks in that area and also to install more security cameras with DCHA around the buildings.

But he doesn’t want any discussion on solutions to drive a wedge between residents on the inside and neighbors on the outside.

“It doesn’t matter if you live on the outside and inside—you deserve to live in a safe neighborhood,” Allen said.