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'I'm thankful, but it's too late' | After a decade, DC breaks ground on senior housing at former Barry Farm Housing Complex

Developers said they’ll finish building Asberry in 24 months and will fast-track neighboring housing with the hopes to turn new development every nine months.

WASHINGTON — It's been 10 years, a whole decade, since some of the first residents of a DC housing project were displaced to make room for development. Now, a major step towards finally bringing some of them home. On Monday, District leaders broke ground on a new senior housing building at the old Barry Farm Housing Development in Southeast D.C. Some former residents called the day bittersweet. 

“It very emotional,” said Monica Gassaway as she wiped away tears. 

The sacred soil of the historic site is being unearthed by construction vehicles for a dream delayed but finally fulfilled. 

The Barry Farm Housing Development in Southeast was established in 1867 for formerly enslaved Africans after the Civil War. It was rebuilt in the 1940s, but over the decades the once thriving community became a run-down, rat-infested eye sore. 

In 2018, the city revealed a 20-year-old report showing dangerous lead paint littered the buildings. Soon afterward the dozen or so families who remained were displaced. The final few were forced to leave in 2019, just days before the holidays. According to the DC Housing Authority, between 2012 and 2019 a total of 444 residents were relocated.

Now the first tangible step towards a homecoming.

City leaders broke ground on the Asberry. Named after a late Barry Farm resident, the 108-unit senior housing building will have 77 apartments reserved for original tenants, like Monica Gassaway.

“It took too long because some of seniors who were on the board are no longer here, so we have to carry them on our back like angels,” said Gassaway.

If you really want people to come back the way you say it, it wouldn’t just be that one building,” added Paulette Matthews.

Matthews doesn’t qualify for the senior building. WUSA9 first met Matthews in 2017 when she was fighting displacement as Vice President of the tenant association. The District always promised residents could return once new development came, but she was skeptical then and still is now.

Throughout Monday’s ceremony, District elected officials repeated the phrase, ‘we kept our promise.’

Matthews responded by saying, “That’s kind of iffy for me because the promise hasn’t been completed yet.”

Developers said they’ll finish building Asberry in 24 months and will fast-track neighboring housing with the hopes to turn new development every nine months.

We have learned a lot of people have told us a lot and they want to be stabilized and our goal is to move these projects more quickly,” said DC Housing Authority Director Brenda Donald, who told WUSA9 it was a flawed process that led to residents being relocated too early.

Still, Matthews remains cautiously optimistic about her chance to return home. 

“I’m thankful but I have to see the whole plan and I hope to live to see the whole plan,” she said.

Gassaway hopes to eventually buy property on the historic land.

“It’s hard and for us to be able to own our own home and to have the chance to stamp that deed,” said Gassaway holding her hand to her chest, “it’s ours - it’s ours…can’t ask for no more.  Our ancestors did their job now it’s time to do ours.”

RELATED: 20-year-old report reveals high level of lead in parts of Barry Farm Housing Complex

RELATED: Barry Farm residents fight relocation so DC Housing can redevelop


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