Residents of Washington, D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood and their supporters rallied the morning of Sunday, September 16, outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, also called the National Basilica, to demand that the Catholic Church intervene to stop the sale of several properties under its purview that would displace 16 families and further the gentrification of the neighborhood.
Supported by tenant housing organizations Justice First and LinkUp, as well as the Party for Socialism and Liberation, several dozen people lined Michigan Avenue NE by the entrance to the basilica grounds to raise awareness about the Church’s actions and encourage parishioners to contact the monsignor and demand he have an audience with the imperiled families.
At a community forum the previous day, representatives from several DC tenants unions, including those representing tenants at Dahlgreen Court and Brookland Manor, two developments in the Brookland corridor whose residents PSL is also fighting alongside, pledged their support for the residents.
16 families living in four buildings are at imminent risk of displacement. According to District of Columbia law, buildings built before 1975 are rent-controlled, limiting the ability of landlords to raise rent 2 percent above the rate of inflation. Further, rent increases are capped at a maximum of 10 percent per year, or 5 percent for elderly or disabled people. All of these units are rent-controlled, making them a precious resource for low-income families in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood along Rhode Island Avenue.
However, the owner of these four buildings recently passed away and willed her properties to the Catholic Church, specifically the National Basilica, which is located adjacent to Catholic University of America. The basilica, in turn, has transferred the properties to a holding company, which is seeking to quickly to sell the buildings before the residents can exercise their rights.
Tenants stand up for their rights
A city law called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) allows residents of units about to be sold the right of first refusal within a designated time frame. They may buy their unit outright or may, as a building, form a cooperative that owns the building as a condominium. This law is a powerful tool in the hands of tenants fighting back against displacement, but sellers and their associates like to manipulate the strict deadlines by limiting residents’ knowledge about their TOPA rights.
However, so far the basilica has claimed an inability to respond or to intervene at all on behalf of the residents. Eugene Puryear of Justice First pointed out that “this is how gentrifiers work, they try to get one over on people by making things ‘move quickly’ and setting unreasonable deadlines.”
Heather Benno, a PSL member who lives in one of the threatened units, told Liberation News that the packet about her TOPA rights, including the deadline by which residents in her building had to act, was thrown unceremoniously underneath their stoop and looked like junk mail. She said it was easy to miss, as at least one other building had unfortunately done, and suspected that was done on purpose.
At Sunday’s rally, several residents spoke out about what was happening to them and the community Monsignor Walter R Rossi, rector of the basilica, is allowing to be uprooted. Julius, a Ugandan-American who’s lived in the one of the buildings for the entire 12 years he’s been in the United States, said it was his and his family’s only home in this country. He called on “all DC residents to stand up as one,” noting that “what is happening to us today will happen to others tomorrow.” Julius called the action a shame on the church that all the residents have served.
Benno noted how much her life and the community’s life is entwined with the Church. Most of the neighborhood’s residents are parishioners at the basilica, she pointed out, and nearly all of them working class people who “make the city run.” Benno works for a Catholic-run charity that provides legal services to immigrants. “How can I provide quality charity services if I’m homeless? I can’t,” she said. “They own my wage, my home, so much of my life!” she told the crowd, calling it a shame that the Church would treat her and her family in such a manner.
Benno brought attention to a series of quotes reproduced in the leaflets protesters were distributing to parishioners that morning that cast in sharp relief the hypocrisy of the Church’s practice.
In 1988, the administrative board of the US Catholic Conference said: “The Church has traditionally viewed housing, not as a commodity, but as a basic human right … as Pope John Paul II said … ‘A house is much more than a roof over one’s head.’ It is ‘ a place where a person creates and lives out his or her life.’ The right to housing is a consistent theme in our teaching and is found in the Church’s Charter of the Rights of the Family. We believe society has the responsibility to protect these rights, and the denial of housing to so many constitutes a terrible injustice.”
Further, the present head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, said in 2015 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, following a meeting with homeless people served by several Catholic charities, that “we can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.” A recent study showed that 90 percent of renters in the District of Columbia pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent each month.
The Church loses nothing by letting these residents stay in their homes (they’ve gotten the buildings for free!) and would lose nothing by turning further buildings on its properties into affordable housing. The Catholic Church is certainly not short on money.
Ms. Dorothy Davis, of the Brookland Manor Tenants Association, said, “we are counted as the last, but we will be the first … we ain’t going nowhere, we’re gonna stay and fight!”