Since the 1950’s the James Bland public housing complex – 8.5 acres with 365 units - rested across the street from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. After chronic complaints, VOICE faith leaders from across Alexandria worked with tenants to document housing code and health issues like sewage backups, and why tenants’ electric bills were so high. We turned out 125 people in the basement of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church for an action where we challenged Roy Priest, Executive Director of the Alexandria Housing & Redevelopment Authority (ARHA), to address the housing and sewer issues in 30 days. Also, after finding that residents were overcharged we negotiated an agreement to recalculate reimbursements due residents for exorbitant electric bills.
In 2010 the land that James Bland is on was sold to a developer to create a mixed used development with $700,000 condos. Tenants had to relocate across town while the demolition took place. In the first phase of demolition of the James Bland complex, most public housing residents had no choice in where they would be relocated to; only an ultimatum. Some children were moved out of their school boundaries and elders were removed from the only community they knew. Some were given as little as 3 days to move under threat of eviction. Many of these tenants were not given relocation payments and were charged fees if they left furniture behind, too large to move with such short notice.
VOICE organized a multi-racial, multi-faith, cross-socioeconomic class constituency of clergy, lay leaders and public housing tenants to ensure that tenants were treated fairly and community concerns were taken into consideration during the redevelopment. After a one-year fight, the ARHA agreed to most of our demands including making relocation payments of $550 for each family that hadn’t received them (about $25,000 in total). VOICE was profiled on the cover of the Metro section of the Washington Post (Not Home for the Holidays) for our work organizing tenants.