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D.C.’s Barry Farm public housing complex contains significant lead, inspection finds

The tenants received letters about the findings last week

Barry Farm
Washington Post/Getty Images

Home to roughly 80 families and slated for mixed-use redevelopment, the 433-unit Barry Farm complex in Southeast has potentially hazardous levels of lead in paint and dust, an environmental consultancy hired by the District’s housing authority recently determined.

The consultancy, Baltimore-based CONNOR, inspected the dilapidated and largely vacant property from June to July as part of a sweeping review that the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) is currently conducting on its whole public housing portfolio, which includes 56 sites. DCHA received a report about Barry Farm from the consultancy on Aug. 13. It notified remaining tenants at the complex about the report’s findings, via mailed letters, on Aug. 22.

“One stairway component in the units property wide were found above the [Environmental Protection Agency] regulatory level for Lead-based paint,” reads an attachment to DCHA’s letter. “Lead dust was found above regulatory levels in several locations.” Over the weekend, advocacy group Empower DC, which works closely with the Barry Farm tenants association, tweeted photos of a copy of the letter; it also raised questions about the timing and results.

DCHA told the tenants that it would schedule a meeting about the report “soon,” but one had not been set as of Monday afternoon, according to a spokeswoman for DCHA. “Please note that lead from paint, paint chips, and dust can be a health hazard, especially for young children and pregnant women,” the authority wrote. If consumed in high amounts, lead can create neurological problems, and the U.S. banned lead-based paint in homes in the 1970s.

The Barry Farm complex was built in 1943, before these regulations went into effect. “Nearly all residential buildings (publicly and privately owned) that were built before 1978 contain lead-based paint,” states DCHA’s letter. The consultancy’s report is based on inspections of 55 randomly selected units and says that any discovered lead hazards “are presumed to be present in all similar untested [units and areas]...unless further testing indicates otherwise.”

DCHA must eliminate “all lead-based paint hazards” in units or common areas occupied by children younger than 6 within 90 days of receiving the report, CONNOR also says. It must do so for other areas found to contain these hazards within one year of receiving the report.

In a statement, the authority confirms that “dust-containing lead was found in some vacant units, and an elevated lead level with deteriorated paint was found on the bannister post in the living room of one of the tested units.” But no lead was found in any soil samples, DCHA says. That was recently the case at the D.C. General shelter site, poised for a fall demolition.

The findings come a few weeks after District officials disclosed that they are rejiggering the planned redevelopment of Barry Farm following a court order in April that hamstrung their previous plans. The Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association had filed a zoning challenge against the project, saying they had deep concerns about gentrification and displacement.

While demolition and tenant relocations are currently underway at Barry Farm, it is unclear when construction on the redevelopment will now begin. It is also unclear how many units the project will involve; before, 1,400 homes and 50,000 square feet of retail were planned.

“DCHA remains committed to the development of Barry Farm and is evaluating its next steps,” the authority’s statement continues. “Our concern continues to be the hundreds of people who planned to return to the redeveloped site in 2020” under a right to come back.

It adds that “several” DCHA properties have also recently been tested for lead, but does not specify which properties. The authority owns and manages over 8,000 units across the city.

The discovery of significant amounts of lead at Barry Farm also comes on the heels of news reports describing lead poisoning and other harmful conditions within the city’s affordable housing stock. More than 40 low-income homes tested positive for lead contaminants from March 2013 to March 2018, the Washington Post discovered by investigating public records.