When Ty’on Jones (SPA, ’23) pictured Washington D.C., he could only imagine Capitol Hill and “white men in suits and ties.” Eventually, he took the trip, and got dropped off in Congress Heights.
“I saw a lot of young Black people, and saw their energy, and that was it,” he said. “This was where I wanted to be.”
Jones moved to D.C. in 2015 and volunteered on the campaign of former Ward 8 city councilmember LaRuby May. When she won, he went to work as her constituent services director.
“May’s mentorship . . . showed me the great amount of work needed in the Ward 8 community, by people who look like us but could also speak, fight, and advocate with people who don't look like us,” he said.
Next, Jones moved to the District Department of Transportation, where he rose quickly from program analyst to community engagement specialist and administrative supervisor. He volunteered on community boards and applied to earn his master’s in public administration and policy at American University.
Acquaintances told Jones about new housing construction being developed by Stanton View Development (SVD), a Black-owned, D.C.-based developer, and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP), created to address racial housing inequities. Jones soon applied to purchase a condo at The River East at Grandview, off Talbert Street. The development, built in 2015, appeared pristine, with 1300-sq-ft units, rooftop patios, and reserved parking. He completed the specially tailored first-time home buyer process and moved into Unit 7A in December 2017.
Jones remembers the peace and excitement of the first few weeks, his own and that of his neighbors, all minorities, all first-time homeowners, and mostly women. Within a month, however, parking-lot conversations brought troubling news. Some first-floor owners reported cracked walls, sloped floors, and warped doors. Nine of the 46 homeowners––all women––eventually filed a lawsuit against SVD.
“That's when we organized the unofficial condo association,” said Jones. “We held a meeting in the parking lot, collected phone numbers and emails, and asked all owners to submit pictures of their unit’s damage and their correspondence with the developer.”
Next, the association worked to file a claim against the building’s warranty bond, which required a $30,000 assessment from a structural engineer (The Falcon Group). While waiting on the report, the group organized the official condo association and hired a property management company, which brought in landscapers, made repairs, and set up the appropriate bank accounts.
“These were things the developer had not allowed us to do initially,” said Jones. “In my belief, they knew that once we [organized], we would discover more. They also didn't properly collect or send notifications about condo fees. We even had to sell and assign the parking spaces [ourselves] because they didn't do it.”
Meanwhile, as River East residents pursued their warranty claim, racked up $250,000 in legal fees, navigated the adventures of property management, and tried to raise families in unsafe conditions, Champlain Towers collapsed in Surfside, FL, killing 98.
“The city began to take additional safety measures when it came to large properties,” said Jones. “Some owners used that to bring more attention to our cause. Media showed up. The city got involved. Our lawyers were pushing. The developer filed bankruptcy.”
The city asked The Falcon Group to present an emergency report on the structural integrity of the building, which confirmed what residents had known for years: their homes were unsafe and should not have been granted a certificate of occupancy. Falcon recommended immediate evacuation.
Finally, the city began to coordinate with the condo association, and vowed to work with other mortgage holders to find a long-term solution. One of these is City First Bank of D.C., a black-owned institution that financed the development by SVD and frequently worked with the city on development projects. Jones shared a list of River East press reports with City First. A bank executive responded with sympathy on the equity concerns, met with Jones, and agreed that the development would most likely be razed and rebuilt. Jones shared some documents with the executive, who offered to review them and report back.
Days later, the call came, but not the help.
“[City First] basically said, ‘Hey, this is too messy for us,’” he recalled.
DHCD and the D.C. Department of Human Services leveraged a homeless prevention program to get owners into temporary rental housing, so that they could still pay their mortgages and condo fees. They are currently scrambling to relocate while Falcon prepares the final assessment of damages and repair costs, which could take months.
Jones sees in his predicament a shadow of the nation’s long history of racial inequality, both in housing policy and capital accumulation, and points to failed oversight by the city, the developer, and the bank.
“When you talk about reparations and equity for people of color, you talk about home ownership and generational wealth,” he said. “We hope [these actors] say, ‘We want to help you, because we know how historic and systemic racism has disenfranchised Black people in general.’ Now [it’s been] done by a majority-Black city government, a Black-owned development company, and a Black-owned bank. When we talk about fixing injustices, we must also look at those done by people the same color as us.”
A new development, said Jones, should be of quality design and construction, accommodate all 46 families, and allow for additional renters or commercial tenants to generate revenue for the owners and/or the condo association.
“Anacostia is changing,” he noted. “We see retail, restaurants, small grocers, and coffee shops coming up every day. The community has the want and the disposable income to support even a small grocer.”
Jones still considers southeast D.C. his spot. Meanwhile, his SPA coursework has helped explain what went wrong on Talbert Street, and how to better implement such well-intended projects.
“There is a push by the city to build homes for those who [struggle to find housing],” he explained. “They're doing it very fast, which means that some issues are being overlooked. Because the city can't inspect everything, you have third-party inspectors, who are also pushing stuff through. You have a partnership with an [unreliable] developer with insufficient insurance. . . While we want to build homes for people, we also have to make sure that our enforcement and regulations around those homes are tight.”
Also, he explained, the city leaders who supported the River East development were not in place to maintain oversight. Finally, he feels that the HPAP process failed to properly educate applicants after the damage was discovered.
“One owner wanted a home so bad that she purchased it even after hearing about potential damage,” Jones said. “I remember my walkthrough inspection with SVD; I didn't know what he was talking about. All I knew was I was ready to get it done so I could sign my loan documents. The program needs to make sure that they consider these things in the future and teach us how we get out of this.”
At DDOT, Jones is an administrative unit supervisor in the Field Operations branch, which manages all roadway signs and pavement markings in the city. He beams when describing his involvement in creating the street signs for Black Lives Matter Plaza, and thanks Mayor Bowser, former director Jeff Marootian, and current director Everett Lott for their leadership and accountability. He has also found a special role model in D.C. former City Administrator, Rashad Young.
“I believe that his role in government––not visible but making sure that agencies are being responsive and doing the things that they are responsible for doing––is important,” he said. “I see myself in a similar role: city administrator or chief of staff, even, to an agency [at the local level].
As a practitioner, Jones recognizes the relevance of his SPA graduate coursework. “Every course [has applied] to some aspect of my life over the last year. I just finished up a public budgeting class during DDOT budgeting season. I'll tell you the truth––I tailored the PowerPoint slides from my work budget presentation to my class budget presentation exam. . . With the hands-on experience I get, plus the competencies from AU, I'm going to be a pretty solid guy when it's over.”
Jones already has what can’t be taught: a passion and energy for advocacy and community, and a belief, against all odds, that equity is achievable.
“We hope that D.C. Government will help make us whole,” he said. “We are hard-working Black owners who will continuously advocate for equity and equality and quality homes.”