SOME’s plans to turn the massive Wilson Courts apartment complex into more transitional housing. This outraged resident, like everyone in attendance at the meeting, was strongly opposed to SOME’s development plans to add yet another transitional/group home into their small residential neighborhood, a neighborhood already fighting to keep its head above water. In the heated discussion that followed, not one resident was in favor of the transitional housing plans. For years, Mellon, Newcomb and Oakwood Street residents have been fighting the good fight to try and reclaim what was once a safe middle-class family friendly community and what has over time became cheap real estate with very little to offer in the form of substantial and organized community leadership. In a nutshell, the perfect place to stash the bulk of the District’s group homes without providing even the most basic of neighborhood support or city services such as litter cans, coordinated activities to prevent loitering or additional policing.
Residents – most living in their homes 20 years or more - again voiced their fears during the ANC 8C meeting that SOME’s plans to turn the now vacant Wilson Court project would put not only put their already tenuous property values at risk but their neighborhood as a whole. Many residents pointed out the irony that the SOME project for transitional housing (which would include housing ex-offenders and recovering addicts) would be located right next to a mid-sized group home for battered women (many with children) run by Covenant House, and would be just another of several group homes in the immediate neighborhood. Residents already frustrated fighting battle after battle against litter, loitering, and lawlessness caused - in part - by the large number of group homes, shelters, and yes, nuisance Section 8 properties are incredulous of SOMES’s plans to add yet another large scale group home in their small neighborhood, this in addition to the spillover from St. Elizabeths.
The neighborhood opposition to yet another group home already in close proximity to Saint Elizabeths is not a question of “not-in-my-backyard” but “just-how-many-can-my-neighborhood take?” Add to that the total lack of communication by SOME to the community including the Advisory Neighborhood Commission has left residents feeling once again overlooked, marginalized and ignored by the “powers that be”. To be clear, this is not an issue of new NIMBY homeowners, this is an issue of a community of residents (new and old) tired of feeling like they are being crowded out of their own homes in order to allow the District of Columbia to stash their less attractive social services programs in neighborhoods already on the brink; neighborhoods that may not be able to lodge the type of political and economic protests that keep these large-scale group homes out of more affluent communities such as Georgetown and DuPont Circle.
How can a neighborhood build roots when the city and well intentioned non-profits keep replacing homeownership opportunities with group homes and transitional housing? Residents ask, “why should my neighborhood –already on the economic and employment brink- have to carry the unfair burden of housing the majority of the more controversial and frankly unattractive social service programs for the entire city, with a fraction of the support services in return?" Wouldn't it make more sense to place some of these group homes and "transitional housing" projects in communities with better access to jobs, job training, transporation and city services? Things that have long been lacking in Ward 8? A ward with a nearly 30% unemployment rate? The answer to the city's economic and unemployment problems should not be to ship every disadvantaged, homeless or drug addicted resident over the bridge, to centralize them around group homes with poor oversight and lackluster social service programs located in some of the most fragile economic communities in the city.
Residential streets such as Mellon Street and neighborhood parks such as Shepherd Park located on MLK and Malcolm X in Congress Heights have been transformed from family friendly centers of the community to the rest stops and waiting rooms for the city’s homeless and mentally ill; who are turned out of the local shelters during the day to roam the neighborhood until they can return to the shelter at night. Residents ask, “How can we encourage businesses to invest in our community which would lead to local jobs when it has become clear that the DC government has refused to do so in any substantial form – essentially hamstringing any small progress that has been made?” In the Congress Heights on the Rise poll: "What would you like to see more of in Congress Heights?" The overwelming answer was "New Leadership" (59%). The least selected choices were "Affordable Housing" (6%) and "More Social Services" (7%).
I have personally asked the Department of Public Works including Director Howland for years for litter cans on Mellon Street. The response? “We don’t put litter cans in residential neighborhoods.” Insane right? This is the type of stonewalling and constructive eviction that residents face in most River East communities. To keep us poor, disadvantaged and desperate keeps us suckling on the teat of those that dangle hollow promises like carrots on sticks – all while lining their own pockets and/or increasing their political currency. If gentrification can be defined as the “pushing out of the poor to make way for the rich” then a new term needs to be developed for the systematic dismantling of black middle class neighborhoods to make way for the storage space for the District’s less attractive social service programs. Perhaps we are witnessing the beginning of “black flight?”
To be clear the Mellon/Newcomb/Oakwood Street neighborhood (which is unanimously against the SOME project) isn’t heartless. We understand the need and the importance of lending a hand, and yes even having some group homes and subsidized housing integrated into stable residential communities. The key word is “integrated” not “overtake”. We understand the need to lend a helping hand; however, what we refuse to accept is to allow our neighborhoods to continue to be the spare closet, back yard or garage of the entire District of Columbia - that is until they need our space in which case we will all be cleared out. True, our community leadership sucks and real estate here is ripe for the pickings’, and our public perception does not bring to mind strong, middle class communities yet we are sick and tired of being the forgone conclusion. There are real people here and they have the same goals, aspirations and desires as those in other parts of the city. Just because our communities are predominantly black does not mean that we are incapable of wanting or achieving the “American Dream.” Many of us have already achieved the “American Dream” and we want to keep it. We want clean safe streets, well maintained parks, and family friendly neighborhoods. Being black doesn't always equal being poor and being poor doesn't always equal being uninspired. Some of our most influential people in history have been poor and black yet they still had a great impact on humanity. Historically people of color have been a people who have managed to succeed in spite of our challenges but that doesn't mean that we don't get tired of the deck being stacked against us.
River East neighborhoods on the rise are looking for less of a “hand-out” and more of a “leg up”. Give us an opportunity to make our communities more prosperous- from the inside out - so that we may be able to help ourselves. We want to be able to “give back” not “give up.”
To contact The Advoc8te or to submit an article for posting on Congress Heights on the Rise email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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