Tuesday, February 02, 2010

SOME continues with plans to transform Wilson Courts into more transitional housing. Neighbors say "Hell to the N-O!"

During January’s ANC 8C monthly meeting everything was going pretty smoothly (well pretty smoothly for ANC 8C) until the “Community Concerns” portion of the agenda. At that time a 25 year resident of Mellon Street brought up 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.

Social Services agencies and non-profits may say they are placing these group homes where they would do the most good – in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Residents counter by saying part of the reason there neighborhoods are so disadvantaged is because it is difficult to maintain or raise property values (and thus the tax base needed to fund schools and community programs) and encourage homeownership (leading to wealth building) when family homes are bookended by a myraid of group homes, drug rehabs and homeless shelters. Fair or not but most homebuyers are not looking to purchases homes for their families next door to drug rehabs.

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%).

On Mellon Street where the Wilson Court apartments are located, residents have been begging for YEARS for the city to provide the most basic of city services – litter cans for instance. There is not one single city-owned litter can on either side of Mellon Street despite the fact that there are several group homes, four large apartment complexes, several bus stops and Mellon Street runs right into the Congress Heights Main Street which houses several group homes and is little more than a 100 yards from the Saint Elizabeths Campus. Despite the best of intentions you can't have a neighborhood made up of primarily group homes or subsidized housing - it's called "a ghetto" and it doesn't work. It becomes that much easier to ostracize a community of the disadvantaged by lumping them all together and it becomes that much easier for them to be "pushed out" when the economic winds change.

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 congressheightsontherise@gmail.com.

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Anonymous said...

I applaud SOME's intentions but are they aware that they would be placing a large scale group home with recovering addicts right in the heart of several drug dealing markets? Everyone knows that there are several drug dealing spots on Mellon, especailly on either end of Newcomb Street, Malcolm X Avenue and on Oakwood Street. Those dealers already have a loyal customer base in the group homes that are already in the neighborhood. Just how long do they think these recovering addicts living in this transitional housing are going to be able to resist the temptation of crack,PCP and weed being sold right on their doorstep? Then the neighbors are going to complain and SOME, the city and police are going to throw up their hands in the air while they look for "solutions" all the while neighbors will be dealing with the fallout.

I understand what SOME and other community organizations are trying to do but I have to agree, this neighborhood is doing more than its fair share in providing social services housing. I can think of 6 or 7 group homes off the top of my head not to mention Section 8 in that immediate area.

Anonymous said...

Though I live in another part of the city, I appreciate where you are coming from and am even sympathetic to your described plight.

But I think rather than some nefarious plot to make River East communities the dumping ground for group homes, it is a simple matter of economics- properties in River East communities are far cheaper and more readily available than properties west of the river where groups like SOME have to compete with deep pocketed developers. I think SOME would probably agree that no neighborhood should be inundated with transitional housing, but the fact of the matter is, for groups like SOME when they see a property that is affordable and can help them meet their mission, they have to go for it.
I'm not saying you have to be thrilled with SOME in your neighborhood and I get your point about the sheer volume of group homes- but I think in this case it might be useful to have a conversation with your neighbors down in Washington Highlands or over near Minnesota/ Penn Ave in NE, where SOME has transitional housing properties - I think you will find that they have been good neighbors, they take care of the property, enforce curfews, and provide wrap around support to residents.
Keep speaking out for your community.

The Advoc8te said...

@Anonymous #2. I think we are all on board for having a conversation but the major sticking point is that - SOME never once communicated their plans for their property either before or purchasing it. The first time the community even heard about SOMEs plans and purchase of the Wilson Courts property was when a River East blog, Barry Farm (re)Mixed broke the news. If SOME really felt they were bringing somethign positive to the community and that they were looking to partner with the community they would not have been so secretive with their plans. They could have just as easily posted a sign on the Wilson Court property announcing the plans and inviting community input or even contact the ANC so they could make a presentation to the community - neither happened and that is what has fueled a lot of the outrage. The community feels left in the dark again - a common practice when it comes to setting up group homes in the neighborhood. You find out only after the fact - never before and never in cooperation with the community. That is what leads to the distrust. Even after the vocal opposition to the Wilson Court plans were highlighted on the blogs and the City Paper article SOME still did not reach out to the community to hear their concerns or even share their plans - we are still in the dark and that is not being a good neighbor and we all know that would not be tolerated in other more affluent and influential neighborhoods.

The Advoc8te said...

BTW - This Wilson Courts property would be one of the largest residential properties in the neighborhood. It would have a huge impact and I think it is only natural that the community would want to know what is going on and have some input.

SoutheastJerome said...

It was mentioned in this excellent post how Covenant House is right next door with their own shelter for runaway / homeless youth as well as numerous other transitional living / group home sites operate in the area.

The point was made and must not be overlooked, how does this the impact property value of area residents?

Or for that matter, why would someone buy into this area when so many social service agencies are across the street, down the street, around the corner, up the street, next door, and around my way?

I wouldn't buy and others won't too.

There are defined areas of the city that non-profit social services dominate. We are not alone.

Columbia Heights with their health clinics, arts organizations, education non-profits, GED / ESL / ABE / literacy orgs, Youth Build(s), Centro Nia, LAYC, etc. is one area that comes to mind.

East Washington aka River East has as high a concentration of these anti-tax paying, non-tax generating, and highly public and privately subsidized organization as Columbia Heights or any other area. We have child care services everywhere, art orgs everywhere, Peaceholics, Concerned Black Men, East of the River Clergy - Police, Bread for the City, Unity Health Care, juvenile courts, Churches everywhere but in the streets of our community helping out our children, brothers, and sisters, methadone clinics for H addicts, pay-day loans / check cashing, off-brand charters, etc.

Do any of these organizations or the people who make them run really want to eradicate this social condition we find ourselves in? Or do they, knowingly or not, perpetuate the problems?
It comes with the territory.

The Advoc8te said...

@SoutheastJerome. You make some excellent points!

LittleTortilla stays in DC said...

Yeah Jerome social service is not the same as social change.