Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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To the great displeasure of neighbors and housing advocates, the 86,000-square-foot building at 1125 Spring Road NW has sat vacant since 2009. The property operated as a home for elderly Jews from 1925 to 1969, and then as a mental health facility for the city’s homeless until it closed.

Now the former Hebrew Home for the Aged may become a landmark affordable housing project.

That is, depending on what Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration decides to do with the site. The mayor’s office is currently sitting on proposals from seven development teams that bid on a 2016 city solicitation.

A coalition of social justice activists is making a last-minute push to have the building transformed into a development principally composed of affordable apartments. They say the building—lined with Stars of David along its facade—and the 5,000-square-foot ex-Robeson School building next door offer a chance to deliver on D.C.’s promises of creating homes for low-income families.

But the administration still has not made a final announcement for the 3.3-acre site, which is in a prime location for development near the Georgia Avenue–Petworth Metro station and new housing and businesses that have emerged in recent years. In part, that’s due to the fact that Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner’s office took over the project in 2015 from the D.C. Housing Authority and D.C.’s Department of General Services. The administration has conducted community meetings through a Bowser initiative where residents give input on city development ventures. Some neighbors and advocates, though, say the process has dragged on frustratingly.

“I certainly think it has taken longer than it should and I think there’s been a lack of clarity about how the input from these meetings is being used,” says Lauren Spokane, who lives one block from the property. “It would be very disappointing at the end of the day if this turns out to be a PR stunt and it’s just working the way it always has, which is the mayor decides what happens.” (Under the District’s charter, the executive branch has the power to dispose of city-owned land.)

Having bought a house in the neighborhood a couple of years ago, Spokane says she wants the former Hebrew Home to be developed into as much affordable housing as possible because the land is public and low-income families are being displaced from D.C. “I think it’s important to honor the folks who have been here for a long time, before people like me started coming in and gentrifying the neighborhood.”

Located in her home ward, the project represents an interesting case study for Bowser, who has frequently touted her efforts to build and maintain affordable housing—such as investing $100 million each year in D.C.’s main affordable housing fund and launching a $10 million preservation fund. She has also made significant progress on aiding the city’s homeless and building new shelters.

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Nevertheless, when she was the Ward 4 councilmember, Bowser opposed the Hebrew Home building becoming a homeless shelter, saying the ward already had an outsized number of facilities for the homeless. At a community meeting in August 2014 where residents debated what level of affordability was appropriate for the site, she said she supported “a continuum of housing in every development.” Later, in a 2015 interview with DCist, Bowser stated she agreed the project had “taken too long.”

Advocates like Sarah Novick, a D.C. organizer with the progressive, faith-based nonprofit Jews United for Justice, say the project has high stakes, both for the neighborhood and the District at large. “We want to see deeply affordable apartments for the service workers and retail workers who are making minimum wage and live in the area,” Novick explains, adding that “I don’t get the sense that has been a priority of the District.” 

Specifically, Novick is advocating for housing available to households who earn no more than 30 percent of the area median income, or roughly $33,000 per year for a family of four.

JUFJ was one of a dozen advocacy groups that sent Bowser and other city officials a letter last month calling for density, transparency, and government subsidies for the project. And in June, the Washington Interfaith Network made similar requests in its own letter to D.C. leaders.

Chanda Washington, a spokesperson for Kenner’s office, says the administration expects to make an announcement about the Hebrew Home’s future “soon,” but could not give specifics. She points to Bowser’s “OurRFP” (or “requests for proposals”) initiative as an unprecedented means of getting development deals done with residents’ input. “The purpose was definitely to engage the community and get their involvement,” she says. “We want that on the front end of the discussion rather than after the deal has been done.” 

The nonprofit groups involved have coalesced around the two proposals that would create the most affordable housing and have the deepest levels of affordability, although the plans would need to be exempted from density rules and also receive approval from historic preservation officials. The structure is designated as historic, so its exterior can be renovated yet must be preserved. The adjacent school building can be demolished.

Both favored proposals feature nearly 80 percent affordable housing out of the total unit counts. 

One is spearheaded by Mission First Housing Group, UrbanMatters Development Partners, and Lock7 Development. It would produce 224 units of housing, of which about 45 would be priced at 30 percent of AMI ($33,000 for a family of four), 100 at 50 percent of AMI ($55,000 for a family of four), and 30 at 60 percent of AMI ($66,000 for a family of four). Most of the rest would be market-rate.

The second is led by Victory Housing and Brinshore Development, and would feature 187 units. About 50 units would be for households earning up to 30 percent of AMI, 70 units for those earning up to 50 percent of AMI, and 30 for those earning up to 60 percent of AMI.

While both proposals hearken back to the original Hebrew Home by including designated senior apartments, the two advisory neighborhood commissions that include or abut the site voted last month to support the Victory/Brinshore proposal as their top choice because of its mix of incomes and parking spots.

Bowser’s administration has used the OurRFP model for other major development projects across the city, with varied reaction from residents. For the Crummell School, a historic and vacant building that once served black students in Ivy City, some advocates were dismayed when officials didn’t pick an all-affordable housing proposal involving a community land trust last November.

Likewise, residents interested in the Hebrew Home project want the city to both hear and acknowledge them.

“This is public land that should be used for for public benefit to put a check on the market forces that are pushing people out and to make sure folks are able to stay in this community,” Spokane says. “If they go with something else, especially if it’s very different, it will be disappointing.”