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An angry Northeast neighborhood drags Habitat for Humanity into a morass.
Habitat for Humanity has many friends among D.C.’s political elite, as well as the support of presidents from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. It’s not hard to see why: The nonprofit Christian housing ministry’s emphasis on practical charity and self-sufficiency is the perfect marriage between positive change and photo-op politics.
The organization is famous for building and selling homes to those who are too poor to afford the necessary financing. Program participants must put in 500 hours of work on their homes and other Habitat projects. In return, they receive 25-year, no-interest mortgages.
Habitat’s program offers a straightforward and appealing wellspring of affordable housing. But the organization’s plan to build 53 new houses on a vacant lot at 55th and Clay Streets NE has become submerged in murkier waters of local politics and activism.
In short, the residents of the far-Northeast neighborhood where Habitat wants to build its new homes believe that their community is being treated as a dumping ground for institutions and people unwanted by other city locales. Citing a lack of local consultation and alleged environmental problems with the land donated by the city to Habitat, activists have decided to draw a line in the muck over the proposed construction.
The neighborhood where Habitat wants to build has a troubled history. But a few blocks from the proposed construction site, tiny houses sit on rocky hills dotted with lawn signs for home-security services. Though the yards are scarcely larger than vegetable patches, each lawn is neatly kept and each rosebush trimmeda sign that many local residents intend to resurrect a neighborhood notorious for its violence-ridden housing projects.
Closer to the proposed Habitat site, the buildings tell a different story. The squat brick Richardson Dwellings project lies just beyond the fence at the south end of Habitat’s overgrown parcel. At midday, a group of five men gathered on the steps under a “No Loitering” sign provide the only activity. Also nearby are the Lincoln Heights projects, scene of numerous shootings in the early ’90s.
At a June 6 meeting of the Far Northeast-Southeast Council (FNSC), Vice President Lorraine Whitlock summed up what she saw as the prevailing mood in the neighborhood in a fiery and sarcastic presentation: “The mistake of the ’60s was when we put people on reservations, and then expected them not to develop a reservation mentality.
“If the plan is to put all low-income people in the far-Northeast area, say so!” Whitlock continued. “I thought the new approach was mixed income.”
In the end, Whitlock turned to her fellow councilmembers and asked bluntly, “Are we going to sit around and let Ward 7 become a dumping ground?”
Carol Casperson, executive director of Habitat’s D.C. branch, remains astonished by the opposition. “I don’t know how anyone could be against Habitat,” she says.
In 1999, Casperson wrote to the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) on behalf of Habitat, asking for “a large parcel of land” for the group to develop. Officials at the city agency offered the group a vacant plot that was once the site of the Deanwood Gardens housing project, which was bulldozed in 1988.
In a city where affordable housing is in desperately short supply, the grant seemed to make sense.
“That land has been vacant, and of no use to anyone as a vacant property, for better than a decade,” says Arthur Jones, DCHA director of public affairs. “On the other hand, the need for affordable housing is ongoing.”
Far-Northeast neighborhood organizations were informed about the deal only after the letter of intent between the DCHA and Habitat had been signed. Many residents thought that the city and Habitat had made an end run around them, leaving them powerless to object to the plan.
Local opposition coalesced quicklymuch of it regarding who might be moving into the new Habitat residences.
“Some of the people associated with the civic associations expressed some concerns that citizens have in bringing in lower-income residents into the neighborhood,” says Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7D member John Frye.
Casperson expresses bafflement at anxiety that the Habitat construction will bring more low-income residents to the neighborhood. She says that half of the units will be reserved for current DCHA residents, with a preference given to residents of Ward 7. She argues that the new houses will reduce, rather than increase, crowding in the area.
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Discussions among the DCHA, Habitat, and neighborhood groups did little to quell the opposition. The FNSC demanded both the right to approve such projects and detailed documentation on Habitat’s plans for 55th and Clay Streets. Only 10 months later, in April of this year, did the community group finally receive the requested documents.
In April, Habitat tried to salve the wounds of the conflict by lobbying the Northeast Boundary Civic Association with a proposal to spend $10,000 in the local community. The response, according to both sides in the dispute, was hostile.
“Ten thousand dollars won’t even buy a barbecue,” said one Northeast Boundary member.
In May, the battle moved to local mailboxes, when a coalition of neighborhood activists in Ward 7 (including the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, the Ward 7 Democratic Club, and ANCs 7C and 7D) sent an open letter decrying Habitat’s plans.
The letter denounced the move by Habitat and city officials to place more low-income residents on a block already surrounded by decaying projects. The letter also questioned the environmental safety of the construction. Habitat, claimed the letter, was building on swampland.
In May, shortly before the open letter was sent to local residents, Casperson brought Habitat’s project engineer, Mark Fields, to a meeting with Whitlock, Ward 7 Democrats Chair Matthew Shannon, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams to address the swampland allegations.
Whitlock argues that assessments of the land and testimony from local residents prove that drainage and flooding problems have doomed every structure built on the Habitat site. Whitlock also says that Habitat’s own geotechnic and real estate appraisals argue that the site is unfit for construction. She has asked retired architect Wilford Gourdine to examine the engineering work and prepare a report for public release.
Though Gourdine’s report is still undergoing revisions, the open letter from local activists and fliers posted in the community argue that Habitat’s construction project is not only unwise, but also possibly unsafe. In bold type, the letter warns those who might participate in the project and obtain a home: “You will be the homeowner of Swamp Land.”
The appraisals that Whitlock and Shannon rely on lend little support to the claim that the land is located in a flood plain. A Millennium Real Estate Advisors assessment cites a Federal Emergency Management Agency map that shows the land as an “area of minimal flooding.”
Whitlock and Shannon argue that the same real estate assessment concludes that the best use for the land is to keep it vacant, but the report’s observation on this point is based not on the swamp theory but rather on a suggestion that the DCHA wait until the housing market improves to the point when the property can be profitably developed.
For their part, Habitat officials point to a 1986 DCHA report on Deanwood Gardens, which concluded that previous renovation of the projects had failed because necessary improvements were made only aboveground. Habitat’s plan for the site includes improved storm sewers, moisture barriers, and replacement of problematic soils.
Gourdine agrees that the site is potentially “buildable,” adding that the proposed houses will “not [be unsafe] at all if adequate effort is put into preparing the ground.”
At the meeting with Habitat representatives, Williams, and project opponents, Fields explained Habitat’s plan to make that effort, including building a new storm drain to prevent water from running through the site.
Whitlock and Shannon remained unconvinced. The open letter and fliers with the swampland allegations were distributed shortly after the meeting.
“They talked to our engineer,” says Casperson. “They know better than that. It’s ludicrous to call it [swampland], and they know that. You have to wonder what their motive is.”
The Habitat proposal has been approved by the DCHA Board of Commissioners and by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Construction is scheduled to start in mid-August.
Casperson and Jones both insist that the new homeowning families will help the neighborhood. “I think you’re going to see a new neighborhood there, springing from a variety of redevelopment initiatives,” Jones says. “To hold up any one part shows a lack of vision.”
The vision of a neighborhood that views itself as a dumping ground is difficult to change, however. It’s a view that’s only exacerbated by the next battle looming for the FNSC, over an expanded trash-transfer station at Benning Road.
Whitlock denies that the Habitat homes will have any positive effect on the neighborhood around them. When asked why she regards people willing to put 500 hours of work into building homes with their own hands as potentially detrimental to the community, Whitlock falls back on the swamp story. “They will be moving, because problems with their homes will drive them out,” she says.
Whitlock is also planning continued resistance. “We are not going to have Habitat for Humanity at 55th and Clay,” she says, “and we are going to be as aggressive as we need to be in fighting it.”
Shannon also worries that the new residents may not stay in their Habitat homes, leaving them derelict and allowing drug dealers to move in. Local residents remember that it took the city a decade, for instance, to demolish Deanwood Gardens, which remained a crime-ridden eyesore until it was destroyed.
“This site has seen two decades of problems,” observes Shannon, who is investigating the possibility of filing a lawsuit to stop the project. “But what happened in the interim was absolute hell for the people who lived there.” CP