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After a prospective deal with a prominent D.C. architect who owns a piece of land near the U Street NW corridor fell through, the District plans to build a family homeless shelter on 14th Street NW, in trendy Columbia Heights, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced on Thursday.
The new, alternative site is publicly owned and conveniently located just a few blocks from both the Columbia Heights Metro station and U Street NW. The Bowser administration aims to construct a 50-unit project at 2500 14th St. NW, a 41,000-square-foot property on which the Rita Bright Family and Youth Recreation Center and a surface parking lot currently sit. Thirty-five of those units would serve as short-term housing for homeless families, while the remaining 15 units would be designated as permanent supportive housing for low-income seniors.
The recreation center, which the Columbia Heights-based Latin American Youth Center and the Parents’ Association of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington manage under an agreement with D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation, would be renovated as part of the site’s redevelopment. Before a development team is picked, though, the D.C. Council must pass emergency legislation approving the property as suitable for the proposed use. Bowser says construction could then begin in January 2019 and be done by spring 2020.
In a statement, the mayor says the selection of the site brings the District “one step closer to closing and replacing D.C. General”—the former-hospital-turned-family-homeless-shelter where clients have lived with bedbugs, mice, ailing infrastructure, and, particularly after the 2014 disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd from there, fear. The proposed Ward 1 project is part of a larger plan to tear down D.C. General and create smaller family shelters across the city, which officials believe will lead to better outcomes for homeless families.
Social-services staff will work at these facilities, helping homeless families with post-shelter housing, employment opportunities, mental health, personal finances, and other needs. The Bowser administration expects the to be finished over the next two-and-a-half years.
“This is a win-win-win,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, explaining that the project will contain apartment-style units for families, long-term affordable housing, and a refurbished recreation center that the families could use. “The fact that it’s our own public site means we can move quickly, on our own terms.” She and Bowser say the District will collect community input on details for the site.
It’s possible that some neighbors will contest the Bowser administration’s selection of the property for a homeless shelter. That has been the case especially in affluent Ward 3, where homeowners filed a zoning appeal against a planned 50-unit shelter that remains pending, after a lawsuit they had advanced in D.C. Superior Court over the project was dismissed. It’s also been the case in Ward 5, where some residents pursued their own lawsuit (with the same attorney) over a shelter planned on Rhode Island Avenue NE that was dismissed, too.
And in 2016, there were grumblings about a Ward 1 shelter under a previous plan. Initially, this shelter was supposed to go on a corner parcel at 10th and V streets NW that has undeveloped space but also a landmarked church on it. Architect Suman Sorg has long owned that site through an LLC. An effort by the District to purchase the property did not work out—possibly because Sorg was asking for too high a price.
ANC 1B, whose area covers both the new and the old location for the proposed homeless shelter, is scheduled to discuss the project tonight. A draft resolution for the ANC meeting obtained by City Paper suggests that some commissioners are hoping to maximize the redevelopment of the Rita Bright site.
The resolution describes “integrating residents of the Ward 1 Shelter into the community [as] not just sound policy, but rather … a moral imperative.” It goes on to mention “encourag[ing] the Administration to … exceed the proposed 35 unit target and reach for an even greater number of permanent supportive housing units than discussions have recently targeted at 15.”
“The high land value of this location can be leveraged to negate the costs to providing the best services and environment for our new neighbors,” the draft resolution states, noting that the Rita Bright center could also be redeveloped through a normal bidding process.
Nadeau, who chairs the Council’s committee on human services, says she’s excited for Ward 1 to do its part to assist homeless families. When asked about potential reaction from neighbors, she says, “My hope is that through our community engagement process, which includes a town hall in January, we will hear from folks in the area. A project like this often brings new people out in conversation.”
As of the start of 2017, there were more than 1,100 homeless families counted in D.C., or a 22 percent drop compared to the same time in 2016. In recent days, when temperatures have been mild, more than 650 families have been staying in emergency shelters, including D.C. General and hotels used as overflow space. The hotel rooms alone cost taxpayers roughly $28 million last fiscal year, although the Department of Human Services says it anticipates needing fewer hotel rooms in the future because of prevention and other programs.
The District has a rare right-to-shelter law during hypothermia conditions, as only a few other U.S. jurisdictions do. The D.C. Council gave final approval to stricter requirements for families seeking access to emergency shelters on Tuesday, in a move that advocates have strongly and repeatedly criticized.
The Rita Bright Center was once a branch of the Boys and Girls Club. The District acquired the property in 2010 as part of a $20 million deal that involved two other Boys and Girls Club centers, including a Hill East one that’s now set to become a senior co-housing project.
Rita Bright, according to a 2006 obituary in the Washington Post, was a D.C. native and community activist who co-founded a church. A 2011 D.C. Council committee report on a bill to name the center after her says Bright organized to save the center from development.