Anacostia residents are fuming about a public meeting scheduled for last night that was cancelled three hours before it was supposed to occur.
Around 3 p.m. on Thursday, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development emailed people who were signed up to testify at the hearing, informing them that it was “cancelled until further notice.” The hearing was to focus on the planned disposition of four vacant houses in Historic Anacostia that the District owns, but that are trapped in the middle of an ongoing battle between Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration and the D.C. Council.
Last December, the council unanimously approved transferring the single-family homes to The L’Enfant Trust, a D.C.-based, nonprofit developer that specializes in historic preservation and had offered to turn the buildings into workforce housing at no cost to taxpayers.
The Bowser administration launched its own plans to get the homes redeveloped into affordable housing, having issued a solicitation through DHCD. In April, DHCD picked a different nonprofit developer, the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights, to do the job.
The administration has maintained that only the executive branch has the power to dispose of D.C.-owned properties and that it has done so here in an open, transparent, and fair process.
Yet in a two-sentence email yesterday, a DHCD staffer told interested parties—without explanation—that the public hearing would not happen at 6 p.m. as anticipated. The agency had given notice of the event in the D.C. Register, the District’s official legal bulletin, on Aug. 4. “The public hearing is conducted to ensure that all citizens are informed about the selling of the properties identified above to the named buyer and have the opportunity to present their view concerning the sale,” the Register announcement said. (Those four properties are 1220 Maple View Place SE, 1648 U St. SE, 1518 W St. SE, and 1326 Valley Place SE.)
A DHCD spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about why the hearing was cancelled or if it will be rescheduled. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen what will become of the homes.
Last spring, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson included language in the District’s budget for fiscal year 2018, which kicks off on Oct. 1, that blocks the Bowser administration from using any local funds to renovate the four houses, though it can spend money on maintaining them so they don’t suffer irreparable damage. Mendelson in August defended this action as “consistent” with a law the council passed that required the mayor’s office to hand over the properties to The L’Enfant Trust rather than shepherd them through the usual disposition process and make up to $1.6 million in District affordable housing dollars available to a developer.
DHCD said in a statement last month that despite Mendelson’s budget amendments, it was working on “solutions” to get the houses fixed, but did not specify what they were.
For years, and in some cases decades, D.C. has held the homes in a portfolio now consisting of more than 150 vacant properties, most of them located east of the Anacostia River. DHCD has said that more than half of those properties are “in various stages of disposition”—a process that it says can take up to 18 months to result in habitable affordable housing. But because the four homes in question lie within the Anacostia Historic District, D.C. and developers cannot demolish them wholesale, and must work within the constraints of historic preservation rules.
Given their frustrations over the situation, Anacostia residents recently started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for legal assistance to advise them and potentially advocate on their behalf. On Twitter yesterday, a coordinated group of residents railed against DHCD’s decision to cancel Thursday’s originally scheduled public hearing:
This isn’t the first time DHCD has dodged the thorny issue of the homes. During a D.C. Council oversight hearing in March, department director Polly Donaldson refused to comment on the administration’s plans for the properties when queried by At-Large Councilmember Robert White.