The impending redevelopment of a long-vacant city-owned former retirement home at the crossroads of Petworth and Columbia Heights threatened to bring out the latent divisions within the fast-changing neighborhood as residents gathered last night to discuss the building’s future. Yet despite high tensions and frequent disagreements, the neighbors ultimately coalesced around a goal that’s often thwarted by local self-interest: They want a substantial portion of the new development to be devoted to affordable housing.
The Hebrew Home for the Aged, at 1125 Spring Road NW, housed Jewish retirees from 1925 to 1969, at a time when Petworth contained a thriving Jewish community. (The building’s Jewish heritage is still visible in the Stars of David that adorn its facade.) The overcrowded retirement home then decamped for Rockville, and the city took over the building, using it for mental health services until 2009, at which point it became vacant. Since then, its condition has deteriorated, and it lurks, empty and ominous, over the north end of Columbia Heights.
Attempts to return the building to productive use in an effort to address the city’s growing need for affordable housing and homeless shelter have run into local opposition. In 2010, when it was considered as a possible shelter space, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser objected, arguing that the neighborhood already has enough group homes and shelters, and suggested the city should consider expanding the troubled family shelter at D.C. General. Recent proposals by homeless advocates to use the building for shelter, in the face of a particularly acute homelessness crisis this winter, went nowhere.
This history made the degree of consensus at last night’s meeting surprising. Bowser called for the gathering, at the Raymond Recreation Center near the former Hebrew Home, as the city weighs its next steps in developing the property, which also includes the adjacent former Paul Robeson School.
There’s some confusion about exactly where the process stands. The Department of Housing and Community Development’s database of projects indicates that the Hebrew Home is set to become 80 units, all of them affordable. The D.C. Housing Authority recently issued a solicitation for legal services related to the Hebrew Home development, stating that it would become “a 75-80 unit apartment building that will serve low-income households with incomes at or below sixty percent (60%) of the area median income.” But spokespeople for the city agencies have said repeatedly that nothing has been decided, and that the property remains in the hands of the Department of General Services, which will need to surplus and dispose of it before any development can occur.
Neighbors arrived at last night’s meeting confused and upset over the lack of clarity at a surplus hearing held by DGS in June. Bowser, opening the meeting, said people left that hearing feeling “that they’d had the wool pulled over their eyes.” She too iterated that “nothing is written in stone.”
DGS recently conducted an online survey of neighbors seeking their opinions on the property’s future use, and DGS’ Stephen Campbell presented the results last night. An overwhelming majority of the 527 respondents, about four-fifths of whom live in Columbia Heights and Petworth, want housing at the site. The disagreements come over what type of housing. While 78 percent want some degree of affordable housing, the plurality (28 percent) advocate for just 10 percent of the apartments to be set aside for lower-income residents, compared with 16 percent who want the whole building to be affordable.
Senior housing is popular: 80 percent want some of it, with most of those pushing for at least 25 percent of the units to go to seniors. Transitional housing and permanent supportive housing are not: These uses, helpful to the city in moving people out of homelessness, are opposed by a majority of the poll’s respondents. Neighbors are split on the question of how much of the property should become market-rate housing, with slightly more than half wanting at least 60 percent of the development to be market rate and 31 percent asking for 10 percent or less of it to be market rate.
Some neighbors, however, questioned the validity of the survey, arguing that the views of low-income and elderly residents might be underrepresented because they have limited access to the internet.
According to Stephen Green, director of the Housing Authority’s Office of Capital Programs, the completed project would likely contain nearly 200 units: around 80 at the Hebrew Home, and 100 to 120 in an adjacent building on the Robeson site, built up to the Hebrew Home’s four-story height. (When he mentioned the possible size of the second building, neighbors murmured “no” in disapproval of its size.) Green said that if the final product is going to contain a mix of incomes, it’s easiest to finance with a 70/30 split: either 70 percent affordable and 30 percent market rate or vice-versa.
But while the meeting began with disagreements over how much affordable housing should be included, as it went on, an increasingly unified voice emerged: The city should press for as much affordable and senior housing as possible.
When George Saunders, a resident of nearby Quebec Place, told Bowser, “We want affordable housing, and real affordable housing,” he was met with raucous cheers from the packed room.
Two groups with opposing viewpoints organized followers at the meeting. A large contingent showed up wearing “Neighbors for Affordable Housing” stickers and pressed for low-income units on the site. Another group, calling itself Friends of the Former Hebrew Home, has called for just 20 percent of the units to be affordable.
Tensions flared between the two groups. One 11th Street NW resident (disclosure: She lives across the street from me, and I myself live across the street from the Hebrew Home site) loudly accused the “Neighbors for Affordable Housing” of being a “lobbying group.” (While most of the sticker-bearers, organized by the advocacy group Jews United for Justice, appeared to be from the immediate surrounding neighborhoods, some were supporters from elsewhere in the city.) A Petworth resident shot back, “Friends of the Hebrew Home, you are no friends of this community!”
Resentments also arose between longtime and newer residents. “A lot of people aren’t concerned about the people who fought, who had the bullets coming through their windows,” said one 46-year resident of Petworth. One black woman made an explicit racial reference, saying of white residents, “You don’t want us here!” A Holmead Place man retorted, “Just because we are new doesn’t mean we are not active participants in this community.”
But when they got around to airing their views on the Hebrew Home site, both groups voiced support for affordable housing. “I’m a gentrifying resident,” said a woman who lives on 4th Street in Petworth, “and it’s my duty to support the people who have been here.”
Still, after the meeting, a member of the Friends of the Former Hebrew Home group said his allies had likely remained quiet when they saw they were outnumbered. The relatively unified voice for affordable housing shouldn’t be mistaken for a true unity of opinion.
And Bowser herself, while largely staying above the fray, indicated repeatedly that she wants a mix of incomes at the site, which would preclude its being all low-income senior or all affordable, as some neighbors want. “I support a continuum of housing in every development,” she said in closing the meeting.
Photos by Aaron Wiener