It’s been a rough ride for the Latin American Youth Center in its bid to build housing for at-risk youth—along with a branch of the YouthBuild charter school—at the now-empty J.F. Cook School on P Street just off North Capitol. After getting support from the Fenty Administration and funding from both public and private sources, the plan ran into fierce community opposition just as legislation needed to finalize the long-term lease was working its way through the council.
As of Monday, that legislation has expired with no extension, as local electeds had requested. A setback, to be sure, since they’ll have to start the process all over again. But the nonprofits say their funding is still basically stable, and they’re still working on the executive to reintroduce bills needed to bring their project back to life.
What are their chances? Well, Mayor Vince Gray had been supportive of the project while on the Council, and at a hearing in December suggested that the two sides try to work things out with a third-party mediator. That never quite happened, and the local ANC Commissioners rejected an offer by LAYC to reduce the number of Section 8 housing slots from 47 to 35. Meanwhile, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas says he’s in favor of the project, but has been unwilling to spend political capital backing that up.
“It puts me in a very awkward position because I’m very much a supporter of the school and the program, but at some point we have to listen to the public’s input,” Thomas told the Examiner.
It’s sort of unclear, though, how many neighbors actually oppose the project. LAYC says that after canvassing the area for three hours on a subsequent weekend, they got 40 signatures of support from people living in the block closest to the school, many of whom didn’t know the specifics of the plan, or had been misinformed. Even Bates Area Civic Association president Geovani Bonilla says he came around after learning that—contrary to what opponents alleged—the youths to be housed at the school would not be ex-offenders, and the program was entirely voluntary, with intense counseling and job training.
But that puts him at odds with the rest of his civic association, so he’s been limited in his ability to speak out. And LAYC, which Bonilla says made public relations missteps early on in the process, hasn’t been able to recapture public opinion.
“It was kind of like the healthcare bill,” Bonilla says. “They allowed their opposition to take control of the topic.”