Jauhar Abraham proudly surveys the ongoing construction at 1300 Congress St. SE last Friday afternoon, standing back to avoid clouds of dust.
“It’s gonna be nice,” he says—all-wood floors, ceramic tiling, private bathrooms. “Not the way all these projects are set up.”
The crew performing the renovations looks somewhat different from the one working on developer William C. Smith’s apartment project across the street. For one thing, the workers are primarily young black males plucked from the neighborhood—not white or Latino, like Smith’s employees. For another, many of them have criminal records, requiring a signoff from their parole officers before getting the job.
“In all reality, you have a lot of companies who won’t hire these guys,” says contractor Love Mitchell, chatting on the sidewalk.
The building, a 13-unit transitional living facility for at-risk youth, is a project of the Peaceoholics, a nonprofit group that has received millions of dollars in city funding to mediate violent conflict fueled by gangs and drugs. With the help of a loan from the Department of Housing and Community Development, the organization purchased the formerly abandoned structure last May for $400,000, and are spending another million to get it ready for occupancy by September. Some of the same youths now working on the renovation may wind up living in the complex themselves.
Abraham, the nonprofit’s chief executive officer, views the endeavor as an extension of the American dream.
“The founding fathers of our country are ex-offenders,” he says. “They came for a new life. The investment they came here and made is now the greatest nation in the world.”
The neighbors see the project a bit differently.
“I’m thinking that they’re just little young thugs,” says Congress Street resident Brian Townes, standing on the corner and regarding the building on the previous weekend. “Do they really have these kids on lockdown? One person comes out of here and breaks into someone’s house, someone walks up to me and stabs me in the back, that’s it.”
Townes is at the forefront of a new wave of white-collar professionals to populate Congress Heights. He works for the Department of Homeland Security, which will bring 14,000 staffers to the neighborhood as its new headquarters opens at the St. Elizabeths campus over the next six years. Townes bought a house in foreclosure for $110,000, totally renovated, and settled right in. He was horrified to hear about the Peaceoholics’ project.
“This has the potential to be a great neighborhood, and it just makes me sad that they want to dump all these unwanted people in here,” he says. “For me, it’s not what I envisioned for my neighborhood.”
Townes and some condo owners from the building next door are now clamoring to make it go away.
Mediating settlements between beefing youths may be the Peaceoholics’ forte. But reaching out to the adults in the community hasn’t gone so smoothly.
Perhaps the first misstep came in not giving the customary head’s up to Sandra “SS” Seegars, chair of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission. (W.C. Smith did.) Seegars found out soon enough and called a meeting last February at a local IHOP with neighbors and the Peaceoholics’ leadership to discuss their plans for the facility. The neighbors were neither pleased at what they heard nor reassured by Abraham’s entourage.
“They brought this group of guys who showed up and didn’t introduce themselves,” recalled Tonette Sivells, a resident of the condo building next door. “They just sat at a back table and glared at us. It was a little intimidating, to be honest.”
Hackles raised, the neighbors started doing research. They discovered that there were at least two other social service agencies less than a block away—a House of Ruth for victims of domestic violence, and transitional housing for people with substance-abuse issues. Why does that matter?
According to D.C. regulations, for their zoning category, “community-based residential facilities” may not be constructed within 500 feet of each other without a variance.
Neighbors began appealing to city officials, from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to the office of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. The response was underwhelming.
Barry’s office canceled a meeting with the group and issued a statement later in firm support of the Peaceoholics’ project. In an interview with Housing Complex, Barry himself called the neighbors “selfish” for opposing the facility, saying they don’t represent the will of Ward 8.
The political dynamics at play are fairly clear. Seegars was a fervent Barry supporter in the 1980s but turned on him when he ran for mayor again soon after being released from prison. She led the movement to recall him in 1997 and ran against him for council in 2004 and 2008. The Peaceoholics were backed by the Fenty administration; Seegars is not a fan of the mayor.
Last Tuesday, relations deteriorated further. With some 20 young people in tow, Abraham came to present at Seegars’ ANC meeting, describing his plan to a group that included both supporters and neighbors who are adamantly opposed.
Peaceoholics co-founder Ron Moten started out on the sidelines. But soon, ANC commissioner Melvin Sims began pressing the group about its financial dealings (the group came under scrutiny from the city council last year for questionable use of funds and this year lost all of its earmarks). That was too much for Moten, who put down the child sitting on his lap and marched up to the dais.
“Are you serious?” he asked incredulously. “You’re a commissioner, and you would sit here before the public and lie to them? Are you on drugs? You gotta be on drugs.”
Amid shouting and bangs from Seegars’ gavel, Moten went on: “First of all, let me explain something to you. We stopped killings in your community. We’re the only organization that has the balls to stand up and hold criminals accountable and give them opportunity. Nobody else in this city would stand up on the ground that we stand on and hold people accountable, because they don’t believe in citizenship. Excuse me for being passionate, but sometimes it’s hard to be normal when people say that.”
The meeting soon dissolved into shouting matches between irate neighbors and Peaceoholics partisans. “I’m angry now! I’m angry!” blurted one youth. “These are the only men who ever helped me!”
Seegars contends that had the Peaceoholics come to the ANC first, she could have arranged a more amicable introduction to the community.
Abraham takes that comment as a thinly veiled extortion attempt. “If I had given Sandra the money, she would have told them the truth about this,” he tells Housing Complex. “That’s what they want when they said, ‘You didn’t come see us.’”
Seegars denies any such expectation. “They cannot pay me off,” she says. “I cannot be bribed.”
On Friday, the ANC and the neighbors convened yet another meeting on the Peaceoholics’ plans at DHCD headquarters in downtown Anacostia. Abraham—who is not drawing a salary this year, after making six figures in more flush times—rolled up in a sleek Chevy sedan chauffeured by a young man in a backward cap and polo.
In the conference room, Abraham, DHCD Director Leila Edmonds, and other city officials sat on one end of the table; ANC commissioners and neighbors on the other. A two-person police detail that Seegars had requested sat outside, looking bored.
Over the next two hours of testy discussion, the neighbors were told that it hadn’t yet been decided where the occupants were going to come from and that it hadn’t been determined whether the facility complied with zoning regulations—but that it was all part of a larger plan to provide supportive housing for at-risk youth, and the condo owners should quit complaining.
“You have to step back and look at the broader picture of what the District of Columbia’s housing needs are and what we focus on,“ Edmonds said, barely containing her impatience. “Our concern is really revitalizing the community for all the broad range of populations that we need to serve.”
That didn’t go over so well.
“I support the Peaceoholics, but nobody has considered me,” said Ayanna Henderson, who bought her condo, located next door to the Peaceoholics project, back in 2007. “If they go along with this project, I can’t move, I can’t just get up and leave. If I don’t feel comfortable, I’m stuck. I’m not a renter, I can’t walk away from my mortgage. I purchased my condo—an inexpensive condo, because if I were rich, I wouldn’t have bought in Congress Heights.”
On Tuesday, the battle shifted to D.C. Superior Court, where the Peaceoholics filed a lawsuit accusing Seegars of slander. In a spate of emails to city officials last week, Seegars alleged that Peaceoholics’ partisans had become physically violent toward the project’s critics.
Seegars suggests she’s the one who should be suing, namely over the bribery accusation. In an e-mail Monday to the Peaceoholics—with both city and federal officials CC’d—she wrote: “I will not cease or desist revealing your poor conduct as you attempt to receive public funding for self-gratification under the umbrella of saving the world from itself.”