Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray is taking his battle against a 300-bed re-entry facility to the hilt. He circulated emergency and temporary legislation Thursday that would give Mayor Muriel Bowser the authority to use eminent domain to take the land where the Federal Bureau of Prisons is planning to build a much needed halfway house.

Gray previously tried and failed to thwart the project by using homeless families as leverage against CORE DC, the company contracting with BOP to operate the halfway house. Last month, Gray filed a resolution that would have ended CORE DC’s contract to operate the Horizon, a family homeless shelter in Ward 7. Gray told LL at the time that he did not know of any issues with CORE DC’s operation of the shelter. Rather, the resolution was his way of sending CORE DC a message: “We’ve been trying to get your attention for months and what you’re trying to do on Minnesota and Benning is not of a scale that resonates with me in terms of re-entry programs,” Gray told LL in March.

Gray has given several reasons for his opposition to the federal halfway house opening at 3701 Benning Road NE. It’s too big. It “doesn’t fit” with the rest of the revitalization along that corridor, known as downtown Ward 7. And CORE DC’s winning of several local contracts over other established organizations is suspect, Gray wrote in his March newsletter. He also noted CORE DC CEO Jack Brown‘s op-ed in the Washington Post calling those who oppose the project NIMBYs. Gray didn’t take too kindly to that.

Now, with his legislation proposing the D.C. government use its power to forcefully seize private property, Gray argues that the land could be put to better use as a park. CORE DC owns the land, valued at about $1.8 million, through an entity called Benning Rock, LLC.

“Downtown Ward 7 is now starting to enjoy significant redevelopment and the immediate adjacent area will soon undergo major mixed-use redevelopment that will increase the residential density, dining and retail in the area, but is not anticipated to create significant new community-accessible green space,” Gray says in a request to add the bill to the Council’s legislative meeting April 6.

“The window of opportunity to create a public park is a narrow one,” Gray continues. “If the District Government does not act now to create a public park, further development will likely preclude any future public park or open space between Fort Mahan Park and the Anacostia River.”

Gray’s legislation does not explicitly identify the “further development” as the halfway house. D.C. has been without a re-entry facility for men returning from prison since the troubled Hope Village closed last year. Men are now trying to rebuild their lives in D.C. while living in halfway houses in Baltimore and other nearby cities.

At-Large Councilmember Robert White says in a statement that he’s very disappointed.

“This move guarantees that D.C. residents returning from incarceration have nowhere to go,” White’s statement says. “The consequences of making it difficult for them to secure employment, find housing, and unite with their families are substantial. Last week, we had a national conversation about the need for statehood. How can we turn our backs on our returning citizens when it’s such a fundamental obligation of the state?”

Bowser’s office did not immediately respond to LL’s question about whether she supports eminent domain in this case.

Through a spokesperson, Brown, CORE DC’s CEO, sent an emailed statement: “It is deeply unfortunate that Councilman Gray is asking the city to invoke eminent domain to stop an urgently needed program for the District’s returning citizens. This effort once again disregards the needs of our fathers, brothers and sons returning home to the District after periods of incarceration.”

Emily Tatro, the deputy director for the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence, in an emailed statement says Gray’s latest maneuver “is in direct opposition” to D.C.’s values for development as laid out in the Comprehensive Plan. If successful, Tatro says, Gray’s efforts would bar returning citizens, 90 percent of whom are Black, from participating in the District’s progress.

“As DC grapples with the racial disparities in its criminal legal system, we must actively seek solutions that reduce the deep harm the system has caused our Black residents, not perpetuate it, Tatro’s statement says. “A halfway house in the District helps to reduce harm by connecting people to their loved ones, to housing and work, to health care, and to other supportive services. The newly-introduced emergency declaration and legislation would effectively prevent this progress for our returning citizens for many years to come. Instead, the District must do everything it its power to ensure a high-quality halfway house opens as quickly and safely as possible.”

This story was updated with comments from Councilmember Robert White, CORE DC, and the Council for Court Excellence.