Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray
Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray pitched his latest effort to keep a halfway house out of his ward to the D.C. Council this morning. He needs nine votes to pass emergency legislation that would allow Mayor Muriel Bowser to use eminent domain to seize privately owned land where the re-entry facility will be built at 3701 Benning Road NE and turn it into a park.

In making his case, Gray emphasized three times that he is not a NIMBY. Gray’s sensitivity appears to stem from an October 2020 op-ed published in the Washington Post by Jack Brown, the CEO of CORE DC, the company that’s contracting with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to operate the halfway house. Brown ascribed community opposition to the halfway house as “not-in-my-backyard opposition” that delayed its opening.

“Not to be redundant, but I will be,” Gray said in response to Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh‘s question during the Council’s breakfast meeting. “Those who have labeled me as a NIMBY are just absolutely inaccurate. It’s not fair, it’s wrong, what’s being said, and there’s no substance at all to the statements that have been made in that regard.” LL found Gray’s position a bit ironic considering the term’s definition on Urban Dictionary. It reads, in part, “A NIMBY might agree that a community or a neigborhood [sic] needs a half-way house for convicts transitioning back to society, but doesn’t want it placed too close to his or her own home or in the neighborhood.”

In making his pitch to his constituents in his newsletter last week, Gray neglected to mention that the proposed park would replace the planned re-entry facility.

Putting aside the fact that Bowser may not be willing to use eminent domain even if the Council gives her the authority, Gray does not appear to have the votes anyway. Only Chairman Phil Mendelson voiced his support. Councilmembers Charles Allen (Ward 6), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), Trayon White (Ward 8), Robert White (At-Large), and Anita Bonds (At-Large) signaled that they would not vote in favor.

Although there is agreement among councilmembers that a 300-bed facility is not an ideal environment for people returning from prison, Allen pointed out there is little local legislators can do about it. The BOP controls the terms of the contract and therefore the size of the facility.

“I am concerned about if we were to move forward, what signal does that send around commitment to returning citizens?” he said. “Right now, folks are going to [a halfway house in] Baltimore and are disconnected from our city, and our supports and services.”

Robert White added that the BOP is not required to build a halfway house in D.C., and it’s his understanding that after several previous failed attempts, “this is the last opportunity.”

If BOP builds the facility elsewhere, the men trying to return to D.C. from prison will face more obstacles than they already do, White said.

“Most of them don’t come home to housing opportunities, job opportunities,” he said. “They have to find those. When you are not in D.C. proper, you cannot find them because you are on a time restriction for the amount of time you can leave the facility. Even if you could find the time and money to commute to D.C. to find a job, you can’t do that every day to start working.”

White also pointed out that there are two 30-plus-acre parks within blocks of the land Gray wants to seize. He also asked why there is not similar opposition to the relocation of the Department of General Services’ headquarters, which is slated to move into the area and will bring well over 300 employees with it.

Gray replied that he did not see the relationship between the re-entry facility and DGS headquarters. He did not address White’s question about the nearby parks.

“Just so it’s absolutely clear, I am one of those who’s fervently supported making sure we bring home in a respectful manner those who are returning from incarceration,” Gray said. “There’s not a question about my commitment to try to find a dignified and respectful way for our folks to return to the District of Columbia. I want to see that happen, and I don’t see it happening with the configuration that the Bureau of Prisons has jammed down our throat.”