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Friendship House Could Lose Home

The Friendship House Association moved into the Maples, a historic mansion on Capitol Hill, more than seven decades ago. The social-service provider used the home as collateral on a now-overdue loan.
The Friendship House Association moved into the Maples, a historic mansion on Capitol Hill, more than seven decades ago. The social-service provider used the home as collateral on a now-overdue loan. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
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The organization, founded at the dawn of the 20th century, is rooted in the settlement house movement, a Progressive Era response to urban poverty. For decades, many of those who benefited from its efforts lived within walking distance of the property, blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

But as rowhouses in the Eastern Market area were rehabbed in recent years and the neighborhood grew more affluent, Friendship House didn't change along with its neighborhood, said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a former member of the group's board. Now, most of the people it serves come from other areas of the city.

Another issue, according to community leaders and Friendship House's own board members, is that the organization has suffered in recent years from internal bickering and legal turmoil within its board.

Brown said the group took out the loan a few years ago to help renovate the building, which had fallen into disrepair. The kitchen failed a government inspection and is no longer in use. Paint is chipping on doors and carpeting is frayed.

Brown, who joined the nonprofit group in February 2007, said much of the loan money ended up being used to fund its programs. According to the organization's 2005 tax return, the most recent available in public records, Friendship House had an $880,000 operating deficit that fiscal year.

"There could have been wiser decisions, and they also could have looked more further into the future," Brown said.

Most of the organization's revenue comes from government funds and grants, but Friendship House also solicits private contributions and fees for some of its programs, according to financial records.

The group also hosts a street festival called Market Day, a fundraiser that has become a rite of spring at Eastern Market.

The fundraiser barely broke even this year, Brown said.

Adams National Bank isn't the only business owed money. Friendship House is also embroiled in a dispute with Verizon over phone bills, she said.

Michael Dwonzyk, an assistant vice president with the Adams National Bank, said privacy laws prohibit him from discussing the Friendship House loan.

"We're trying to maintain our programs while we figure out some way to keep creditors away," said Clyde Richardson, who recently returned to the Friendship House board. "The bank is more interested in foreclosing than sitting down and talking about solutions."

City leaders said they have met with the nonprofit group and hope it can continue.

"I'm certainly disappointed and wish that Friendship House could continue to be viable at that location, but it does not appear likely," said Wells, who represents the Capitol Hill area. "What's most important now is for Friendship House to get a fair price for the building so the funds can be used for their social service purpose."

Wells said the property's historic designation would limit a new owner's ability to redevelop it. The property is assessed at $5.5 million, according to city tax records.

Brown and other board members hope that others will act as charitably to Friendship House as it has for so long to needy city residents.

"We need a lending hand," she said. "We've been lending our hand out to the public since 1904."

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