Residents of Eastland Gardens, a small neighborhood just east of the Anacostia River, are strongly opposing a city proposal to move six mentally retarded men into their community.
The opposition in Eastland Gardens is the latest encountered by city officials as they try to comply with a 1978 federal court order that calls for closing down Forest Haven, the city's institution for the mentally retarded, by 1987 and placing most of the residents in group homes.
Despite the city's slogan that "Being retarded never stopped anyone from being a good neighbor," vocal District residents, like those in Eastland Gardens, say they are fearful that mentally retarded neighbors could harm their children and devalue their property.
They add that their community is flanked on two sides by public housing and that the crime rate is rising.
Dalton Howard, 39, an attorney, opposes the city's plans to put the new group home for six to eight severely to profoundly retarded men at 4012 Lee St. NE., next door to his house.
"There is the issue of depreciation considering that I live next door," Howard said. "I'm concerned about resale value being less than it would be," continued Howard, who works for Neighborhood Legal Services, an organization that represents poor people.
He added, "When there was that meeting at the church they were talking about six males, 17 to 23, and I have a concern about that in light of the fact that I have a young daughter. I am concerned about her safety and welfare."
City officials had originally planned to find homes for 100 residents each year, but only 48 were moved into community housing in fiscal 1984 and officials blame the slowdown on citizen opposition.
Nearly 400 residents remain at Forest Haven.
"I'm out of compliance with the court order because of community resistance to the deinstitutionalization effort," said Dr. Reed Tuckson, administrator for the city's Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration.
"The city is in trouble. I've been called to court," he said.
The city already has 55 group homes for the mentally retarded, each with four to eight residents. These homes house 54 percent of the former Forest Haven residents.
In July residents of Colonial Village, a small neighborhood squeezed between 16th Street and Rock Creek Park in Northwest, strongly opposed plans to put some mentally retarded residents in a house at 2010 Yorktown Rd.
The city has decided to go ahead with the home.
The Penn-Dupont Citizens Association, which represents neighborhoods south of Eastland Gardens, filed a suit against the city to stop a proposed group home from locating at 3341 Massachusetts Ave. SE.
The suit was withdrawn in January after the city challenged the association's standing in the case, said Kenneth J. Loewinger, the association's attorney.
Many citizens groups also have complained that they received little notice of a proposed home for the mentally retarded, but city officials have said that neighborhoods are usually given more than the required 30-day notice.
"Notice does not mean veto power as some citizens think."
The group homes are operated by private groups, who find the houses.
The city is supposed to inspect the homes to ensure that the residents are living in safe and sanitary conditions.
Some of the operators are local nonprofit organizations but others are large profit-making corporations such as VOCA, owner of the Eastland Gardens group home. VOCA operates homes in other large cities.
This year, City Council members Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), both of whom are seeking reelection, have entered the battle between city officials and residents.
There are 14 group homes for the mentally retarded in Jarvis' ward, the largest number in any of the city's eight wards. Jarvis said that she reached an "informal agreement" with City Administrator Thomas Downs in the spring "to look in areas other than Ward 4 until there is some equity in the distribution of the homes."
Downs denied making such an agreement.
"There were concerns raised months ago as we began to map out where the houses would be placed that some areas . . . were doing more than their share," said Downs.
"We will probably stop placements in those neighborhoods for some period of time," Downs commented.
"We must also address why we have not placed them group homes in other neighborhoods."
Crawford, whose ward includes Eastland Gardens, recently called for a citizen's task force to advise the city on placing special groups in the community.
Advocates for the mentally retarded say much of the citizen opposition is based on unfair stereotypes of the mentally retarded.
"The most prevalent myth about mentally retarded people coming into the neighborhood is that property values will decline," said Vincent Gray, executive director of the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens, appointed by the court to monitor the order. "There have been seven or eight studies done nationally and every one concluded that there is no negative impact," said Gray.