The fraternal board of the Masonic and Eastern Star Home, the only nursing home in the city that has never admitted a black person, is considering selling the 65-bed facility rather than changing its admission policies.
The 56-member board voted recently in a special session to consider selling the home, an aging three-story building at 6000 New Hampshire Ave. NE. The vote followed a refusal by city health planners to grant a certificate the home needs to renovate the building to meet life-safety codes. The certificate was not granted because the nursing home has never admitted a black man or woman since it opened in 1902. Under District laws, health facilities must be open to all members of the community.
The possible sale will be discussed at the board's annual meeting tomorrow night, according to several members.
"We're looking at the possibility of selling the home, but only if certain conditions are met," said Maurice Baroff, comptroller of the home. One condition, board members said, is that current residents be allowed to remain in the home.
At the home's request, officials from Washington Hospital Center and Sibley Hospital visited the home and appraisals of the property are nearing completion. Hospitals are anxious to find a place to put their patients who no longer need expensive hospital care, but are stymied by a lack of nursing home beds.
"We are having discussions with the Masonic Home," said Cheree Cleghorn, a spokeswoman for the Washington Healthcare Corp., the parent company for the Washington Hospital Center. "Every system like ours is under pressure to find care for people outside of the hospital."
Bob Sloan, executive director of Sibley Hospital, said hospital officials responded to an invitation to visit the home, but said the hospital's own renovations likely will rule out purchase.
The fate of the home is an emotional issue, with fraternal members complaining that they are being painted as racist when they are simply using their own money to provide for their elderly members and relatives.
"We've been in business damn near 100 years," argued one board member. "Why should we fall to someone's whim? We are a private organization taking care of our own."
David Rivers, director of the D.C. Department of Human Resources, said the admissions policies are "an affront to Washington because of our race relations in the city. The one tool we can use is the certificate of need."
White-only admissions existed for years at several District nursing homes run by churches or other special interest groups.
An investigation requested by Rivers in 1983 led to the integration of most homes, according to local social workers, but restrictions never changed at the Masonic Home.
"The majority voted to keep it [the admission policy] like it is," said Richard L. Culver, of Silver Spring, president of the home for 40 years.
"It's like a family having a birthday party. They invite neighbors that they know. They don't invite everybody and their brother," Culver said.
The home has appealed the city's action to the Board of Appeals and Review. No date has been set for the hearing, according to city lawyers. "If we don't get the certificate of need, we are in trouble," said Culver. "If we don't upgrade the home, people will go elsewhere."
Some board members say their colleagues reacted too hastily to the city's censure and say that a recent U.S. Justice Department ruling should convince city officials that no problem exists.
The U.S. Justice Department ruled last month that no violation of fair housing laws existed in the home. "We got a very short letter on Dec. 24 exonerating us and wishing us a happy holiday," said the longtime member, who refused to be named, saying the fraternity's secrecy vows forbid it. "This should help us in our appeal."
Walter Gorman, acting chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, confirmed that the agency closed its investigation of the home. "The Department of Justice has looked at the issue and determined that action by it is not appropriate," he said.
Although the home's bylaws do not specifically prohibit blacks, entry to the home is restricted to members of Grand Lodge orders, which have never accepted blacks in the District. The city's 10,000 black Masons and Eastern Star members are part of a separate chapter, which does not have access to the nursing home.
A small number of lodges in other cities have become integrated, but the practice is not common. "They have their own and we have our own deal," said Culver of black and white Masons.
The city's attack on the home's admission policies is just one of many problems the home is experiencing.
Unlike the District's other nursing homes, the population in the home has dwindled in recent years. Four years ago, the home was licensed for 112 beds. Today, the 65-bed home has 45 residents.
"It's very difficult to find a nursing home bed in the District, except for this home because of its policies," said Ann Hart, nursing home ombudsman for the city. "It should never have been licensed in the first place."
One Eastern Star board member said the $1.6 million spent yearly on the home would be better spent paying for the residents' care elsewhere. "There comes a time when you just have to change," she said, adding that government subsidies such as food stamps and supplemental Social Security have kept potential residents in private housing.
Thomas Raysor, the board's attorney, said the home "will continue as it's always been" until all appeals have been exhausted.