For years, Hispanics in the Washington area have dreamed of creating a housing development they could call their own. If it is accepted, one group's application, now under consideration by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, may soon turn that vision into a reality.

A new Hispanic-controlled housing group has submitted to HUD a proposal for "La Casa de las Americas"--The House of the Americas--a $3.5 million, 84-unit apartment project for Hispanic elderly and handicapped persons to be constructed at the corner of 15th and Irving streets NW, an area with a heavy concentration of Latinos.

The Hispanic proposal is one of 16 competing applications presented to HUD's Washington area office at the end of June for funding under the federal government's Section 202 program, which provides direct loans for the construction of housing for the elderly and handicapped.

Hispanics are "an underserved population in terms of housing," affirmed William P. Vazquez, head of the D.C. government's Office on Latino Affairs. "We looked at the housing starts in this city and the numbers of Hispanics were very low. It La Casa de las Americas is due, straight up."

Vazquez compares the proposed Hispanic development to a similar one completed last year for elderly residents of Washington's much smaller Chinese community. "I look at Chinatown and the Wah Luck House," says Vazquez. "The've got something and it's theirs. They're proud of it."

Hispanics in the Washington area have considered the idea of Latino-initiated housing development for a number of years, Vazquez said. It was only within the last year that all elements needed for that finally fell into place.

Several years ago, a group of Hispanics had approached a long-term Latino community leader, Carlos Rosario, to discuss the idea of developing housing using HUD Section 202 assistance. Rosario is the Hispanic coordinator for the D.C. Office on Aging and is also on the board of directors of EOFULA, the principal social service agency working with elderly Hispanics.

"The Section 202 program is very successful, but it was little used by minorities," explained Irene Packer, a consultant who coordinated the work of various groups involved in La Casa de las Americas. "A number of us have been working for five or six years to build the capacity of minority groups to participate in this program.

"In the past, most minority sponsors didn't know how the programs worked and didn't understand the selection criteria. They didn't submit competitive applications."

A break for the Washington Hispanics came this year when, for the first time, the federal government established a "set-aside" requirement for the HUD 202 program. "It was a foot in the door that we did not have before," said Packer. "With minimum minority participation goals, this year everything came together."

Rosario convinced the board of directors of the Wilson Center to serve as one of the sponsors for the Hispanic housing project. "El Centro Wilson" was established 15 years ago, after most of the parishioners of the old Central Presbyterian Church, at 15th and Irving, moved to the suburbs. The center rents space in the "educational building" connected to the church and, in turn, leases out space to a number of groups that provide services for Hispanics, such as health care, an emergency food program, summer jobs for youth, and immigration counseling.

Rosario approached the Presbyterians, who had maintained their ownership of those two buildings as well as the town house manse next door, and they agreed to serve as the second sponsor for the enterprise. The religious group will provide the building site for the new project on a long-term lease. The church building and the town house will be torn down to make way for the new structure. The Presbyterians also provided the upfront funds needed to put together the proposal presented to HUD.

Several years ago, the National Capitol Union Presbytery had created the Robert Pierre Johnson Housing Development Corporation to manage the development of a government-assisted apartment project in Fairfax County. RPJ and the Wilson Center have together formed a new "borrower's corporation," to plan, develop, and manage the Hispanic apartment building.

The new corporation's eleven-member board will have six Hispanic representatives. Three of them will be from the Wilson Center, two from the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs, and one is a Hispanic attorney. The other five board members will be from the Robert Pierre Johnson Housing Development Corporation.

Once the church and the town house next door are torn down, there will be space for the construction of the 7-story, 84-unit apartment building. Part of the church's facade may be preserved, according to Donald E. Tucker, of Environmental Design Group, the architects for the development.

"It's a good location, but a tight site," Tucker explained. "The challenge was to save the Wilson Center and its functions."

The design for the new structure is the creation of the Puerto Rican-born architect president of EDG, Agustin Costa. All the apartments will be "through" units, with views of both an interior courtyard and the outside street. The L-shaped building will run along 15th Street on one side and Irving on the other. All the units will open onto balconies looking down on the courtyard with a fountain.

"The idea is to capture the visual vocabulary of Hispanic architecture," said Costa. "We're picking up Spanish themes, things the elderly will feel at home with."

The building will be barrier-free, to accommodate handicapped residents. Specifically set aside for those persons are five of the building's sixty one-bedroom apartments and three of the twenty-four efficiencies.

Rents on the smaller units are projected to be $401. The largest units, double-occupancy one-bedrooms will be $535.

Residents will be eligible for HUD Section 8 rental subsidies, explained Faye Godwin, of Howell Associates, the firm that helped put together the financial plan for the project. If their earnings do not exceed the maximum set under federal guidelines, the new tenants will pay 28 percent of their income for their housing costs. The difference between that amount and the total charge on their unit will be made up by the federal government.

Of central concern to the project is the utilization of existing community services at the Wilson Center and nearby. There are a number of bus lines that run through the neighborhood, and a Metro stop is planned in the future. EOFULA will also run a van service for La Casa residents to take them shopping, Vazquez said.

"We will be training some Hispanics in the community as certified property managers," explained Packer. "When it's open, we hope to have a Hispanic-managed building, to better serve the residents."

Several Hispanic groups located in the town house next to the church and others using the church facilities will have to relocate, a plan which some Adams-Morgan residents object to. "Our main concern is that the Presbyterian Church opened up the corner for community organizations," said Carlos Arrien, coordinator of the Tenants Association to Save Wilson Center. "We dedicated years of our lives to these projects. Then the church, perhaps with good intentions, takes that away."

Church grounds that now provide a playground for children who attend the Wilson Daycare Center would be turned into a parking lot. Susan Hecht, a social worker at the daycare center, also commented children could not play freely in the area with construction going on.

Critics of the proposed project cite other problems with the area, including a high crime rate, severe traffic congestion, and a lack of nearby shopping and stores.

"With any new project, there are advantages and disadvantages," commented Maury Flood, of the Robert Pierre Johnson Housing Development Corporation. He said he had met with some of the persons who object to the planned apartments, but he still believes the need to build housing for seniors overrides other concerns. As for crime, he commented, "I don't know of any other place that has less crime. To pick a perfect spot is impossible."

A possibility for some of the groups facing displacement would be to rent space in a nearby D.C. public school building, explained Vazquez. "They are bursting at the seams now," he said. "Their training components are getting larger. They would have had to move on anyway. We are going to help them find space."

HUD will announce its decision on this area's Section 202 application between September 15 and 30. If approved, La Casa de las Americas would be ready for occupancy by early 1985, Packer said.

There are only 84 units of Section 202 housing allocated this year for the entire Washington area, which includes the District, southern Maryland, and northern Virginia. About half of the proposals submitted to HUD were for developments that used the total allotment, a HUD area office representative stated. The other proposals were for smaller projects, under 25 apartments, generally for the handicapped.

In addition, there are 150 to 200 units specifically set aside for minority-sponsored developments in HUD's Philadelphia region, which covers D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

The Hispanic group has garnered an impressive amount of support for their application. Included in the proposal submitted to HUD were letters of endorsement from D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, and several city council members.

Even if the Hispanic group does not win local or regional approval for its project, they may receive alternative consent at the national level. "The HUD secretary has some 2,000 Section 202 discretionary units at his disposal," explained Packer. "If we don't get the award out of the main 'pot,' we hope to get it out of the discretionary pot, or we can apply again in future rounds."

If selected by HUD, the Latino project will be the realization of a long-held dream. "It represents a very important step forward for the Hispanic community," Packer affirmed. "Most of all, it means homes. It means the elderly can stay in the community near their families. It means they don't have to move away."