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Landlord tells Prince George’s nonprofit it must find a new home

Nancy Meyer, chief executive of the nonprofit Community Forklift in Hyattsville, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Location is everything, Nancy Meyer knows. Although the site she inherited when she became chief executive of Community Forklift in 2007 seems an odd place for a nonprofit storefront, the old industrial lot by the Anacostia River at Edmonston’s edge has worked well for 17 years.

People drive in from D.C. and Silver Spring or even make the short walk south from downtown Hyattsville because they want what Community Forklift sells out of its 40,000-square-foot warehouse — at a steep discount.

Part salvage yard, part Ikea showroom, the group sells refurbished furniture, surplus construction material, and various salvaged antiques and oddities from across the D.C. region at affordable prices, luring hobbyists, small businesses and local collectors. Families from Hyattsville, Edmonston and Riverdale have been only a short walk or bus ride away.

Now, Meyer must find a new home. Landlord Washington Gas wants the property back, Community Forklift announced this month, throwing the nonprofit into a historically challenging market for industrial real estate as warehouse rents across the D.C. region surge in the wake of pandemic-driven demand.

“We will be very sad if we have to go too far afield from where we are right now,” Meyer said.

Washington Gas spokesman Andre Francis did not answer questions about the decision to stop leasing the property to Community Forklift but did say the company would work with the nonprofit to find a new home.

Community Forklift opened in 2005, when a group of builders and activists met to discuss waste reduction in D.C. and where to store piles of leftover construction material they had collected from local construction sites. Tips led the group to the Edmonston warehouse, located on an unused industrial lot owned by Washington Gas. The nonprofit expanded into a salvage and refurbishing service to sell donated furniture and home appliances that the group repairs.

The site evolved into an eclectic showroom lined with rows of refrigerators, light fixtures and couches arranged alongside paint buckets and pallets of bricks. Displays of the nonprofit’s quirkier acquisitions flank the rows of furniture: antique typewriters and sewing machines, ornate chandeliers and a white fiberglass reproduction of the Statue of Liberty.

Homeowners, local businesses and independent construction contractors come to save. The nonprofit also donates supplies to schools, community organizations and low-income households. Salvaging allows them to make unlikely connections between donors and recipients in need: minifridges donated by renovating hotels get sold to diabetes patients who need them to store insulin. Local suppliers get a tax break for donating their surplus flooring tiles, which independent contractors buy to save money on their projects.

“We’re part of this dynamic grass-roots economy in the local community,” Meyer said.

Gerald Williams III, an entrepreneur and builder who lives in D.C., comes to Community Forklift for discounted construction materials. But returning to the nonprofit’s always-changing collection of donations has also become a matter of loyalty for him, Williams said this month as he picked between pallets of tiles at the warehouse.

“This is a city that conforms,” Williams said. “[And] this is the place where you can have variety and taste.”

For Dale Manty, a volunteer with the refugee-resettlement coalition Good Neighbors of Capitol Hill, Community Forklift is a lifesaver when the group needs dressers, desks and beds — quickly — for arriving families. Many of the families they resettle, most recently refugees from Afghanistan, live in East Riverdale, a 10-minute drive from the warehouse. After several visits, Community Forklift offered them a yearly grant to fund furniture purchases.

“It’s special to work with them,” Manty said. “If they relocate, we’ll go wherever they are. We hope they stay in the nearby region.”

Just down the road at Templeton Elementary School, community coordinator Camille Hill and counselor Adrienne Smith said their students’ attendance improved after Community Forklift donated sleeper sofas for their families, many of whom are resettled refugees.

“The families were grateful,” Smith said. “[And] our kids came to school well-rested.”

Meyer said Washington Gas hasn’t set a timeline for the move but wants the nonprofit out “as soon as possible.” She added that finding another location and completing the move could take over a year.

“Washington Gas continues to support Community Forklift, as we have, for more than 15 years,” Francis wrote to The Washington Post. “We will continue to work with Community Forklift throughout their transition.”

Asked at the warehouse, Williams was dismayed but unsurprised about the possibility of Community Forklift relocating.

“I’m used to a good place going,” he said. “That’s what life is around here.”

Smith said she worried that Templeton staff and families might struggle to reach Community Forklift if they move farther away. Sometimes, she’ll pick out furniture for families, who can walk to the warehouse to collect them.

“We want to keep resources like this where our families live,” she said. “We don’t want to take it from them.”

Meyer’s team faces a historically challenging market for warehouse space as they plan their relocation. The vacancy rate for industrial real estate in the D.C. metro area, including Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, is 3.5 percent as of June 2022, according to research by commercial real estate services company JLL. Rent has increased to about $11.43 per square foot, about $2 higher than before the pandemic.

JLL senior research analyst Ben Caffey said that the historic surge in warehouse demand and rent has been driven in part by e-commerce giants such as Amazon, which purchased more warehouse space to meet an increased demand for online shopping and faster deliveries in the lead-up to and during the pandemic. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“When you look at the historical statistics for metro D.C., we’re currently dealing with a completely different market,” Caffey said.

The trend isn’t confined to D.C. Last week, Community Forklift retrieved materials from a similar salvage nonprofit in Philadelphia, Philly Reclaim, which closed after being priced out of the city’s warehouses. Competing with “corporate behemoths” frustrates Meyer, who said other companies don’t provide the same support to individuals that Community Forklift does.

“If you need an air conditioner, either you have the money, or you don’t,” Meyer said as an example. “If you don’t, you can come here.”

David Iannucci, president and chief executive of the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation, said in an interview that Prince George’s remains the cheapest and most competitive jurisdiction for industrial warehouse space in the region. (Average warehouse rent in regions of Prince George’s is lower than that of Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, according to JLL’s report.) The PGCEDC is working with Community Forklift to identify potential sites for relocation, he said.

“They’re a great operation, and we want to keep them in Prince George’s County,” Iannucci said.

Community Forklift’s warehouse will remain open as the search for a new home continues.