Tom Kirlin is a member of Citizens for Responsible Options.
The District’s Ward 5 is a complex, diverse, sometimes dangerous but often generous part of the city that runs from Hyattsville to New Jersey Avenue NW and from Riggs Road to the National Arboretum.
But challenges to its character and quality are coming. Quickly.
Perhaps Polly Donaldson, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, said it best: “The severe concentration of community-based residential facilities in the Northeast quadrant . . . [creates] a de facto service district which undermines the ability of community residents to [realize] normalization and community integration.”
Council members and the mayor apparently do not agree, though no issue is more troubling to residents close to Rhode Island Avenue NE, especially the 1300 to 1800 blocks, than the rapid expansion of high-rise, subsidized housing.
Already, Mid-City Financial Corp. has begun demolishing Brookland Manor’s 535 garden apartments to build about 1,760 units, including 373 affordable units for current residents.
The goal of a racially integrated, financially prosperous and equitable community is laudable. However, the city’s social vision apparently ends at bricks, bicycles, more luxury apartments, a water fountain and an upscale grocery store. A two-year population explosion of 300 percent in such a confined area is certain to challenge residents — new and old.
And last month, a sign sprang up that promises two more high-rise affordable apartment buildings by 2019. If completed, they would be sited beside or across the street from three similar buildings: the Franklin, the Edwards and the Carlton.
Two blocks away, the city is turning a former youth center into Ward 5’s homeless shelter, despite originally saying the site was not large enough.
And, in October, the city awarded Lock 7 Development $10.5 million from its Housing Production Trust Fund to build a 63-unit, affordable-housing apartment building at 1736 Rhode Island Ave. NE. All units will be reserved for those earning less than 50 percent of the area’s median income, except for the 13 units reserved for the homeless. City leaders apparently forgot D.C.’s zoning law prohibiting shelters within 200 feet of one another. The building at 1736 will be little more than an annex to the 1700 Rhode Island shelter.
Never mind the citizen petitions, numerous visits with D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission vote to restrict the shelter’s height. All went unheeded.
Not so the council’s plea to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for shelter height, lot size, parking and occupancy variances.
No doubt the argument was made that the shelter will serve “transient” homeless families whereas the apartment building will provide “permanent supportive housing.”
This legal distinction grows messier a few doors down. Knock on an unmarked former motel in the 1800 block, and you will be met by a guard but none of the 25 people with mental and emotional challenges who live there. Are these residents permanent? Transient? Not really homeless? My neighbors?
Yes, they are. People sometimes need and increasingly receive the city’s help. Ward 5, as always, is willing to help. But if the city needs 280 new units to replace the shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, why build 311 units across the eight wards?
The city easily could forgo the top two floors of the Rhode Island Avenue shelter and still build its 280 units — without needing a zoning variance for increased building height.
If this city’s demand for more subsidized housing along Rhode Island Avenue NE does not outstrip the community’s ability to absorb more people, the demand that we pay higher taxes for “affordable luxury” will.
Directly behind the proposed high-rise affordable apartments sits 1545 Girard Street NE, 25 “senior luxury residences” that cost $10.2 million. Once built, neighbors learned almost half its tenants were chronically homeless.
City leaders seem eager to want to rob our purse and our compassion — and now, our legal right to challenge their grand visions. No wonder the D.C. Council’s recent hearing on the Comprehensive Plan was marked with cynicism and threats of lawsuits.
Perhaps it’s time to look at our community the way the future does. From where we stand now. In detail. From the bottom up.