15 feet and a wall: Why some homeowners feel marginalized by the city’s plan to help families without homes
This article is part of our 2019 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. You can see all of our collective work published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press and join the public Facebook group to discuss how to act on this information and add context to areas we may have overlooked.
It was the first day of construction. A new short-term family housing project was going up in Ward 1. And Cammeron Girvin, a resident and member of the board at the condominium next door, was pissed.
At 8:59 am on Aug. 1, Girvin hammered out an angry email and and blasted it to everyone he could think of: the Department of General Services contractor in charge of the construction, his Advisory Neighborhood Commission, his Ward 1 representative to D.C. Council, and his fellow residents at 1420 Clifton St NW, a rather simple beige brick building situated in a mixed-income neighborhood. His e-mail included Street Sense Media on the courtesy copy line.
In his message, Girvin wrote that residents were “freaked out” because their “floors and walls” started “shaking violently” when the sudden roar from construction machines startled them awake at 7 a.m.
“None of us,” he exclaimed, “have known anything about timeline specifics and when serious construction would start.”
For him and others residing in the condo building, this was just one of many unpleasant surprises they said they have been forced to reckon with over the past few months.
The mayor’s plan to close the D.C. General Family shelter and replace it with smaller community-based housing programs has been met with mixed reviews from residents across D.C.
In 2017, Ward 3 residents filed a challenge against the D.C. Court of Appeals to oppose the construction of a new shelter there. In 2018, a similar battle was waged in the D.C. Court of Appeals for a similar facility in Ward 5. Girvin and his neighbors’ fight against the new Ward 1 project is not entirely unique. But is the kind of fight people have come to think they already understand — NIMBYism, shorthand for Not In My Backyard — without knowing what the fight is about.
The planned project for the Ward 1 site is the last of seven new family shelter projects to break ground within the city. Three are opened last year, three more are expected to open in 2019, including the Ward 5 shelter which celebrated a ribbon cutting on Aug. 21, and the Ward 1 site is projected to be complete by fall of next year. The D.C. General replacement plan was not only a campaign promise, but part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s aggressive 5-year plan to end chronic homelessness in the District by next year. Dubbed “Homeward D.C.,” the plan has left some residents angry in its wake.
Once finished, the new Ward 1 building will include 35 “apartment-style” short-term units for families in need of shelter and 15 permanent supportive housing units. In total, it will provide residence for up to 50 families experiencing homelessness.
Mayor Bowser’s office, and the Ward 1 ANC 1B did not respond to a July 24 request for comment or multiple follow-up requests for this article. It is important to us to give organizations and agencies ample time to comment when we write about their work.
Why would anyone be against building something to help homeless people?
It did not have to be this way, Girvin and other residents at 1420 Clifton Street NW claimed in a recent interview. They said they could have helped the city construct plans that met everyone’s needs. But instead, they argued, they had been ignored.
They said their complaint has nothing to do with the shelter being put up next door. Residents claimed they had no problem sharing their block with lower income residents or with people who struggle with housing.
When Amity Kirby first found out about the short-term family housing project in December 2017, she said she had mixed feelings. Kirby is a 1420 Clifton Street resident and board member alongside Girvin who said she has lived in the area for 11 years. She said some residents, including her, had felt that their neighborhood, which already includes several apartment buildings with low-income residents, was being targeted for another project to bring in more low-income residents. But as she learned more about the project, Kirby said she started to feel like the new facility could be a much-welcome addition to the block.
Before, she explained, the unsightly parking lot that will be developed into the new shelter was known to be “a bit shady.” At night, people exchanged illegal drugs, and occasionally cops would come through and make arrests, she said.
Once they discovered the intent was to have families move in, Kirby said she and others were excited for the change. “It would be nice to have a building there,” she remembers thinking.
Girvin said he felt the same way. “I looked into it and saw that it was going to be a nice new residential space,” he said.
Girvin and Kirby said they figured they would have the chance to coordinate with the city over the project as it came closer to construction time.
After voting for Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau in November 2018, Girvin said he decided to join the neighborhood advisory team responsible for designing the project in December. The team is co-chaired by the ANC 1B commissioner and the director for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, and included various community stakeholders to include representatives from 1420 Clifton St. It was around this time that Girvin said everything surrounding the project seemed to unravel in a manner of months.
Why things “fell apart”
Girvin and Kirby claimed they did not know the city planned to build right up to the border of their condominium. They thought there would be at least a 15-foot off-set between their buildings, because that was their understanding of the zoning code governing rear yard setbacks in mixed use zoning areas. They said they had thought the new building’s entrance would be on 14th Street NW. And if the new facility’s main entrance was on 14th St NW, then there would need to be a setback between their buildings. Or so they thought.
According to Patrick Nelson, the chair of the 1B Zoning Preservation and Development Committee, Girvin and Kirby’s understanding of the 15-foot set-back requirement stems from a basic misunderstanding of the zoning code. “There are multiple ways that you can look at how you decide whether you are on a lot, whether your entrance is on one street or the other, the front or the back,” he said.
For zoning purposes, the new building is being considered as an extension of the Rita Bright Family and Youth Center, which has its main entrance opening on 14th St NW. But since the new building is being built with a connection to the community center, Nelson explained, there is “technically no back to the building.” Therefore, he said, “there is no requirement for a fifteen-foot setback.”
But Girvin, Kirby, and others asserted that this characterization was misleading. They said that when they learned in January of the city’s plans to build right up to their condominium, they had thought they could work something out. Soon after, their condo association hired a lawyer to do an independent review of the city’s plans.
On April 18, the Law Offices of Knopf & Brown, which is based in Rockville, Maryland, published the results of their review in a memorandum they shared with the condo association. In the review, Knopf & Brown claimed they had discovered inconsistencies with the city’s plans and the zoning code.
The zoning code, they wrote, “expressly defines ‘emergency shelter’ as a special exception use.” Therefore, they claimed, “the new building devoted to emergency shelter use is subject to the development standards for an emergency shelter as a special exception.” But when Knopf & Brown did a search of BZA appeals, they found no records for a special exception request for the property.
The reason for this, lawyers writing on behalf of the D.C. Department of General Services (DGS) claimed, was because the new short-term family housing facility does not qualify as an “emergency shelter” for zoning purposes. According to them, the Homeless Shelter Replacement Act of 2016, and the ensuing amendment act of 2018, “draw a clear distinction between emergency shelter units in other wards and the planned apartment-style units at the property.” Therefore, they argued, the new housing project qualifies as “apartment house-use under the zoning regulations.”
This seemingly semantic argument over competing definitions of the space has caused some residents to claim the city government is trying to skirt the rules. They argued that city officials have used the terms “emergency shelter” and “shelter” regularly to describe the new building.
[Editor’s note: Since this initiative was introduced, Street Sense Media has chosen to use the term “shelter” to describe the facilities designed to replace D.C. General family shelter because that is their primary or only function, depending on the specific facility, and thus the clearest way to describe them. However, all plans and press releases we have reviewed over the years label them as “short-term family housing facilities” and, as reported above, this specific facility includes 15 units of affordable housing.]
A July 2 press release from the mayor’s office announcing the groundbreaking for the project described the Ward 1 site as consisting of “35 apartment-style emergency shelter units and 15 permanent supportive housing apartments.” An 8-page information pamphlet published by the Mayor’s office used both the term “shelter” and “apartment” to describe the new Ward-1 project.
Barbara Bridges has lived at 1420 Clifton St NW since long before it was converted into a condominium in the early 2000s. Bridges said she and her neighbors were left out of the planning process for the new short-term housing project.
“We got the plan after it had been planned and developed,” Bridges said. “They came in and told us what they were going to do.”
This was the problem she, Girvin, Kirby and several other neighbors have with the shelter construction. Bridges said she and other residents had tried to voice their concerns at several community meetings. But, she claimed, “[city representatives] said what they needed to say to get us to calm down and get us out of there.” In other words, Bridges said, they were “flimflammed.”
Residents protest during the groundbreaking ceremony
Bridges joined Girvin, Kirby, and a half-dozen other residents in an organized protest outside the Rita Bright Community Center on July 2.
Mayor Bowser, Councilmember Nadeau, and other city representatives were holding a press conference to celebrate the ground-breaking for the new Ward 1 facility.
Crowded together on the sidewalk, the residents of the Columbia Heights condo association held signs and shouted through a megaphone.
“The rules say fifteen feet!”
“You’re breaking the law!”
“F**k the wall!”
Their shouts drifted in through the metal double doors to the community center and turned a few heads. But for the most part, the cries from outside were ignored. City officials made comments, and answered brief questions from the public, before heading outside to pose for pictures with shovels and hard-hats.
When asked why the protesters were so insistent about having a 15-foot setback between their building and the new project, Nelson, chair of the 1B Zoning Preservation and Development Committee said, “their argument is basically, they don’t want to lose their view.”
But the residents at the protest said they had other concerns. Kirby said it was only one small window in her kitchen that would be blocked off. And Girvin said his unit faces north, so none of his windows will be blocked by the new building.
That’s not true for all residents. For Jordan MacKenzie, another resident at the condo, losing the view, is a very real concern. He has been in his unit since August 2018 and said that when he moved in, he did not know the view from his condo was going to change. In fact, “it was one of the selling points,” he said.
In the winter, MacKenzie said he can see Howard University from his window. This view will soon be replaced with that of a brick wall.
But the issue MacKenzie said he was most concerned about was how the new building will impact air circulation.
“I think the air will be stagnant because people smoke on their balconies,” MacKenzie explained.
Protesters added that they were also concerned about the loss of natural light for residents whose only windows face the site where the shelter will be.
Some property owners at the condo on Clifton St NW are also concerned about how the new Ward 1 building will impact the value of their homes.
Rob Smith, a Georgetown-based agent with Chatel Real Estate, said that the loss of a view for a condo can greatly reduce the property’s overall financial worth. “If you have another building that’s going in front of you, then the price of your property is going to go way down,” he said.
Kirby also said that concerns about property values have been on her mind. “You’re generally going to think as an owner, what is going to happen to my property value?” she said. “I guarantee people in the middle here will probably have a harder time selling if they’re walled in.”
Smith also indicated that the mere existence of the new Ward 1 short-term housing project may bring down the price of the homes around it regardless of its impact on the view from them. “Normally,” he said, when “these kinds of projects” move into an area, “it generally reduces the property value of the house, or the properties around it.”
While these thoughts have crossed the minds of Girvin, Kirby, and others, they said it was not their primary concern. Although, they conceded, some newer residents had voiced regret for having purchased property that will soon be next to a facility meant to house homeless residents.
The city’s plans for the new short-term project also had some more serious flaws that impacted the safety of the residents in their building, according to Kirby. Because the plans for the new Ward 1 project will enclose their courtyard, Kirby said they were concerned about what to do in the case of a fire emergency.
If residents on the lower floors could not escape through the courtyard in an emergency situation, they argued, that was a serious issue. Girvin said that when he brought this concern to city planners, they created a “less than stellar fix.”
“They call it the ‘neighborhood pathway’ or something like that,” he said, referring to a 3-foot wide path city planners had said they would incorporate to facilitate access into and out of the courtyard.
Girvin, Kirby, and Bridges claimed they had been marginalized throughout the process and made to feel like their opinions were not important.
But city officials claim this was not the case. A spokesperson for Councilmember Nadeau said in an emailed statement shared with Street Sense Media that “the Ward 1 short-term family housing plan was developed with a yearlong input process from a steering committee [the neighborhood advisory committee Girvin had joined in December] of neighborhood leaders and residents, and it included representatives from 1420 Clifton St NW.”
The statement also said the “District government’s plans follow the law,” and the “aim is to create beautiful and dignified housing for our most vulnerable residents.”
Nelson, from the 1B Zoning Preservation and Development Committee, said the city had tried to work with residents on compromises with the existing plans. City officials had presented residents at the condominium on Clifton St NW different designs for courtyards with trees, according to Nelson
“We had all these ideas they weren’t interested in,” he said. “It’s not like the city hasn’t tried to work with them.”
Girvin said he felt insulted when he received a copy of the illustrated options the city had presented him and others at the condo complex because none of the options appeared to incorporate real changes.
Girvin said that looking at the five different options of courtyard layouts reminded him of the book “Where’s Waldo.” He and others said they felt like it was nearly impossible to identify a difference between any of them.
Girvin concedes there is nothing that can be done at this point. He said he did not think the government could easily modify their plans to accommodate the fifteen-foot setback he and others had tried to lobby for. At this point, he said all he wanted was for someone to listen to them, and for District residents to know how this project was pushed through despite organized requests for small but significant changes.