Central Union Mission and Georgia Ave.’s Nimby Politics
This story will run in this week's print edition of the Washington City Paper.
In September, representatives with the Central Union Mission went before community members from Petworth and Columbia Heights to explain plans for a big project on Georgia Avenue NW. The mission wants to launch a development with office space plus 37 units of affordable housing for people making between 50 and 80 percent of the area median income.
“Affordable housing” + community groups = jitters.
A rash of questions emerged about just what Central Union Mission had in mind. “The initial concern was that it was going to be low-income housing, basically,” says Columbia Heights ANC Commissioner Lisa Kralovic about one recent meeting. And that initial concern has some roots in local history.
Three years ago, when Central Union Mission announced it wanted to move the homeless shelter it operated from its longtime location on 14th Street NW, near Logan Circle, to the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Newton Place NW, residents said they already had enough social service operations in their backyards.
During spring 2007, Cliff Valenti and five other neighborhood activists from Petworth and Columbia Heights took a little field trip to the leafy Virginia suburbs of Burke and Fairfax, with the goal of meeting with mission board members about the plan.
“For months and months, we tried to meet with their board,” says Valenti, now a local advisory neighborhood commissioner. Requests went ignored, so the group went with the doorstep approach. ”We said, ‘We need to talk to you guys’—and not one of them would talk to us,” he says.
After giving up on the dream of a 150- to 175-bed shelter on Georgia Avenue, the mission focused on the Gales School, an unoccupied city-owned building near Capitol Hill. But that plan hit some roadblocks when the local ACLU affiliate and some other groups sued saying the District was offering Central Union Mission, a religious organization, a less-than-market rate deal on the building..
“Our hope is still the Gales School,” says David Treadwell, executive director for the mission. “We’re not out to seek special favor. We’re going to do the city a big favor by running a shelter.”
Meanwhile on Georgia Avenue, locals kept up the pressure to block more homeless people, or any other group low on the economic totem pole, from coming to the neighborhood.
At some point during a recent ANC meeting, it was mentioned that a family of four with a combined income of $48,000 could move into a unit. “But did that mean that a person who makes $10,000 could move in?” people wondered, according to Kralovic.
The answer was no, and that seemed to appease the skeptics.
“Once it was much clearer what kind of incomes people were going to have, I think that it was OK,” says Kralovic. The ANC unanimously approved Central Union Mission’s latest plan.