Group Moan: Why Ward 8 Is Stuck With Transitional Housing
Every D.C. neighborhood has its NIMBY issue. In Ward 8—and Ward 4—it’s group homes. From the Peaceoholics’ ill-fated facility on Congress Street to a row of houses on Valley Avenue to a women’s shelter on Good Hope Road, a steady drumbeat of concern has risen over what some residents think is an oversaturation of at-risk youth, mentally disabled adults, and battered women.
Despite their best efforts, hyperlocal electeds have little control over such transitional facilities locating in their neighborhoods. On Wednesday evening, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Sandra “S.S.” Seegars assembled 11 District agency representatives to demand the reason why—as it turns out, there are a few pretty simple reasons.
The first has to do with zoning. Ward 8 is predominately an R5 zone—the least restrictive residential designation, and therefore the most conducive to group homes. Smaller group homes of fewer than seven people are permitted as a matter of right, and permission to operate a large group home for between 16 and 25 people just requires a routine exemption from the Board of Zoning Adjustment. There is some check on density, but it’s weak: The relevant code allows such facilities to locate within 500 feet of each other if the BZA decides that the concentration won’t have an “adverse impact.” And since there’s little proof that well-run group homes actually generate crime or lower property values, it’s hard to demonstrate that any one facility will.
The second has to do with equality. “Group home” is the generic term for Community Based Residential Facilities—“emphasis on ‘residential,’” as Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director Nicholas Majett put it. Under the Fair Housing Act, DCRA cannot bar group homes of under 7 occupants, because that’s the general occupancy limit. Furthermore, according to Majett, group homes under seven people are also not required to obtain a basic business license, even though occupancy often involves the exchange of money—as homes are funded by residents’ families or the District government. “The courts have held consistently that these aren’t businesses,” Majett said. “They’re people living together as families.”
Ultimately, though, it down to economics. Other than the amenable R5 zoning, Ward 8’s socioeconomic status also fits the mission of some social programs. According to Director John Hall, the Department of Housing and Community Development allocates a portion of its funds (like the $5 million it granted to the Peaceoholics group) to areas with low to moderate incomes. In addition, mission-driven non-profits don’t have a lot to spend on real estate, and typically find the most bang for their buck east of the river.
So zoning, fairness laws, and real estate prices put group homes in the same category as a lot of the housing Ward 8’s already got. But residents trying to keep them out see supportive housing as something fundamentally different.
“They don’t pay rent. They have to follow certain rules or they’ll be kicked out. That doesn’t seem like family to me,” says Tonette Sivells, who lives between the former Peaceoholics property and a transitional home for victims of domestic violence called House of Ruth. For Sivells, as for many of her neighbors in attendance, it’s an issue of community building—which doesn’t necessarily include the folks who are just trying to get back on their feet.
“We can’t have every property be transitional housing, because we’re not trying to build a transitional community,” said Nikki Peele, who writes Congress Heights on the Rise. “We’re trying to put down roots and build a community.”
ANC 8E, Seegars’ stomping ground, is trying to eke out a modicum of authority over potential group homes. A bill requiring agencies to notify an ANC of any new Community Based Residential Facilities was proposed last October, but hasn’t seen any action since its December hearing. Even if it does pass, though, Seegars is less than optimistic about the bill’s impact, since many group homes are subject to privacy regulations that prevent District agencies from divulging their addresses.
For now, Ward 8 will be singing the R-5 blues. “When you have these kinds of social programs coming in, nothing else will come,” Seegars worries.
“That’s why it doesn’t feel like NIMBY to us,” adds Sivells.