Housing Complex

Group Moan: Why Ward 8 Is Stuck With Transitional Housing

Group homes on Valley Avenue SE.

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.

  • Brian

    It would be nice if City officials would revisit the CBRF/GroupHome regulations again. They are obviously in need of updating. How can they say that strangers living in a house together being paid for by tax dollars are a family?

  • cminus

    “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.”

    I dunno about that; when I was in high school I lost count of the number of times my parents reminded me that I wasn't paying rent, so I could either follow their rules or be kicked out of the house.

  • Dan

    I went to a Ward 4 forum a while back, and the people who were angry about group homes were largely upset about individuals with disabilities. I guess the same loud mouths are over in Ward 8 too.

    @Brian: They're not families? Well that's a dandy of a requirement given that housing for individuals with significant intellectual disabilities will never work if it requires nuclear families, or anything remotely similar.

    People with disabilities get to live where ever is best for them. To try to zone them out of a neighborhood is disgusting. If they need to bring staff, they'll bring staff. If they need to live with others with disabilities so they can share the cost of staff, or take advantage of DC or Federal programs, then they'll live live together. I get that individuals with disabilities are bad for property values, and don't attract cool amenities, but really, fuck off. This is nothing but bigotry and housing discrimination. I'm sorry if their misfortune is inconvenient to you. Just about anywhere outside of Antartica is hospitable to you, so but very few places work for individuals with significant disabilities. So go move if you have a problem. Plenty of countries still insist on keeping people in prison like institutions with isolation, neglect and abuse. So you might want to try to live in one of them. You'd love them.

  • Ward-8

    Yes, and Barry still drawing a pay check and only concern with maintaing the upkeep of his ladies. Wake up Ward-8, its time for a change, don't get stuck on being a blind stupid Barry follower!!

  • Mrs. D

    There are so many "it depends" when talking about services in your neigh

  • Mrs. D

    Well, let's try that again...It depends on what the requirements are. But it's unclear whether the requirements for residency in the group home are considered, even when a waiver is required. While it may be fine to have group homes for battered women or disabled veterans or other (non-violent, non-criminal, generally nice and productive) groups close together, other group homes might not do so well close together, resulting in the dumping of serious problems in mass quantities on a neighborhood.

    I mean, beyond zoning, it's obvious that group homes are going to locate where real estate is cheap. But even if zoning is favorable and prices are right, it's a huge burden on a neighborhood to drop lots of poorly-socialized, potentially violent or criminal individuals on a single neighborhood. That is something that should be considered, beyond simple questions of zoning or ava

  • Mrs. D


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  • http://washingtoncitypaper.com southeast lady

    Its cheaper to rent in Ward 8.

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  • Tonette Sivells

    I love how I am being misquoted!

    Actually I said it was the over saturation of these housing programs that was the issue i.e. we are shouldering more than our fair share. I live within 500 feet of three programs. My understanding is that even in a R5 zone this violates Title 11 zoning. We have no issue with some, but they within 500 feet and the plan for more within that 500 feet is too much and not a NIMBY issue. There's your quote!

    Additionally no one in the room at this meeting complained about people with mental illnesses being able to live where ever they want.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    FWIW, it's not really zoning per se that creates this issue, although you have to have the right zoning in place. It's the value of the land ("location, location, location"). Since the properties aren't in high demand, lower value or undesirable uses have a much easier time acquiring properties and locating there.

    It's an illustration of the real estate development principle of "highest and best use" being more relative than people realize.

    Of course, as you discuss, this is enabled by legal interpretations of the federal ADA law with regard to building regulations. It's interpreted that restrictions on group homes and such for people deemed having various types of "disabilities" is discriminatory and a violation of federal law.

    FWIW, there are plenty of group home uses in "undesirable" land areas zoned commercial in places like Brookland and Takoma as well. The properties were acquired when the areas weren't seen as high-value residential locations.

    E.g., in Brookland, the first house on either side of the commercial district on the cross-streets (e.g. on the 1000 and 1200 blocks of Newton, Otis, etc.) are also zoned commercial. Over the years, these buildings have tended to become managed group homes. The same is true with some properties on Sandy Springs Road immediately abutting the Metropolitan Branch railroad tracks in Takoma.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    WRT Tonette Sivells comments, I argue that an overconcentration counter-argument can be made wrt the ADA and Fair Housing Act laws, but then I am not a lawyer.

    The idea is that the 14th Amendment, which calls for equal protection under the law, allows for mediation wrt the number of such facilities placed in a particular neighborhood ("dumping ground"). That just because of the location value of a neighborhood, residents can't be forced to shoulder more than their fair share of such facilities, especially when such facilities do impose social and property value costs on residents and neighborhoods.