Housing Complex

D.C. General Is Awful. Closing It Could Be Worse.

More than 460 children live at D.C. General.

More than 460 children live at D.C. General.

Anyone who's even remotely interested in the welfare of the District's least fortunate residents should read the Washington Post's damning investigation into the deplorable conditions at D.C. General, the city's maxed-out, maligned, and only shelter for homeless families. The facilities are crumbling. Children are subject to urination in their mouths by day and roaches by night. Employees prey on residents' poverty to goad them into sex.

Cue the calls to close D.C. General!

Not so fast.

No one has argued that D.C. General is a good place to live. Thanks to the Post story, many people have now learned just how bad things are there. But let's look at what needs to happen for D.C. General to shut down. The city experienced a huge spike in the number of homeless families this past winter; the number more than doubled from the previous year until the end of January, when the city started placing homeless families on the basketball courts of recreation centers, a practice later deemed illegal. D.C. General was at capacity before winter began. It will likely be at or near capacity this winter, too.

Where should all these homeless families go? The most appealing option, of course, is to replace D.C. General with a better, more modern shelter. (Remember that D.C. General, a former hospital, was never intended to last this long as a shelter, or to house families year-round.) But good luck persuading any member of the D.C. Council to sign off on a new massive homeless shelter in his or her ward—or persuading a mayor or mayoral candidate to back a plan that'll likely turn off a whole neighborhood of voters.

OK, so how about opening a bunch of smaller shelters? The same problems apply: Even small shelters aren't exactly politically popular. If we can't muster the political will to open even one smaller shelter when our population of homeless families is exploding, instead pushing those families into deplorable conditions at rec centers, then how are we supposed to open a slew of them to replace D.C. General?

We could solve homelessness. That's good policy and politics. But that's not the direction we're moving in. As long as housing keeps getting more expensive and rents keep outpacing wages, we're going to have homeless families. Eliminating the city's only shelter for homeless families in hopes of a future without them is simply wishful thinking.

Read more D.C. General Is Awful. Closing It Could Be Worse.

Cheh Aims to Preempt Bus Lot With Community Center

The vacant Crummell School

The vacant Crummell School

In one of the most successful recent triumphs of civic activism over city plans, Ivy City residents persuaded a judge in December 2012 to prevent the District from turning a former school parking lot in the neighborhood into a major bus parking depot—temporarily. The judge issued a preliminary injunction against the use of the lot at the shuttered Alexander Crummell Elementary School as parking for charter and tour buses before the renovation of Union Station allows the buses to park there. The city, the judge found, had not consulted appropriately with the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission or conducted the property environmental screening—a concern of residents who worried about the exhaust fumes from the buses. But the case has yet to be fully resolved, and the next hearing in a long string of them is scheduled for Aug. 29.

So Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh decided to take her own action to preempt the possible use of the lot for bus parking. As part of the D.C. Council's budget—Mayor Vince Gray's veto of which the Council is likely to override today—the Committee on Transportation and the Environment chairwoman succeeded in inserting a provision that would transform the vacant school building into a community center. The budget item, which has largely escaped notice, appropriates $1.925 million in capital funding to plan the community center in the coming fiscal year, and $7 million to build it in 2016.

Cheh thinks the community center will be a benefit to the neighborhood that currently lacks one, although the Trinidad and Brentwood recreation centers are nearby. But perhaps more importantly, she expects it to scuttle any plans the city may have to pursue the bus parking lot, since the school building would have served as a rest station for the bus drivers, with restrooms and a lounge.

Read more Cheh Aims to Preempt Bus Lot With Community Center

Catania Bills to Aid Section 8 Tenants Will Have to Wait

cataniaDavid Catania acted quickly to introduce a legislative fix to an issue threatening hundreds of D.C. residents on Section 8 housing subsidies last week. But he didn't act quickly enough.

My column in last Thursday's paper examined a recent ultimatum issued by a Mount Vernon Triangle building owner to the 302-unit building's low-income, mostly Chinese tenants: Come up with $250 million to buy the building, or face demolition this fall. Less than 24 hours after the story was published, Catania informed D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson of his intent to circulate draft legislation the following morning to be considered at today's Council legislative session. The package of bills would have limited the sale price that building owners can charge Section 8 tenants under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act when the building is set to be demolished, capping it at the city's appraised value. For the Mount Vernon Triangle building, the Museum Square Apartments, that would have been $36 million, rather than the $250 million the owner is seeking.

But Catania's circulation of the bills came after the Wednesday deadline to do so, and so it was up to Mendelson to decide whether to allow the legislation to be considered. Late Friday, he informed Catania's office that he would not include it in today's session. Because this session is the Council's last before its summer recess, that means the Council won't consider the bill before September. That would still leave enough time to address the Museum Square issue before the tenants are forced to leave: The building's Section 8 contract isn't up until Oct. 1, and the tenants might be able to forestall demolition further by exercising their TOPA rights, even if they haven't put together the money to make the purchase. But the delay is likely frustrating to residents—and welcomed by the property owner, the Bush Companies of Williamsburg, Va.—as the building's future remains up in the air through the summer.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Morning Links

loganA close look at the poor conditions at the D.C. General homeless shelter. [Post]

Courtland Milloy opens up on his bike-column controversy, cycling history. [City Desk]

Developer proposes six-floor residential building in Anacostia. [WBJ]

The government-shutdown baby boom is apparently a real thing. [WJLA]

Has politics interfered with living conditions at a Washington Highlands apartment complex? [Post]

The feds should be getting better leasing deals in a tenant-friendly market. [WBJ]

Today on the market: Logan Circle 2BR condo—$359,000

Gray: Council Budget Would Delay Streetcar Until 2045, Raise Cost

The sole attachment to Gray's letter to Mendelson

The sole attachment to Gray's letter to Mendelson

If the D.C. Council's proposed changes to streetcar funding are allowed to stand, the 22-mile priority streetcar system won't be completed until 2045 and will cost 50 percent more than under the current plan, Mayor Vince Gray says in a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson explaining his veto of the Council's budget.

Gray has vetoed the entirety of the Budget Support Act and three line items of the Budget Request Act, citing a number of concerns. These range from the defunding of a property tax relief measure for seniors introduced by At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, a new tax on yoga and other fitness activities, and new restrictions on the city's use of contingency funds. But in his letter to Mendelson, Gray devotes the most space to the streetcar component.

Mendelson and other members of the Council have justified the streetcar funding change—which would alter the mechanism for streetcar funding and result in hundreds of millions of dollars less funding for the network—as necessary for budget sustainability, arguing that the current formula would steadily increase funding to the point that it would cut into other spending. Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, in turn, compared Mendelson to the right-wing bankrollers David and Charles Koch for cutting public-transit funding in order to lower taxes.

Now Gray is letting his veto pen do the talking. But the Council is likely to vote Monday to override the veto. The necessary two-thirds majority should be easy to achieve, given that the budget passed by a 12-1 vote, with just Ward 6's Tommy Wells voting no.

In his letter to Mendelson, Gray backs up some of the claims his office has made about the effects of the streetcar cuts. "If the Council's cuts to the streetcar system stand, our independent consultants have concluded that the 22-mile system will not be built out for 31 years (or 2045)," Gray writes. "This is primarily because the District will be unable to attract a firm with the necessary experience and expertise to take on building the project in a piecemeal fashion and on such an extended timeframe."

Read more Gray: Council Budget Would Delay Streetcar Until 2045, Raise Cost

Catania Legislation Aims to Address Exorbitant Demands on Section 8 Tenants


In my column in yesterday's paper, I reported that residents of the Museum Square Apartments had recently received an ultimatum. If they didn't come up with $250 million to purchase the building, the low-income, mostly Chinese tenants were informed, it would be demolished, and they'd have to move. Not only would 302 units of affordable housing be lost to the city, but Chinatown would lose around half its remaining Chinese population.

When selling or demolishing a building, the owner is required by D.C. law to give the tenants an opportunity to purchase it, and the $250 million request was the attempt by the owner, the Bush Companies of Williamsburg, Va., to comply. But Bush seemed to have pulled the $250 million figure out of thin air. The property, at 401 K St. NW, was assessed by the city this year at just $36 million. The price required by Bush amounts to $828,000 per unit—far more than the Section 8-subsidized tenants can afford, and likely more than any developer would pay.

Acting very quickly after the story was published, At-Large Councilmember David Catania drafted emergency legislation to address this type of situation and regulate the price that developers can charge tenants for a building slated for demolition under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. Last night, Catania informed D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson of his intent to introduce the legislation, and this morning he circulated the text.

"According to a Washington City Paper article by Aaron Weiner [sic—but I'm used to it], residents were recently informed that the building’s ownership would be canceling its Section 8 contract on October 1, 2014," Catania wrote in a memo to Mendelson. "Additionally, building ownership stated that they possessed a 'bona fide' offer to purchase the building at the price of $250 million. That figure is more than seven (7) times the current assessed value of $36 million. The emergency legislation would require that the offer for sale made to residents of a Section 8 building pursuant to the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act be based on the assessed value of the property. This will give the tenants of Museum Square a more realistic opportunity to pursue a purchase of the building."

The legislation would affect buildings where more than 90 percent of the tenants are subsidized by the federal government under Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937. All 302 households at Museum Square receive Section 8 subsidies, which require them to contribute 30 percent of their income and then cover the remainder of the rent.

Catania missed the deadline, noon on Wednesday, to circulate the legislation to the Council for consideration at Monday's legislative meeting. But in his memo to Mendelson, he cited a Council rule allowing a bill to be considered even if it missed the circulation deadline when "the nature of the emergency precludes the notice" of the measure. Catania didn't learn of the issue until he read the story yesterday, he wrote. He urged Mendelson to allow the legislation to be introduced on Monday because it will be the Council's last meeting before its summer recess. "It is imperative," he wrote, "that the Council take definitive action now to ensure the protection of affordable housing for the hundreds of low-income residents at Museum Square." It is at Mendelson's discretion whether to allow the legislation to be considered. A spokesperson for Mendelson said he has not yet had a chance to review the legislation.

Read more Catania Legislation Aims to Address Exorbitant Demands on Section 8 Tenants

Morning Links

dupont2D.C. bikers try to convince the Post they're not terrorists. [City Desk]

A look inside Donald Rumsfeld's $4.5 million Kalorama house. [UrbanTurf]

The most expensive condo in the D.C. area is really expensive. [WBJ]

ANC backs controversial Dupont Circle church development, with caveats. [UrbanTurf]

Could businesses like Uber and Lyft be reducing DUIs? [Post]

Edens hopes to build 500,000 square feet of retail, office, and maybe residential atop and around Union Market. [WBJ]

The city continues to choose developers not backed by ANCs. [SALM]

Today on the market: Dupont studio—$195,000

As Tax Bills Pile Up, an Abandoned House Continues to Languish


Last year, I wrote about a vexing issue that's left hundreds of otherwise desirable properties vacant around the District. Generally when a property is vacant, the city bumps the usual .85 percent residential property tax rate up to 5 percent; if it's deemed to be blighted, the levy increases to 10 percent. That's often enough to get the property owner to fix it up, or at least sell it off. But in the case of what I dubbed orphaned properties, that's not an option, because the owner can't be found. And so the tax bills and fines keep piling up, without any clear recourse.

I focused on one property in particular, the rowhouse at 430 Manor Place NW in the Park View neighborhood. The man listed as the owner, under various spellings, appears to have died in 1988, and there are no known heirs. The house has been vacant for as long as neighbors can remember. The city has hoped that someone would pick up the property at a tax sale, pay off the taxes owed, and then return the house to productive use. But that's a challenge when the taxes add up to more than the house is worth. When I wrote the story, the tax owed, including fees and penalties, was $358,274.28, while the property's assessed value was just $243,480. This year, the imbalance has only grown: While the value has inched up to $255,990 as the neighborhood's real estate has appreciated, the taxes and fees owed have shot up to $465,040. No rational person would pay so much for a beat-up property worth so little.

Which is why neighbors were surprised to see a "for sale by owner sign" appear in the front yard. So surprised, in fact, that three of them independently emailed me to alert me to the development.

But neighbors eagerly hoping that the blighted house might finally be spruced up shouldn't hold their collective breath.

Read more As Tax Bills Pile Up, an Abandoned House Continues to Languish

Morning Links

gloverThe FBI could move to the Armed Forces Retirement Home or Walter Reed. [Post]

Foreign investment in D.C. real estate is alive and well. [WBJ]

Roundups of the reactions to the Courtland Milloy "bike terrorists" column. [Streetsblog, GGW]

Bike activists organize a protest bike ride to the Washington Post building. [City Desk]

D.C. will collect millions from ads on Capital Bikeshare stations. [WBJ]

Arlington tries to strike a balance between car parking and bike parking. [Mobility Lab]

For Dupont church project, does taller mean less compatible? [GGW]

Eleanor Holmes Norton: It's too late to turn back from the DHS move to St. Elizabeths. [WBJ]

Today on the market: Glover Park 2BR—$398,500

Bull in Chinatown: Developer Tells Section 8 Tenants to Pay Up or Get Out


Last month, word spread among the residents of the Museum Square Apartments about a notice posted in the building informing them that they’d have to come up with $250 million or lose their homes. It wasn’t a ransom note or a mob warning, but to the tenants in the Mount Vernon Triangle residence, it might as well have been.

Everyone who lives at Museum Square, located at 401 K St. NW, receives a Section 8 housing subsidy from the federal government. Most of the residents are Chinese, and many are elderly, speak little English, and live on fixed incomes, often as low as a few hundred dollars a month.

“When we first realized that this was happening, we were panicking,” says Jianhong Wang, 76, who’s lived in the building for eight years. (Wang and the other Chinese residents spoke through an interpreter provided by the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, which is representing the Museum Square tenants.) “We couldn’t sleep at night.”

Museum Square tenants receive a project-based Section 8 subsidy. The residents all pay 30 percent of their income; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development covers the rest of the rent. The building’s Section 8 contract is set to expire on Oct. 1, and last fall, the property owner, the Bush Companies of Williamsburg, Va., informed HUD of its intent not to renew the contract. Bush, listed on some documents as W. H. H. Trice & Company, which appears to share the same address, followed up with the notice to the tenants in June naming the price they’d have to pay to stay.

Under D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, when a property owner sells a building, the tenants have the right of first refusal to buy it, either themselves or through an agent like a developer. Typically, this means they’re able to match whatever price is offered by a prospective buyer—a price determined by the market. But the Museum Square case is unusual because the building owner isn’t planning to sell the property, but demolish it.

The law governing tenants’ right to purchase a building heading for demolition is murky. Before forcing a tenant to vacate a residence to tear it down, the D.C. Code states, “the owner shall give the tenant an opportunity to purchase the accommodation at a price and terms which represent a bona fide offer of sale.” The law doesn’t elaborate on what makes an offer “bona fide,” or what the owner has to do to justify the price.

By any reasonable measure, $250 million appears excessive, particularly since the city assessed the property’s value at just $36 million this year. With 302 apartments in the building, mostly one-bedrooms, Bush’s price amounts to $828,000 per unit. Even for the luxury buildings that have popped up elsewhere in Mount Vernon Triangle, that’d be a steep price. For rundown Museum Square, it strikes some residents as impossibly high, aimed not at attracting an offer from the tenants but at making them leave.

Read more Bull in Chinatown: Developer Tells Section 8 Tenants to Pay Up or Get Out