D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser prepares to break ground on 202 affordable housing units at St. Elizabeths East Campus in Ward 8 on Nov. 27. (Brigette Squire/The Washington Informer)
**FILE** D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser prepares to break ground on 202 affordable housing units at St. Elizabeths East Campus in Ward 8 on Nov. 27, 2018. (Brigette Squire/The Washington Informer)

The highly anticipated transformation of St. Elizabeths East Campus in Congress Heights continued this week as the Bowser administration broke ground on the Residences at St. Elizabeths, seven historically preserved red brick buildings that, once fully revamped in 2020, will have 252 units, 80 percent of which have been designated as affordable.

St. Elizabeths East Campus Executive Director Ed Fisher described the inclusion of affordable housing in the $100 million space, across the street from the newly opened Entertainment & Sports Arena (ESA), as unheard, stressing that the Bowser administration has set out to ensure that longtime residents can enjoy the economic activity unfolding in their backyard.

“We have a 2012 master plan that was passed and approved that has residential requirements,” Fisher said in reference to the official document that outlines the rollout of apartments, retail space, and other amenities on the 183 acres of District-owned land. “The Bowser administration wanted affordable housing on St. Elizabeths East Campus to make sure people can live here.”

In March, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development held a public meeting at R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in Southeast where participants including then-ANC 8C Chairwoman Mary Cuthbert weighed in on how parcels of land on St. Elizabeths East Campus would be used.

The gathering was one of several meetings conducted at various phases of the master plan for St. Elizabeths East, including quarterly meetings about ESA that Events DC hosted in conjunction with the office, and those held by the St. Elizabeths Advisory Board at R.I.S.E Demonstration Center.

In response to inquiries about direct community outreach efforts, a office representative noted a two-day ESA employment fair Events DC hosted at R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center earlier this year, collaborations with community organizations, and visits to the homes of residents living in close proximity of St. Elizabeths East Campus.

Upon the 2022 completion of Phase Two of the plan, visitors will have access to mixed-use building space, including office and retail space near R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center. The east-of-the-River hospital, slated for a 2023 launch, will operate on the northernmost part of St. Elizabeths East Campus. Fisher also noted the construction of townhomes along 12th Street, a significant portion to be available to low-income occupants.

“The affordable housing project kicked off in 2015,” Fisher said. “You can submit your information for the developer [Flaherty & Collins] and they’ll start reaching out to people as soon as they’re looking. The developer in conjunction with the administration comes to ANC meetings. They presented and spread the word about how to get on that list.”

Feeling Left Behind

In a community reeling from the relocation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and more recently the razing of the Barry Farm neighborhood, additions to the St. Elizabeths East Campus have been met with both fanfare and concern about the gentrification likely to follow.

While some Congress Heights residents have acknowledged seeing Bowser administration officials, the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, and Flaherty & Collins at community meetings, they questioned how effective those parties have been in targeting members of the community most in need and not often at the table in these discussions.

For Sharece Crawford, ANC commissioner for single-member District 8C03, which includes St. Elizabeths East Campus, the last straw was when she and her colleagues received less than two weeks notice for the groundbreaking at the Residences at St. Elizabeths.

Crawford said that short time window wouldn’t allow her and members of her outreach team to knock on all the doors in her community and engage residents about the impending opportunity.

“There’s been excitement for these things but the reality is that we’ve done a poor job of reaching the people,” Crawford said, noting that more groundbreakings have to occur during the evening hours and weekends to better accommodate residents with inflexible working schedules who don’t have as high a profile as the leading community activists.

In an email to Bowser administration officials earlier this month, Crawford shared broader concerns her constituents had about the flow of information to a sizable portion of the city where millions of dollars are driving simultaneous and ongoing development in economically barren spaces.

She recounted hearing complaints from neighbors who said they saw campaign pamphlets that filled Congress Heights mailboxes throughout the year, but nothing about affordable housing opportunities like what had been revealed earlier this week.

“If all of these agencies are hosting meetings the same way the council does, they’re still failing to reach constituents,” Crawford said. “It would be invalid to say they’re not meeting the people, but notices [about meetings] are going to specific [group email lists]. Not one mailer has been put out in the entire process.”

That perceived lack of communication has caused some Congress Heights residents such as Angela Williams to question her elected officials’ ability to stop the rising cost of living.

Williams, a Generation Xer and Congress Heights resident of 10 years, called the impending housing, entertainment, and retail at St. Elizabeths East Campus telltale signs of mass displacement, like that experienced by friends, family, and neighbors who once lived in Shaw, U Street and Petworth, all in Northwest.

Those areas, all along the Green Line, have experienced significant population growth and displacement of low-income residents since the turn of the decade, as determined in a 2017 report commissioned by the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District.

“It’s empowering to know that’s what they want to do to our neighborhood, but it comes at a price,” said Williams, also a medical assistant, as she lamented the possibility of moving to Maryland next year.

She said the rent for her apartment, located less than two miles from St. Elizabeths East Campus, has been on the rise for the last two years. She also recounted instances where she provided moral support for friends fighting for adequate living conditions in their apartment complexes near Congress Heights Metro Station, buildings they speculate will soon be sold to the highest bidder within a matter of months.

“We’re not going to be able to afford the rent,” Williams said. “They’re not going to keep it at less than $1,000 per month. We go to our ANC meetings and other community meetings on Wednesdays, but what can the leaders do to stop the prices from rising like that? We’ve expressed our opinions but that doesn’t mean they’ll shut down development for us.”

Displacement-Free Zones

St. Elizabeths East Campus sits at the boundary of Congress Heights, a Southeast community with a median household income of less than $40,000 annually. While commercial development has increased somewhat along Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues in recent years, Congress Heights still hadn’t attracted amenities like that seen in other parts of the city.

In 2016, in response to concerns about the long-term economic effects of development on St Elizabeths East Campus, D.C. Council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), David Grosso (I-At Large), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), and then-Council members LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) and Vincent Orange (D-At large), introduced the Displacement Prevention Amendment Act.

If passed, the bill would increase the maximum amount claimed under the Schedule H Tax Credit for residents living in what has been designated as the St. Elizabeths and Congress Heights Displacement Risk Zone. It would have also established a displacement fund to help nonprofit service providers enforce housing rules and protect tenants.

Last year, to the chagrin of some Congress Heights leaders, D.C. Council members, including May’s successor Trayon White (D-Ward 8), reintroduced the legislation as two separate bills, one increasing the tax credit and the other launching the displacement fund.

Since referral to the Council committees on Judiciary and Public Safety and Finance and Revenue, both bills have lied dormant.

“The issue is not on St. Elizabeths, but on the members of the D.C. Council,” said Mike Austin, May’s former legislative director and commissioner of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) single-member district 8C01.

Less than a week before ESA’s launch, Austin sent letters to White, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), and council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Allen, heads of the committees that review the Displacement Prevention Act, pleading to move the legislation forward so that residents could benefit as soon as before the close of the year.

In September, while speaking about ESA and the economic effects on Ward 8 residents, White alluded to ongoing conversations he had with different constituencies about displacement-free zones. He didn’t return The Informer’s recent inquiries on matters of the Displacement Prevention Act or the establishment of the Displacement Prevention Assistance Fund.

Austin, an interim commissioner recently elected to another term, expressed a commitment to advocating for the passage of the legislation before the end of the year.

“D.C. Council members have the power to change the trajectory of the project,” he said. “Congress Heights residents aren’t against [the development on St. Elizabeths East Campus], but they want some kind of protections. The city doesn’t have a legal duty, but they have a moral one to protect residents.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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