Below is the text of the Washington Post article on the battle between St. Martin's proposed development, and (us) the concerned residents of Eckington.
Tensions Boil Over Affordable HousingNE Neighbors Protest Plan to Turn Former Convent Into Large Apartment Building
By Robert E. PierreWashington Post Staff WriterThursday, April 6, 2006; DZ01
St. Martin's Catholic Church is proud that for more than a century it has worked to save souls, battle crime and build up those who have the least.
So with rents and housing prices rising everywhere, church leaders thought it was only natural that they replace its aging convent, now populated by the formerly homeless, with something that many agree is a pressing need: affordable housing.
But their proposal to build a 184-unit apartment building has met stiff resistance. Neighbors closest to the project question its size, the income limits for families that would live there and whether such a project would be better someplace else.
As a result, neighborhoods including Bates, Bloomingdale and Eckington, where the new apartments are planned, are awash with charges of hypocrisy, classism and racism -- the result of a continuing rift over gentrification. It's playing out on neighborhood listservs, at civic meetings and at St. Martin's, where the pastor, the Rev. Michael Kelly, has an acerbic tongue and a chastening tone for some of his neighbors.
"The opposition is being led by new whites who think they can take control of the neighborhood," said Kelly, who is white. "It's about class and money and fear."
Opponents bristle at his characterizations. Some of those opponents are black. Some have lived in the community a few months or a few years, others for decades. All contend that no matter how long they've lived in the community, their views are relevant.
"Those who label us as anti-affordable housing are not listening to our concerns," said Joe Lilavois, a four-year District resident who lives next to the site and has organized several of his neighbors to get the plans changed. "We're anti-big, big development. This project is huge for this neighborhood."
St. Martin's, which touts its working-class roots, is n ear the intersection of North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue, an area once filled with rooming houses that has undergone significant transformation in recent years. Housing prices have escalated, and homes in the $400,000 and $500,000 range are standard.
Some people who lived through the dark days when crack-related killings were the norm are glad to see old houses made new again and slight signs of rebirth in business corridors that had long been ceded to run-down liquor stores and carryouts.
But change has not come easily. Some such as Kelly, who has been at St. Martin's for 14 years, chafe at what they consider intolerance on the part of newer residents who complain about issues including church parking on Sundays, unsightly awnings on businesses and, most recently, "ghetto mesh" -- steel grating -- installed across a drycleaner's windows to prevent theft.
Then there's the issue of housing prices, which were viewed with glee when homes nearby were selling for higher and higher amounts and with nervousness in recent weeks and months as houses stayed on the market longer
The developer who has partnered with St. Martin's, Neal Dobrenare, said that concern is at the root of the controversy."A lot of people paid too much for their houses, and they're worried about any and everything," said Dobrenare, a former chief operating officer for the District's Department of Housing and Community Development. "But this is a $28 million investment. This is affordable housing. It's not cheap housing."
The project, at 116 T St. NE, is a joint venture between St. Martin's, which is providing the land, and Catholic Community Services. The two-acre property is across the street from McKinley Technology High School. Plans call for the aging structure to be demolished and replaced with a 184-unit apartment building. The proposed structure, opponents said, would dwarf what's on the site now.
There would be 134 one- and two-bedroom apartments renting to families earning $30,000 to $54,000, depending on family size. Fifty "junior one-bedroom" apartments, according to St. Martin's, would rent to the formerly homeless with an income of roughly $18,000 a year. Rents would range from $500 to $1,039 a month, amounts aimed at working families and retirees, church officials said.
One of the major sticking points for critics is that all of the units will have below-market rents. They're pushing for 30 percent of the units to be market rate. Even though houses are selling for half a million dollars, Eartha Isaac, who has lived in Eckington for several years, said the neighborhood has been unable to attract businesses to support those houses because the latest census numbers show the area's median income is $43,000.
"We're not there yet," she said, noting that the community needs to continue attracting people with higher incomes as well as those who need affordable housing. "We want the same things that other communities have."
St. Martin's has secured much community backing for the project, collecting hundreds of signatures of support from residents and organizations and turning them over to various city offices reviewing the project. But Isaac and others contend that much of that support comes from people who would not have to live next to the site and that many are St. Martin's parishioners who live in Maryland.
"It's easy for them to tell us what we ought to have in our community," she said.
For Adam Benzing, the biggest issue is the apartment building's size. He has lived in the District for three years and bought a rowhouse across from the proposed complex last fall. The current plan calls for the façade of the building to resemble a series of rowhouses, to lessen neighbors' concern. That doesn't do it for Benzing. He'd rather the church and its partner build townhouses -- even with the same income requirements -- on the site. That would keep the project less dense and require no change in the zoning.
The church's plans would require a rezoning to allow a denser use. A zoning hearing has not been scheduled, but church leaders hope it will occur this summer.
Plans call for construction to be completed 18 months after all clearances are granted.
The Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the area has given its preliminary approval for the project, which is supported by D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5).
"St. Martin's is trying to paint everybody as anti-affordable housing," said Benzing, 26, who is taking postgraduate classes before entering medical school. "That's not the issue at all. I know most of my neighbors. But I think there's a different relationship with a large apartment building."
Benzing said it's "unfortunate" that Kelly, the St. Martin's pastor, has injected race and class into the debate and hired a professional communications firm to print glossy fliers instead of just meeting with residents to resolve the matter. He also hates that racially charged comments have been directed at opponents.
"There's not been a lot of honest dialogue on this," he said, rejecting the idea that opponents do not want to live next to black people. "That's very unfortunate. This is a black community, and I'm one of two whites who live on this block. By framing the issue that way, they're trying to silence discussions."
Earl Washington lived on Quincy Place, a few blocks from the apartment building site, for 60 years before selling his home more than a year ago and moving to a retirement community near Upper Marlboro. But he misses the District and said he wants to come back to an apartment complex like the one that's planned.
He owned a deli underneath his Quincy Place home for 35 years and is distressed that people fear there will be too many low-income residents in the neighborhood.
"The price that a person can afford to pay to reside in any area does not dictate the character of that person," said Washington, 65, who is still attends church at St. Martin's. "I can pay a million dollars for a home and I might be an axe murderer."