Neal Drobenare Speaks at the Edgewood Civic Association Meeting
Last night, I attended the Edgewood Civic Association (ECA) meeting, held at McKinley High School.
In response to a question from the audience, Rhashidi Christian, an ECA leader, noted that ECA rival Eckington Civic Association is a historical community and not an official civic association. He argued that one "will never see Eckington Civic Association state in writing what their boundaries are." He added that Eckington's boundaries are within those of the Edgewood Civic Association, and D.C. officially recognizes Edgewood, so Eckington cannot obtain recognition without the cooperation of Edgewood.
Most of the meeting consisted of an update from Neal Drobenare, the developer of the St. Martin's Catholic Church apartments project. He described the St. Martin's project as being "housing for working folks making between $35,000 and $54,000 per year," comprised of 178 units, including 50 apartments set aside for "working but formerly homeless people." Drobenare later opined: "I don't consider people making between $34,000 and $50,000 to be low-income."
Drobenare said "There are some folks who would want us to be building upper income condos here. We're not going to be doing that. . . . We're not going to make it into a market-rate project or massively reduce density." He continued with respect to the effort to protect the St. Martin's convent on the property: The convent is "not historical. Folks who have moved for this know that it is not historical."
You read the 178 units figure stated above correctly, because as of this week the project is no longer 184 units. St. Martin's has reached an agreement with the Historic Preservation Review Board, which pulled the convent from its hearing scheduled for later this week. The convent will be incorporated into the St. Martin's project, it will become a part of the building. I believe Drobenare stated that the plan is to lift the convent and put it on a new foundation, at substantial expense. This also resulted in the loss of a few units, hence the 178 figure.
Drobenare stated that he has negotiated this past year with the Eckington Citizens for Responsible Development (ECRD), a group strongly opposed to the St. Martin's project in its current form. But, accord to Drobenare, ECRD first proposed that the building be rented with 35% market-rate units. Drobenare countered with 10%, and ECRD responded with 50% market rate. That's not how negotiations are suppose to work, he said, and there will not be any market rate housing unless ECRD/Eckington Civic Association agrees to support the project. Although the parties have not met for several months, Drobenare stated that he still willing to negotiate.
Drobenare added that "the reality is that it actually costs more money to put in market rate housing" because a $50,000 tax credit subsidy is lost in the process. If the church puts in more market housing units, then the mortgage will end up being larger. Supporters of the project are willing to put forward a bit more money, if necessary. "We're committed to doing what we need to do to make this happen."
ANC candidate Michael Henderson observed that there seems to be a disconnect between the two opposing side of the debate (I agree with him). Christian responded: "How do you reach out to people who are already doing things against you?"
I suggested that the two sides sit down and hash things out in a formal, moderated public debate, something I had already proposed to Father Kelley of St. Martin's. Drobenare responded: "We're not interested in having a debate." The president of the Edgewood Civic Association agreed. However, Drobenare said he would be happy to talk with me.
After the meeting, I spoke with Drobenare on the front steps of McKinley. Some items of note include: St. Martin's has proposed that residents be on a steering committee that will continually review the applications of residents for suitability. Drobenare believes that this is a unique proposal in the D.C. housing environment.
I asked whether Section 8 housing vouchers would turn St. Martin's into an all-low-income-housing project. Drobenare responded that a 100% Section 8 housing would not be ideal for St. Martin's bottom line. The maintenance costs would be higher. St. Martin's can legally prune the Section 8 list by requiring that applicants be employed and that they submit to a credit check.
I told Drobenare that my perception is that residents' concerns about the project boil down to a lack of trust in St. Martin's to be able to fulfill the promises it is making. He agreed.
I suggested: What about requiring the 50 formerly-homeless apartment residents to submit to regular drug tests, to be automatically evicted if they deal drugs, and put on probation pending eviction if they test positive for drugs? Drobenare seemed to agree to all of those terms, in writing. He pointed to the current residents of the convent as evidence of how St. Martin's would handle the proposed apartment building (adding that only about 1/3 of the residents currently occupying the convent have had a drug problem). He contrasted Catholic Charities with So Others Might Eat (SOME).
What about providing residents parking spaces free of charge, rather than requiring them to pay for a space? That seems to be on the table, according to Drobenare.
So I asked about teeth in the agreement. Would St. Martin's be agree to a provision that would give residents within a certain radius of the project standing to sue in court for injunctive relief if the terms are violated and grant attorneys fees. Drobenare agreed to that as well.
An alternative, Drobenare added, is for St. Martin's to simply build 50 cheaply-built units of low-income housing that it is permitted to build by right, community input not required by law. While some perceive that option to be a threat, it was the original proposal before St. Martin's received early feedback from the community.
Back to the meeting . . . Ward 5 City Council candidate Harry Thomas, Jr. spoke for several minutes. Thomas said "I'm a very spiritual person," and indicated that given that one woman took prayer out of schools with a lawsuit many years ago, one should "never underestimate the power of the few."
Thomas said that he wants to propose legislation that will create uniformity in amenities packages (Eartha Isaac, Thomas is listening to you).
Thomas looked around the room and stated: "When we see chips in the paint at McKinley, we need to demand more, because it shouldn't be that way."
As for the housing issue, Thomas said he was a "support of workforce housing, 100%."