Letter to CM Thomas re LAYC/Cook

January 27, 2011

Councilmember, Harry Thomas, Jr.
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Suite 107
Washington, DC 20013

Dear Councilman Thomas,

In accordance with the December 10, 2010, roundtable hearing outcome, Commissioner Bradley Thomas and I, on December 22, 2011,
assembled the Truxton Circle witnesses to discuss the community’s stance regarding the use of the John F. Cook Elementary School. We
exchanged possible alternatives to the “no residential component” stipulated by the community, developed and voted on three proposals.

First, the community would retain the J.F. Cook Elementary School. The community would work with identified developers to refurbish the school as a collaborative arts center partnering the visual and performing arts, community arts programming, artist studio space, and a design workshop under one roof. This would create a synergetic hub for the arts that meets the needs of area artists, designers, performers, and residents by creating a multi-purpose flexible venue which is used to provide a unique, exciting and culturally rich haven for the area residents and their families. Anarts center would serve as a catalyst pivotal to the economic development and growth on North Capital Street, between New York Avenue and Florida Avenue, NW.

Second, the Youth Build Public Charter School (YBPCS) would be given a lease to occupy the first floor and the community would determine use of the second and third floors of the Cook School building.

Third, YBPCS would operate its school on the first floor, while the residential component, operated by the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) would be limited to twenty-five percent of the current proposal, or 5 residential units on the second floor, while the community would work with LAYC to determine the types of programs to be housed in the remainder of the space.

On January, 13, 2011, Commissioner Bradley Thomas and I convened an informal follow-up meeting with LAYC representatives to explore feasible shared common ground regarding the John F. Cook Elementary School development project. The LAYC proposed affordable housing for 35 instead of 47 young adults. The young adults would be housed in eighteen units and LAYC staff in the remaining two. They also offered to reduce the number of adult residents by increasing the number of young families and to enter into a mutual agreement with the community stipulating the number of persons housed in the facility but made it very clear that any significant reduction of the number of housing units below the 18 designated for their constituent population would be fatal to their planned funding structure. They did offer various amenities for the community in exchange for our support of the project as is.

The LAYC/YBPCS representatives requested that we discuss their offer with our community group and provide feed-back. Wednesday, January 19, 2011, a meeting was called and a decision made to not accept the offer. The unanimous decision was based on the fact that because of its financial constraints and the inflexibility of the link between the size of the housing component of the Cook School project and its funding structure, the LAYC offer has effectively not changed.

Consequently, the community and LAYC have reached an impasse. Whereas the community has consistently been receptive to the Youth Build Public Charter School, we remain unified in our opposition to the residential portion of the project.
Respectfully, the Truxton Circle civic leaders and community requests that you stand with the majority of the residents in the Cook School neighborhood, the Hanover Area Civic Association, the Bates Area Civic Association and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5C and vote and advocate in favor of allowing the council resolution that authorizes the city to lease the John F. Cook Elementary School to the YBPCS and the LAYC to expire.

Sincerely,

Sylvia M. Pinkney
Commissioner ANC 5C02

and

Bradley Thomas
Commissioner ANC 5C01


23 thoughts on “Letter to CM Thomas re LAYC/Cook

  1. It is unfortunate that Commissioner Pinkney feels we have reached an impasse; YouthBuild and LAYC respectfully disagree. We continue to talk to both civic leaders and neighbors who are getting the answers they need about the proposed project, putting viable ideas on the table, and deciding to support the project rather than leaving the building empty.

    Members of our team knocked on doors yesterday, and were astounded by the number of people who either didn’t know much about the proposed plans at all, or had been given misinformation, i.e. YouthBuild and LAYC were bringing a youth detetion center to the neighborhood, planning to bring in gang members, etc. (We’re not, by the way, and we’re happy to clear that up!)

    We have put out the call to negotiate a voluntary agreement, and we hope the conversation around that happens in earnest. Ms. Pinkney is right that we felt we couldn’t work with the three ideas she put on the table – because they all would effectively kill the project. If the oncern, though, is that we’re bringing too many youth onto that block, and we offer to bring fewer youth and have more families, we should talk about how or why that doesn’t address the problem. We should talk about whether the planned 24-hour security (a great amenity in itself for the block), curfews for residents, and visitors rules do anything to alleviate concerns.

    If the concern is that the community wanted arts /retail space, we should talk about why the offer to dedicate space in the school for that purpose doesn’t address that concern.

    Finally, we should talk about the things YBPCS and LAYC have put on the table just to try to be good neighborhood partners – like working to establish a public safety fund that could tackle some of the problems we complain about in this very space. If the complaint is that the proposed development doesn’t hurt the area, but doesn’t do much to help economic development and public safety efforts that the community wants to see, why wouldn’t ideas like this help?

    We are continuing to gather ideas for the voluntary agreement, and hope to convene in the near future to discuss all of the ideas on the table. If other people are staying at the table to talk, we just want to put it out there that we hope Ms. Pinkney will as well.

    Angie Rodgers

  2. It’s a little disturbing that YBPCS/LAYC is so willing to compromise the school portion which was never in contention, but unwilling to offer any serious change to their housing which is the problem.

    It appears the commitment is more to housing than the school.

  3. Mike, I’m not sure what you mean. It’s the housing portion for which we we are willing to change the population.

    1. The overall scale of housing hasn’t changes. Offering one population over another and slightly changing the occupancy doesn’t change the fact that 2/3 of the school will be housing. Not reducing the total number of units also leaves the door open to an increase in the future.

      I believe the community was hoping to see substantial rather movement rather than a token offer. Rather than carving off part of the school for arts/retail, why not the residential parts? If you had a real change, ie 1/3 ybpcs, 1/3 other group (arts/retail/etc), and 1/3 housing, that may give people pause.

      Also, please stop using the reason ‘it’s better than vacant’. There were multiple proposals originally, and I guarantee the community will work hard to find a tenant willing to truly listen to the neighborhood.

      1. Mike, when an organization offers to change the population that it serves through a particular program, that is, indeed, a substantial change. In any case, we have been talking to CM Thomas’ office about carving off a greater piece of the building for arts/retail, but that proposal has to come with concrete options that offer enough revenue to support their space in the building. We are at the table and willing to have that conversation, but the concrete options aren’t quite there yet. The offer to change the population and use the existing surplus space for arts is not a token offer, but we can’t say that a third of the building will be used for arts if there’s no partner organization to support a third of the building. I’m sure you have our contact info by now; email or call us with ideas!

        Finally, I want to clarify that, in making the rounds, we heard from neighbors that they’d rather see us make use of the building than to have it sit vacant; I don’t think that’s an insulting point of view at all. As I’ve pointed out in other posts, it took us two years and almost $1M to get to the point where we are ready to redevelop the school. If we don’t use the space, it goes back into the disposition hopper, and some other organization has to come forward, develop a plan, get through disposition, find money, etc.

  4. Angie, did you identify yourself as a paid consultant when you were knocking on doors? Or did you misrepresent yourself as a neutral “community member”?

    1. Eric, I have identified myself as someone who works for the project numerous times in this and other spaces. I assume you are referring to a conversation thread on the LeDroit listserv, where Scott Roberts identified me as a Bloomingdale resident (which I am) along with my post. Scott added that tag on his own, as I think he often does when reporting things that come from Bloomingdale residents, even if they are operating in their professional capacity. I think it’s clear from the post that I speak for YBPCS and LAYC in some official capacity, so let’s focus this conversation on the issue – which is the Cook School.

  5. Angie,
    The fact is we don’t want any more section 8 housing. You’re trying to label the opposition of throwing out misinformation. I’ve never heard or read anything about a detention center or gang members. We are just tired of being the dumping ground for social services. As DC taxpayers this is essentially our school. I have nothing against the YBPCS or LAYC but this feels more like a section 8 housing project with a school tacked on.

    Ms Pinkney said if the section 8 housing was limited to 5 units she’d approve of the project. Your group said that would be a non starter. Well it seems you have your answer.

    1. Neighborhood Resident, we spent a good amount of time going door to door this weekend, and we heard over and over that people had been told we were planning to bring a detention center into the neighborhood, and other things of the sort. We have heard that when making the rounds before as well. I think we need to be careful not to mix all these terms, because that’s where misinformation comes from. Section 8 housing is not a social service, and neither social services nor section 8 should be automatically equated with people who have criminal backgrounds.

      1. Angie,

        I have worked in the housing industry for 13 years, and I also happen to be a professional writer. Misinformation does come from the improper use of terms, so let me clarify one for you:
        Subsidized housing is the very definition of a social service; to say otherwise is inaccurate.

        Now, since I happen to have missed your visit this weekend, let me say that, in my case, I have studied the facts of your proposal, as presented by you and your colleagues on numerous blogs and articles. I also have read about the counter-proposals that the residents have suggested.

        What is most telling for me is that you do not dispute those who say you have the option to put this school in a different neighborhood, with lower crime and greater support. I find that very strange. Surely, you did some studies when choosing the location. I assume there was a reason that the Cook School was selected in lieu of another choice, where you would have been welcomed by the community.

        It seems to me that the interests of the young people should override any financial interest that you or the organization you represent has in this project. So, let’s focus our attention there, instead of the debate over the benefit (or not) of subsidized housing to this program.

        If you have facts (not opinions) to share about why this neighborhood is the best option for the students, please do so. Unless you can make that clear, I m afraid that you will not have my support, and, unfortunately for you, the impression that your organization cares more about money than the students will persist.

      2. Laura, we may have to agree to disagree on this one. Housing subsidies are a widely used tool to close the gap between a household’s incomes and where rents/mortgages are in the housing market. Those tools come in all forms; if you are a renter it might be Section 8; if you are an owner it might be an FHA loan. All of these add up to a subsidy that means every month you pay what you can afford versus what it actually costs (as dictated by the private market). To compare these tools to social services (like drug treatment/counseling) is misleading because it leads to the assumption that there is some behavior on the part of the individual to correct, which is not inherently the case for subsidy recipients.

        YouthBuild and LAYC competed to get the Cook School because they get lots of applications from Ward 5 residents (i.e. an opportunity to serve those youth closer to home), it’s close to many public transportation options, and we thought there was an opportunity to add something valuable to this neighborhood.

        To suggest in this dialogue that the organizations care more about money than they do about the youth that they serve misrepresents our attempts to put out factual information about this project. We are fighting for this project because of the opportunity to double the number of youth we serve in a city that is frankly struggling for good solutions to reach young people who have been disconnected from education, jobs and safe housing options. The reality is that it takes resources to serve those kids, so we want to make sure we are clear on what’s potentially being given up here – that’s why there is so much talk of dollars and cents, not because we care any less about the kids.

  6. Angie,

    It’s the housing portion that we don’t want. This neighborhood already has its share (and everybody else’s) of subsidized housing. You don’t seem to understand this is a deal-breaker. And if you’re not sharing this with the people you’re talking to, then you are negotiating in bad faith.

    Some of us would love to see a school in that space, but what you’re describing is not it. You’re not interested in serving the families who are already here. You’re designing a home for youth who got into trouble in their own neighborhoods and now are trying to move into ours.

    By the way, I never saw you north of Florida Avenue.

    1. BCC, we have been just as transparent going door to door as we have been in this space, in community meetings, etc. in describing what the project is and who we are serving.

      We are trying to encourage a conversation here that does not assume that all people who need subsidized housing have problems outside of their inability to afford market rate rents. We have said that our main audience will be kids who have aged out of foster care, and that is not the same thing as a young person coming out of the juvenile justice system.

      As we’ve indicated, in the Columbia Heights programs about 40 percent of the youth come from Ward 1; we anticipate the same ratio at the Cook School – about 40% would come from Ward 5.

  7. Not to pile on, but the point is that neighbors from the get-go made it clear that they did not want Section 8 housing for JF Cook (for instance, the BACA had members fill out a survey and there was overwhelming opposition to Section 8 housing on the site well before the LAYC proposal came along). Changing around who lives in the proposed Section 8 housing (as opposed to eliminating it or reducing it to 5 units) is pretty much non-responsive to the neighbors’ concerns. And it’s certainly not up to neighborhood residents to accomodate LAYC just because it has sunk significant funds into the proposal–we didn’t spend (or benefit from) any of that money, and it should not be a factor in our decisionmaking.

    1. The conversation needs to be a compromise in earnest, which means each side has to be honest about what they can and cannot do, but also has to realize that we won’t all get what we want. We are being honest that 5 units of housing plus the school does not support what it would cost to develop and operate the building. What we heard behind the concern about the number of units was a concern about who would be in the units, hence the recommendation to change the configuration of future residents.

      1. Still don’t understand where the compromise is here: you want 20 units of Section 8, neighbors want none–your compromise offer is 20 units of Section 8….

  8. Hi all, I have to defend Angie and say that she’s just doing her job, which is to engage the community and defend the interests of LAYC Youth Build. Please don’t turn to personal attacks here. I’ve engaged with Angie and found her straightforward and pleasant, and factual.

    That said Angie, I wanted to address a point that these kids would be coming out of foster care and not juvenile detention. Are you guaranteeing that?

    I had the coincidence of meeting someone whose wife works with YouthBuild in Albany, NY. He said indeed there are a lot of problems with the youth there and that they come from problematic backgrounds, which they bring with them to their new home. As well, he said many of them have children that they also bring with them in housing. And he said they are still in their same environment – same city, same problems – and so the problems do following them into their new housing. I don’t’ know if the program is a direct correlation – but given the obvious fact that these kids need help and are seeking it through the program, it does seem that putting them in an area already suffering from drugs and crime is a bad idea. Just this weekend a man was shot at 1st and P St NW just down the street from JF Cook.

    1. Caryn, it is a fact that these kids will not be coming out of juvenile detention (Is this something we can address in the voluntary agreement we’ve called for?) LAYC, as an organization, does operate programming (street outreach, anti-gang, etc.) that deals with the kids you’re talking about, but this particular housing won’t be for that population. These kids will go through drug testing and background checks, and they will all be working and/or in school. We will have staff and supports there for them because they are missing the support system that many of us had in our lives at 19 or 20 (parents, grandparent, college counselors, etc.) to teach us how to be responsible adults – pay bills on time, balance a checking account, take care of our health, etc.

      At the risk of sounding like a broken record, LAYC and Youthbuild have operated in Columbia Heights for decades. They operate the school and several residential programs there. They have had no problems, and have been part of the process of cleaning up an area that was extremely challenged. They helped reclaim that area, and they have neither been a nuisance nor a deterrent to economic development.

      I was standing on that very corner at 1st and P along with the rest of the LAYC/YB team just a few hours after the shooting, preparing to canvas the neighborhood. We get it that people are scared and our hearts go out to the victim and the people who live with the aftermath of violence. But I think neighborhoods have to be actively reclaimed from violence and stagnation. LAYC and YouthBuild could move into that building and just operate their programs and never engage, but they’re saying they want to reach out and be part of the solution for that block and for the neighborhood.

      1. there is no way for us to know whether they are coming out of juvenile detention, because juvenile records are sealed. given that fact, how can you make such a broad and specific statement Angie? Do you have a means of reviewing sealed juvenile records for the residents of LAYC? Is there a way you can provide sealed juvenile records to the community? Of course not – therefore, you are asking us to simply trust an organization that has been sneaky about their intentions to date.

    2. Eric, I am sorry that you feel we have been “sneaky.” Frankly, we think we’ve put a lot of information out there in an effort to be transparent. Every question we have been asked, we have answered.

      LAYC has been clear from the beginning that they are not taking youth coming out of detention. If someone has a past record that doesn’t show up in a criminal background check, of course we can’t guarantee that we wouldn’t offer housing to that person (which would be counter-productive anyway).

  9. If they’ve been operating out of Columbia Heights for decades, then that seems like a logical place to build their home.

    We could really use a high quality elementary school. We really do not need more Section 8 housing. We already have too much. It’s time for some other neighborhood to pick up the slack. Concentrated poverty is a bad thing, drug testing isn’t going to solve this.

    Finally, I agree with the argument above that your expenditures on the project are unmoving. Had you consulted with us prior to spending money rather than afterwards you could have saved the trouble. The approach here is insulting.

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