D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) said Thursday he wants the city to use eminent domain to seize a Northeast Washington property intended for a controversial 300-person halfway house and instead build an urban park.
The corrections company Core DC has sought to build a halfway house in Northeast for more than two years but has repeatedly run into opposition from residents and members of the council. After some residents objected to a site on New York Avenue in 2018, the company purchased a warehouse on the Minnesota Avenue corridor — a former home of the historic gay bar DC Eagle.
On Thursday, Gray circulated emergency and temporary legislation that would give Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) the authority to seize the property under eminent domain “for the purposes of creating an urban park.” Gray’s legislation comes after complaints from Ward 7 residents about the proposed halfway house, which would open just steps away from an area slated for redevelopment.
“Urban green spaces, such as parks and playgrounds, can promote mental and physical health, and reduce morbidity and mortality in urban residents by providing psychological respite and stress alleviation … especially for historically underserved communities,” Gray wrote, echoing the WHO. “If the District Government does not act now to create a public park, further development will likely preclude any future public park or open space between Fort Mahan Park and the Anacostia River.”
Gray and the mayor’s office did not immediately return requests for comment on the resolution, which made no mention of the halfway house. Gray requested that the item be placed on the agenda for Tuesday’s legislative meeting. No other council members have yet signed on.
Gray again criticized Core in a newsletter last month, saying the company was “unresponsive and has not demonstrated a commitment to transparency or working with community.”
In a statement, Jack Brown, Core’s chief executive, said it “is deeply unfortunate that Councilman Gray is asking the city to invoke eminent domain to stop an urgently needed program for the District’s returning citizens.”
“This effort once again disregards the needs of our fathers, brothers and sons returning home to the District after periods of incarceration,” the statement said.
Because the District does not have a prison of its own, its prisoners serve time in federal facilities, many of them far from the city. When they return, they often are sent to halfway houses, which are meant to ease their transition home.
In an email, Jon Gustin and Cherryl Galigher Litsey of the Federal Bureau of Prisons residential reentry branch called Gray’s proposal “disturbing news.”
“It appears to just be another delay tactic against providing these critical services to individuals returning to the District,” the email said. “Continued efforts to delay, or not allow this facility to operate as intended, will result in the inability of the BOP to provide these critical services to offenders releasing to this area.”
The email was sent to a Post reporter by a prison rights advocate, who said it was posted to an email discussion group for the DC Reentry Action Network. Reached for comment, the federal agency did not dispute the email’s accuracy.
Residents have spoken out at meetings and others have signed a petition circulated last year opposing the plan, including a failed attempt to protect the property with historic designation, while advocates for people returning from prisons stressed the need for a halfway house in the District. D.C.’s only halfway house for men closed during the coronavirus pandemic, leading some prisoners to be sent to facilities outside the city — and some to allege they were being held too long in institutions where the coronavirus ran rampant.
Emily Tatro, deputy director for Council for Court Excellence, which advocates for D.C.’s incarcerated people, said in a statement that Gray’s effort was “in direct opposition of DC’s stated values for development.” Implementing the proposal would bar returning citizens, more than 90 percent of whom are Black, from “participating in the District’s progress,” she said.
“As DC grapples with the racial disparities in its criminal legal system, we must actively seek solutions that reduce the deep harm the system has caused our Black residents, not perpetuate it,” the statement said. “A halfway house in the District helps to reduce harm by connecting people to their loved ones, to housing and work, to health care, and to other supportive services.”
Ron Moten, a former prisoner and longtime booster for the Core DC facility, said Gray’s proposal was “an attack on returning citizens and our families.”
“We’re attacking the very people we’re saying we want to help in our community,” he said. “It sends a message that people don’t belong.” He added: “It’s this type of politics that has destroyed the city for Black people.”
The city has used eminent domain before to claim private property. In February,the mayor’s office used eminent domain to acquire a Wendy’s at First Street NE and New York Avenue NE, where an ill-planned intersection surrounding the restaurant snarled traffic for decades.