By David O'Boyle
The DC Bar Pro Bono Center
For the past 35 years, Community of Hope has been serving clients in the District of Columbia with health care and housing, significantly expanding its work in the last decade in part due to its deliberate effort to move its operations to Wards 7 and 8, the District's poorest neighborhoods.
As an increasing number of more affluent people flood the city, low-income residents are faced with a stark reality: being priced out of their homes and neighborhoods. And with developers and policymakers focused on revitalizing more centrally located areas like Adams Morgan, Shaw, and Columbia Heights, it is not surprising that communities like Wards 7 and 8 remain largely untouched.
For nonprofits like Community of Hope that want to stay close to their clients, relocating is not always an easy task. Issues around location, staffing, and the costs of office space present challenges.
"There are some staff and applicants . . . who are not as interested in working in Ward 8," says Kelly Sweeney McShane, president and chief executive officer of Community of Hope. "It's a longer commute. It's not a good neighborhood, and people don't know it as well."
In response to these sentiments, the organization has decided to hire from Ward 8 itself. "It's important to hire from the communities where we work," Sweeney McShane says. Of the 200 staff members at Community of Hope, 21 reside in Ward 8.
In building up its presence in Wards 7 and 8, the nonprofit has discovered some startling realities, according to Sweeney McShane. For instance, it is less expensive to rent administrative space on 14th and K Street NW than it is in the two wards east of the Anacostia River where there is little commercial space available. Additionally, the District has moved some of its government offices into Ward 8. The scarcity of available real estate combined with the growing demand has led landlords to expect higher rents.
Looking into the future, Sweeney McShane says Community of Hope will continue to focus on Ward 8 and expand its housing services there. But she has witnessed pushback from residents who say there is too much focus on placing low-income housing in Ward 8 and not in neighborhoods west of the Anacostia.
"I think that's a fair question to ask, especially if the gold standard is mixed-income communities and neighborhoods," says Sweeney McShane.
Amid ongoing gentrification in the District, there is a growing concern that nonprofits will have to leave the city to follow their displaced clients and continue to provide services. Community of Hope, however, is staying put. "At this point, we are not looking to move to Maryland. There is still a lot of need in D.C.," says Sweeney McShane.
One positive Sweeney McShane has seen is the willingness of some developers to partner with nonprofits to build affordable housing. Community of Hope has linked up with fellow nonprofit Martha's Table and the Horning Brothers development company to build a social services campus in Ward 8 that will include for-sale homes as well as market-rate rentals, with some units dedicated to formerly homeless families.
Projects like these "normalize people living together and develop relationships," says Sweeney McShane.
"I am worried about the huge income inequalities and how so many in the city are being left behind. I don't want that for the city where I live. I want lots of opportunities and an evening of the playing field," she says.