One of D.C.’s havens of affordable housing for women, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, located at 901 Rhode Island Ave, NW, is scheduled for a major renovation this fall. While officials say the work is much-needed, one longtime resident says the logistics of temporary relocation are proving worrisome to her and her neighbors.
The four-story building, opened in 1920, has served for decades as an important source of long term, stable housing for local women, including the elderly and disabled. But in recent years, deteriorating conditions at the building have become a concern. Beginning around December of this year or January of 2015, the building will finally begin getting improvements that will make it a healthier place to live, officials say.
Street Sense vendor Patty Smith, who has lived at the building for more than a decade acknowledges the place has had its problems over the years. She recalled a 2007 protest staged by herself and other tenants. Making speeches and carrying signs, women complained of mold and bedbugs. Yet the idea of leaving Phyllis Wheatley, even temporarily, has left her and some of the other women troubled. Smith called her room at the YWCA “the first place that was my own.”
The building currently offers 117 dorm style rooms with shared cooking and bathroom facilities. The remodeled facility will include just 84 units, designed to promote self-sufficiency, according to the project’s developer Dantes Partners LLC. Fifty-four of the new units will feature private baths and kitchenettes, and the remaining 30 units will be single room occupancy units. Two dozen of the units will serve clients of the city’s Department of Behavioral Health. To remain in line with the building’s goal of providing affordable housing to qualifying single women, residence will be restricted to those with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income. The $15 million project will incorporate energy efficient features, as well as additional amenities such as laundry facilities and green outdoor space.
Social and professional development programs for residents will be offered in the building’s repurposed basement, according to Dantes Partners. N Street Village, a District program for homeless women, will be working with Phyllis Wheatley YWCA to provide new residential services not currently available to tenants.
The project, which is estimated to take around 12 months, is scheduled to be completed by January 2016.
The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA has hired a property manager to help the women currently living in the building find new places to live while the work is underway, an official there said. Still, in spite of assurances from the staff, some of the women have struggled with the idea of moving, even temporarily, according to Smith. She remembered the day 14 years ago when she left behind a bunk in a homeless shelter to move into the building. She got help with the transition from a Phyllis Wheatley staffer and a case manager from a local mental health agency. The place has been home to her ever since.
When she and the other tenants were informed they would need to give up their rooms for the renovation project, there was anger and denial, she said.
“Then came acceptance. We had to move and that was all there was to it,” recalled Smith who reliesupon a disability check to help pay her rent.
When the building reopens, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) will offer vouchers for all 84 units through the local rent supplement program, as well as provide funding for case management and behavioral health services.