July 16th, 2015
Update: Given the likelihood of rain, the event has been moved indoors to Busboys & Poets at 1025 5th Street NW.
First came the protest, now comes a party.
Jews United for Justice, Think Local First, and Andy Shallal are hosting an outdoor event on July 20 for the tenants of Museum Square—the single building where about half the remaining Chinese population of Chinatown resides. But the groups aren't celebrating a success. Rather, they are using it as a moment to say that they value these members of the community and plan to stick by their side.
Museum Square's residents have been locked in a battle with the building's owner, the Bush Companies, which initially tried to force them out by asking for a more than $800,000 per unit buyout. Although the courts stepped in—ruling that the $250 million price tag was arbitrary and unfair—and the city passed legislation specifically meant to protect the residents, the company followed up by saying it wants to end its Section 8 contract.
"It is a microcosm of whats happening in this city and it's very tangible for people to see it," Shallal said. The former mayoral candidate and restaurateur got involved after someone sent him an email and asked if he knew about the fight just around the corner from his Busboys and Poets location at 5th and K Streets NW. He didn't at the time, but soon learned. "I said, I can’t believe that they are going to be pushing them out."
Should plans to end the Section 8 contract go forward in October, the current residents would be given vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that could be used at Museum Square regardless of what the owner decides to charge for rents. So they aren't being shown the door quite yet. The vouchers can also be used at other subsidized housing units (which they are increasingly hard to find in the District proper.)
But the building's owners could still decide to demolish the property. And if those residents leave for other subsidized housing, the apartments would become market rate units. Advocates say that would tear apart the fabric of a vibrant community. "We want it to be a building that remains for residents that are in need of an affordable house," Shallal said, arguing that it is an important piece of the puzzle for having a racially, economically, and culturally diverse city.
He also noted that being forced to leave would put an unimaginable strain on the many elderly Asian-American and African American residents who have called the neighborhood home for decades.
It is that community that Monday's party is meant to celebrate.
"It's the people that are the most vulnerable that we often don’t put a face to when we’re talking about issues of affordability," Shallal says. "They are wonderful neighbors and for them to be discarded almost, it's shocking."