Sometimes you just want someone to listen. Such was the feeling of many attendees at a community meeting of the Henson Ridge housing complex in Southeast D.C. on Monday night.
Local resident Reginald McGahee initiated the meeting. McGahee called the office of Councilmember Marion Barry and requested that he attend the meeting to hear the concerns of Henson Ridge residents.
McGahee was robbed just last weekend down the street from his house. It was a reminder of why he feels change is needed in the way things are handled in the neighborhood by property managers, government representatives, and residents.
“I’m not assuming any authority here,” said McGahee as he detailed his reasons for calling the meeting at the Francis A. Gregory Library on Alabama Avenue Southeast.
McGahee, a Henson Ridge resident for more than six years, is a 2002 graduate of the Howard University School of Law and now dean of admissions. His legal knowledge and research skills can be helpful in advocating for the community. Yet, he remained humble in his approach with his neighbors.
“The only difference between you and I is that I made a phone call,” he told the meeting attendees.
McGahee started a Facebook group, HR Neighbors, for more dialogue on the happenings in the Henson Ridge.
“When things happen, we need a way to let each other know,” McGahee said, “not that I expect them to do something for me, but we should still be able to let one another know what’s happening.”
McGahee suggested that the attendees introduce themselves while they waited for Barry to arrive. At this point, the councilman was already 45 minutes late for the 6 p.m meeting.
Persons of different backgrounds came out to the meeting. Sandy Allen and Ron Davis live in the community. Rosemary Tate is a teacher. Larry Sternbane is a new resident who just moved into the area in April.
The most vocal of the more than 40 attendees was Elaine Carter, a fiery 79-year-old former Resident Council president. “I call it ‘Hellson Ridge’ ’cause it’s hell to live here sometimes,” Carter said during her introduction.
She expressed confusion as to the point of the meeting when she asked, “Why are we here?”
The mood in the room became more electrically charged when Harold Thomas, self-proclaimed community advocate, expressed what would become one of the most popular concerns of the evening: the interest of homeowners v. those of renters in Henson Ridge.
In October, residents attempted to hold an election for a Henson Ridge Board of Directors. However, according to D.C. law, the board of such a development is not turned over to the actual homeowners until there is 75 percent occupancy. Henson Ridge has not yet met that threshold. Residents are frustrated with having to pay association dues on their property and having no say in board decisions.
Janice Burgess has one seat on the current four-person Henson Ridge board, representing the D.C. Housing Authority. She explained that when the Housing Authority first received the $29.9 million Hope VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1999, they anticipated being able to set up a Homeowners’ Association by 2005. However, six years later, the threshold still has not been reached.
Henson Ridge includes 42 duplex bungalow-style rental homes, 28 rental flats, 210 apartment homes and 320 affordable and market-priced townhomes for purchase. Thirty-two of the 600 units are unoccupied.
However, no one in the room, not even the property manager Horschner, could answer how the requirement is calculated in the bylaws and just how many more homeowners are needed before they reach the 75 percent.
At 7:27 p.m., Barry arrived. He stepped to the front of the room, took a seat and immediately calmed the room with his low murmur.
“How ya’ll doing?” the former mayor said into the microphone. “I’m sitting down because I have been going all day.”
He then apologized for his tardiness, stating, “Chairman [Kwame] Brown called a meeting, and when the chairman calls, I go.”
Barry, however, was confused as to why he was there. “Why was this meeting called?” he asked.
“We thought you called it!” yelled someone in the crowd.
McGahee then explained that he set up the meeting through Barry’s outreach coordinator Brenda Richardson. He informs Barry that he wanted a forum where community issues could be heard by someone influential like Barry, who could “actually get some things done.”
“There ought to be a situation where everyone in Henson Ridge is comfortable to live here,” Barry said. He then suggests that the best way to deal with the division between subsidized renters and homeowners is to “go back to what they had before,” a community board with both categories equally represented. “But,” he said, “this should be set up by management, not council.”
Things then shifted back to the occupancy threshold.
Barry asked property manager, Mr. Horschner, for a copy of the waiting list for those who want to move into the community, as well as more information on the percentage requirements for a homeowners’ association. Horschner agreed to provide this information.
Henson Ridge resident Shayla Cornick expressed frustration to Barry about follow-through on promises made by council members, commissioners and local law enforcement.
“Someone comes for a week, or a few days, and then we don’t see them again,” Cornick says.
“That’s the kind of stuff we gon’ stop, we stopping that mess,” said Barry.
Carter then had another outburst. “We don’t see none of ya’ll again till election time,” she says to the officials present. The audience murmured in agreement.
“One thing I hate about D.C. government,” Barry said, “it takes too long to do anything.” He explained that even when he initiates something, he still has to wait for responses from superiors and others.
Sternbane stood up to address his concern about bicycle parking at facilities in the area. “It might be trivial to some, but it’s important to me.”
Local buildings in the area need bike racks. He noted several buildings, including the library, that that lack racks. The District Department of Transportation states, “Bicycle parking is required in all buildings with car parking.” Yet, many facilities in the area, including the shopping center in which the community meeting was held, are without the required amenities for cyclists.
Barry stated that he would look into the issue and “find out first thing in the morning.”
Other concerns were highlighted, including problems with local schools and teachers.
Barry stressed that residents need to take initiative and start petitions for their issues. “Stop this ‘gimme this; gimme that.’ We are trying to move from dependency to self-sufficiency,” he said. “Put your complaints down in a comprehensive, strong letter, and I will personally hand it to the chancellor” of D.C. Public Schools.
After reminding everyone of his turkey giveaway event to take place the following morning at Union Temple Baptist Church, Barry decided to end the meeting with a word of prayer, which he asked McGahee to lead. In his prayer, McGahee reiterated highlights from the meeting, stressing the need for community members and officials to work together.
Barry stayed after the meeting to talk with people individually — and to pass around a sign-up sheet for campaign volunteers for his re-election to represent Ward 8 on the D.C. Council.