Lessons from an Unlikely Community Organizer in DC

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published February 19, 2019 On Greater Greater Washington as part of the Urbanist Journalism Fellowship.

In 2005, Malissa Freese took an eye-opening trip in search of a new home. Coming off DC’s Interstate 295, she hit the block of Benning Road NE that houses an unsightly Pepco facility and made a left turn on Anacostia Avenue into River Terrace, a cul-de-sac neighborhood that sits along the Anacostia River (where, full disclosure, this writer grew up).

Freese, who is now serving her second term as River Terrace Community Organization (RTCO) president, describes the first time she drove into the neighborhood as a real-life Wizard of Oz experience. “It was like Dorothy opening the door after the tornado and everything’s in technicolor. There were tennis courts with nets, a beautiful park, the River Terrace school, and lovely well-kept homes on a tree lined, wide boulevard,” says Freese, who grew up in New York and moved to DC to work in the hospitality industry.

River Terrace is comprised of about eight apartment buildings with a total of 75 units and roughly 840 rowhomes. Freese purchased a two-bedroom house priced around $180,000. Among other things, she’s come to love 5:30 am strolls around the community with a neighbor who grew up in the ‘hood.

Malissa Freese by Malissa Freese used with permission
Malissa Freese by Malissa Freese used with permission

If being a civic leader happens spontaneously, roll with the punches

In 2015, Freese laughingly says she was “bamboozled” into becoming a community organizer. It began when a civically engaged resident, Dianne Hampton, politely asked Freese to hand out fliers on her block, which she soon learned was the longest street in the neighborhood with about 120 homes. After a few months of helping out, Freese was invited to a meeting where, unbeknownst to her, she was introduced as a block captain.

She then started going to RTCO meetings where she volunteered to lend a hand. “You know, if something happens, you’re like, 'I could probably do that a little better,'” she says. So she joined the community organization’s editorial committee to assist with social media efforts and later took over as chair when her predecessor bowed out for personal reasons.

When plans for new developments arise, communities should organize quickly

Meanwhile, as the cost of living in DC started to rise, developers and future homeowners were setting their sights on neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. In River Terrace, it’s now unremarkable to see a home on the market for $400k.

In April 2016, real estate development firm Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) told River Terrace residents that it purchased a piece of land in the neighborhood and planned to build a multi-unit residential building.

In response, RTCO created an economic development committee. Freese led the group's first meeting in September 2016. “We were all learning about zoning and planning together,” she says. Over time, they created a chart that shows zoning regulations for every apartment building and commercial property in the neighborhood, in addition to who owns them.

Residents wanted to make sure that if owners sold properties, “we weren’t going to have a 12-story condo there,” says Freese, who’s working on writing a best practices document for neighborhoods that are approached by developers for the first time in decades. “There needs to be an intense education process” that starts with basics such as zoning laws and types of developments, she says.

The economic development committee also began consulting with Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANCs), diving into DC’s comprehensive plan and making arrangements for representatives from the Office of Planning to attend community meetings “so we would be on guard for any evil developer that came into the neighborhood,” Freese says.

Meanwhile, her personal calendar became jam-packed with community engagements. In addition to the monthly RTCO and economic development committee gatherings, she began attending the monthly ANC meetings. Since River Terrace sits directly across the Anacostia River from Kingman and Heritage Islands as well as the RFK stadium, she attended information sessions for developments planned for those sites as well.

Expect opposition from unexpected people

NDC originally approached the community with plans to build a rental property with roughly 60 units—one, two, and three bedrooms—priced at 30 to 50% of the area median income. It would also include about 20 parking spaces.

Most River Terrace residents who attended the meetings were not for the project, so NDC was willing to go back to the drawing board. Thus, the biggest challenge was getting the community to come to a consensus. “Now you have [to consider] 2,000 people and everyone has their idea of what’s the best thing for that plot of land,” Freese says.

While not every household in the neighborhood was involved, there were some residents with very strong and opposing opinions. Some who lived in close proximity to the forthcoming development worried about digging and structural damage to their homes. Other neighbors preferred condos versus more rental properties in the community. The cost of the units was also a point of contention.

“Basically, we had civil war going on—it was tough,” says Freese, adding that the changing demographics in the neighborhood has played a role in decision making.

“I'm worried about gentrification not necessarily along color lines, but along income lines,” she says. “People from different economic classes want different things.” In the end, “if you want something or don’t like a decision, you need to come to the meetings, so it’s very much a democracy,” she says.

To lead effectively, be transparent

In November 2016, Freese was nominated to become the community organization’s vice president, which she accepted while holding onto the economic development position.

“I thought I was going to have a Joe Biden moment—taking selfies and wearing sunglasses,” she says. But that all changed when then-president Elaine Hart had to step down in March 2017 for personal reasons. The following month, the community organization elected Freese president.

As an introverted leader, Freese is learning how to best oversee a group of passionate community members. “I’m not really good at going up there and pressing the flesh—I'm not a politician or good at managing public opinion.”

Nonetheless, she tries to be as transparent and diplomatic as possible. The simplest way: “We do a lot of referring back to the bylaws,” she says.

Get people to participate based on interests

Another challenge is getting residents to participate, which could help more people get informed and lessen Freese’s weight of responsibilities.

“Right now, I’m trying to spread out everything, so pulling people who like to bike [and suggesting that they] get on the environmental committee,” for instance, and “making sure that we have representatives at all of these meetings so they can feed that information back to the neighborhood,” she says.

And she makes a point to let people know: “We're not trying to suck up all your life. If you can give us six hours of your time a month, that would be great.”

Remember who the built environment is for

Freese was elected to her second term as RTCO president in November 2018. While staying abreast of more developments that are coming to the neighborhood and surrounding area, she hopes to also build camaraderie.

“For the next two years, I want to work on having a community where people can talk in meetings, send emails, and have fun together, be it at the park [or someone’s home],” she says, referring to tension that's cropped up as new neighbors move in and the community is forced to make decisions on new developments. “I want to make sure that we can do all the economic development stuff, [like] clean up Benning Road and have beautiful stores. But if everyone's miserable on the inside, it's not worth a beautiful facade.”

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