Georgetown University Law Center’s Harrison Institute for Housing and Community Development guided the restoration of the Sierra Cooperative, an affordable housing complex in northwest Washington, D.C. that was almost completely unlivable in 2012 but made a full recovery and celebrated its grand opening Jan. 22.
The Harrison Institute, which was founded in 1972 by adjunct law professor Jason Newman as the Project for Community Legal Assistance, is one of the longest-running legal clinics in the country, focused on providing legal advice to craft policy and assisting housing and community development. Harrison Institute Director and law professor Michael Diamond said preserving affordable housing in the district is an important cause.
“I think that more of this needs to be done,” Diamond said. “In the city, affordable housing is disappearing and preserving it and increasing the supply is a critical need.”
In conjunction with this mission, the Harrison Institute provided legal and developmental consultation for the Sierra Cooperative project and also helped to gather funds to restore the cooperative, which was in shambles before the project.
“The building had been sufficiently damaged. The roof had caved in five or six years ago and there wasn’t money to fix it apparently and water poured into the building ruining walls, ruining systems. You’d walk in the front door and you couldn’t breathe because of the smell of mold that just permeated the entire building,” Diamond said.
Despite the conditions, four residents remained in the building, while the other 16 spaces remained unoccupied.
“The real heroes in this project were the four brave and determined residents who decided they were not going to leave their homes despite unbearable challenges. I applaud the Sierra residents’ grit and determination and am thankful that I had the opportunity to help make a meaningful and positive difference in their lives,” Harrison Institute lead attorney Raquel Skinner said.
The restored cooperative, which is located in the Eckington neighborhood, includes 20 units of affordable housing, with tenants ranging from people at or below 30 percent of the median income to 80 percent of the area income. Diamond said the total project cost about $2.7 million.
“We took on the job of both developing the property and being a lawyer for the property,” he said. “There wasn’t enough money to do most things except keep the most basic services afloat and we helped get money to make immediate repairs on certain things and then to make the long-term repair.”
Skinner described the obstacles the project faced during restoration.
“One significant hurdle involved fixing a water pipe that burst during one of the coldest days of the winter last year, which materially increased the cost of the renovation,” Skinner said. “A constant challenge that we had to deal with was making sure that the financing for the deal was able to cover renovation work for the building.”
Despite challenges, Diamond said the residents of the Sierra Cooperative were extremely helpful.
“There was pretty much no problem with the residents,” he said. “The residents met regularly as a group to make decisions and made the decisions that they had to make to move forward. They both survived in these conditions and developed a capacity to move forward in those conditions, which is pretty really remarkable.”
In addition to the Sierra Cooperative project, the Harrison Institute has also recently gotten involved with the restoration of Capitol Manner Cooperative and Paul Dunbar Apartments in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.