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Couchsurfing: The simple idea behind DC’s homelessness prevention program

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This article was first published by Street Sense Media.

Since 2015, the number of families experiencing homelessness in the care of the DC Department of Human Services has dropped by 40%. Behind the change is a program that attempts to match families at risk of entering homeless shelters with relatives or friends who may be able to take them in, even if it means sleeping on couches.

Image by Street Sense Media used with permission.

The Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the District’s access point to family shelter, opens at 8:30 every morning. Adults with children in tow are assessed, categorized, and sent off. Some are referred to family shelter, which, since the closing of DC General, is now dispersed around the city. Others are sent to different service providers that can help with rent, mediation, and family concerns. And still others are turned away.

Today, fewer applicants who come to Virginia Williams end up entering family shelter. Since 2015, the DC Department of Human Services, which runs the program, has decreased the number of families in its care by over 40%. Five years ago, DHS sheltered over 1,400 families per year. Last year, that number was just over 850.

That decline was mirrored by a similar, though smaller, decrease in applications for family homeless services. In 2015, Virginia Williams saw more than 7,000 applications for family homeless services, including shelter. Last year, there were 5,500, representing a 22% decline. The percentage of applications that resulted in a shelter stay decreased as well, from 20% in 2015 to 15.5% in 2018.

Behind the decline is the District’s new Homelessness Prevention Program. DHS has lauded the program as a success, evidenced by the new, lower shelter rate. The program has rerouted people from entering shelter, often by placing families with other households, “doubled-up” with relatives or friends.

The argument for prevention

For the department and service providers, doubling up is a laudable goal. Keeping families in their own communities and preventing a stay in shelter can lessen the trauma and stress of homelessness on children and adults alike. But other advocates question whether keeping families couchsurfing is really in their best interests.

These prevention services, which are run by city contractors, help soon-to-be-homeless families stay in place or find new rooms to stay in. Before the prevention program was implemented in 2016, soon-to-be-homeless families could not be helped at Virginia Williams and were asked to come back only after they found themselves on the street.

Often, prevention case managers look for friends or relatives a soon-to-be-homeless family can stay with, according to providers. In situations where the family is already couchsurfing, case managers can mediate tensions or provide money to the host. Doubling up, though, is a goal of the prevention program.

According to the National Center for Homeless Education, the percent of homeless children in DC public schools who are doubled-up (as opposed to in shelter or on the street, for example) increased by over 11 percentage points from 2014 to 2017.

A family’s stay in shelter can sever community bonds, increase stress, and impede children’s development and achievement, says Jamey Burden, vice president of housing programs and policy at the service provider Community of Hope. “The research really shows that families and particularly children do better and thrive when they are in their own communities, and so shelter is not somewhere we would want most families to have to be placed,” he said. Burden says that if families do find themselves with nowhere to go they can enter shelter, though “we’re really trying to make sure that we try everything else.”

“Children that experience homelessness are at risk for all kinds of poor educational outcomes,” said Karen Cunningham, executive director at Everyone Home DC. “If we can avoid people from having to enter shelter, which can be really traumatic, it’s a much better outcome if we can get them stabilized and then work on long-term housing stability.”

Laura Zeilinger, director of the Department of Human Services, has praised the program and said that the agency is achieving its goal of making homelessness “rare, brief, and nonrecurring.”

“We’re preventing homelessness more frequently by intervening early with families,” she said, “with more effective solutions to a housing crisis to prevent an episode of homelessness and help them regain stability.”

Zeilinger says that when homeless families stay with relatives, bonds and support systems are maintained, especially for very young parents.

“When we speak with youth who have experienced homelessness, who are on the other side of that and have regained stability, about what has worked for them,” she said, “the thing that we hear all the time, is sort of that common factor, that it was the ability to maintain a positive relationship with a reliable adult in their lives.”

Assessing long-term outcomes

Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, does not think this is always a helpful approach. “Homelessness prevention doesn’t prevent [homelessness],” Harding said. “It prevents shelter entries.”

Harding says that through her work she has seen unstable families staying somewhere different each night while being served through prevention services, though she admits that the legal clinic sees the worst cases. “We don’t think it’s in the best interest of families and children to go from couch to couch to couch to couch with no plan for how that’s going to end,” she said. “That’s incredibly destabilizing to families.”

Harding also suggests that some families, who have legitimately no place to stay, are misplaced into the prevention program, while others are kicked out of where they’re staying and not referred to shelter quickly enough.

“Families are asking to be placed in shelter, are saying that’s what they need, are saying they can’t go place to place anymore or they don’t have any place to go tonight and they’re still being denied shelter and still being served through prevention,” she said. “If you have a system that respected the family’s choice in what was best for their family and they chose to go into prevention over shelter, we would be 100% on board with that. But that’s not what’s happening.”

Kathy Zeisel, a senior attorney with the Children’s Law Center, works with homeless families who are in unsafe situations and sometimes those families are receiving prevention services. “It’s sort of helping people shuffle around between short term stays that are not really a good solution until they eventually slip into shelter,” she said.

Zeisel also noted that many prevention programs lead to stays in rapid re-housing, one of the District’s most criticized homeless services programs. Families in rapid re-housing are given time-limited help with their leases, but can easily end up evicted when their subsidy runs out. “Very few if any of the families we work with are able to maintain the rent at the end unless they get some other form of voucher at the end of their rapid rehousing,” Zeisel said.

Providers, on the other hand, usually see rapid rehousing as a safe and secure alternative to shelter while someone is building up their income. In 2018, about 250 of the 780 families who received prevention services at Everyone Home DC secured private, permanent apartments, and about half of those were in rapid rehousing.

“We do have some concerns about [shelter] capacity in the fall and whether families are going to be strongly suggested to go into rapid rehousing from shelter,” Zeisel said, “to create shelter spots for the new families coming in, whether or not the families prefer to go into rapid rehousing.”

Do lower numbers mask the need?

DHS has said that homelessness is decreasing, and, by many measures, it is.

Homelessness as measured by the District’s Point in Time Count is indeed falling. The 2019 count, which tracked the number of people sleeping on the street, in shelter, or in temporary housing on a single night in January, decreased 5.5% from last year and nearly 22% from 2016.

Other metrics are a bit fuzzier. The number of homeless children in DC public schools, as counted by the education system, has nearly doubled since 2014. Similarly, the number of families who sought services from the Virginia Williams center during hypothermia season increased 6% from 2017 to 2019.

“I think the risks that the system is taking for these families are unacceptable,” Harding said. “I think what weighs into their risk analysis is the cost of running shelters. They want to keep those costs down.”

“[They want] to look, with the numbers, like they are making a difference even when there is no discernable difference for family homelessness or stability.”

At the core of the conversation about doubling up is a question about what the homeless services system is for, and what it can be expected to achieve.

“The homelessness prevention program can’t compensate for the much, much broader challenge of lack of affordable housing in DC,” said Burden, from Community of Hope. “Poverty and lack of affordable housing are bigger issues that require a lot more.”

Zeilinger echoed the sentiment. “I think some of our critics believe that if people have not come out of a homeless services program with paying 30% of their income toward their rent, that somehow we’ve failed them,” she said.

“[Homeless services] cannot be looked to and cannot be effective when its expected to, by itself, without looking at it as part of an ecosystem, end poverty.”

Top image: A "We are full for the night" sign on the Central Union Mission, a nonprofit homeless shelter in DC. Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

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How Photos of Your Kids Are Powering Surveillance Technology

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One day in 2005, a mother in Evanston, Ill., joined Flickr. She uploaded some pictures of her children, Chloe and Jasper. Then she more or less forgot her account existed.

Years later, their faces are in a database that’s used to test and train some of the most sophisticated artificial intelligence systems in the world.

A selection of images from the MegaFace database.

The pictures of Chloe and Jasper Papa as kids are typically goofy fare: grinning with their parents; sticking their tongues out; costumed for Halloween. Their mother, Dominique Allman Papa, uploaded them to Flickr after joining the photo-sharing site in 2005.

None of them could have foreseen that 14 years later, those images would reside in an unprecedentedly huge facial-recognition database called MegaFace. Containing the likenesses of nearly 700,000 individuals, it has been downloaded by dozens of companies to train a new generation of face-identification algorithms, used to track protesters, surveil terrorists, spot problem gamblers and spy on the public at large. The average age of the people in the database, its creators have said, is 16.

“It’s gross and uncomfortable,” said Mx. Papa, who is now 19 and attending college in Oregon. “I wish they would have asked me first if I wanted to be part of it. I think artificial intelligence is cool and I want it to be smarter, but generally you ask people to participate in research. I learned that in high school biology.”

Chloe Papa Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

By law, most Americans in the database don’t need to be asked for their permission — but the Papas should have been.

As residents of Illinois, they are protected by one of the strictest state privacy laws on the books: the Biometric Information Privacy Act, a 2008 measure that imposes financial penalties for using an Illinoisan’s fingerprints or face scans without consent. Those who used the database — companies including Google, Amazon, Mitsubishi Electric, Tencent and SenseTime — appear to have been unaware of the law, and as a result may have huge financial liability, according to several lawyers and law professors familiar with the legislation.

How did the Papas and hundreds of thousands of other people end up in the database? It’s a roundabout story.

In the infancy of facial-recognition technology, researchers developed their algorithms with subjects’ clear consent: In the 1990s, universities had volunteers come to studios to be photographed from many angles. Later, researchers turned to more aggressive and surreptitious methods to gather faces at a grander scale, tapping into surveillance cameras in coffee shops, college campuses and public spaces, and scraping photos posted online.

According to Adam Harvey, an artist who tracks the data sets, there are probably more than 200 in existence, containing tens of millions of photos of approximately one million people. (Some of the sets are derived from others, so the figures include some duplicates.) But these caches had flaws. Surveillance images are often low quality, for example, and gathering pictures from the internet tends to yield too many celebrities.

In June 2014, seeking to advance the cause of computer vision, Yahoo unveiled what it called “the largest public multimedia collection that has ever been released,” featuring 100 million photos and videos. Yahoo got the images — all of which had Creative Commons or commercial use licenses — from Flickr, a subsidiary.

The database creators said their motivation was to even the playing field in machine learning. Researchers need enormous amounts of data to train their algorithms, and workers at just a few information-rich companies — like Facebook and Google — had a big advantage over everyone else.

“We wanted to empower the research community by giving them a robust database,” said David Ayman Shamma, who was a director of research at Yahoo until 2016 and helped create the Flickr project. Users weren’t notified that their photos and videos were included, but Mr. Shamma and his team built in what they thought was a safeguard.

They didn’t distribute users’ photos directly, but rather links to the photos; that way, if a user deleted the images or made them private, they would no longer be accessible through the database.

But this safeguard was flawed. The New York Times found a security vulnerability that allows a Flickr user’s photos to be accessed even after they’ve been made private. (Scott Kinzie, a spokesman for SmugMug, which acquired Flickr from Yahoo in 2018, said the flaw “potentially impacts a very small number of our members today, and we are actively working to deploy an update as quickly as possible.” Ben MacAskill, the company’s chief operating officer, added that the Yahoo collection was created “years before our engagement with Flickr.”)

Additionally, some researchers who accessed the database simply downloaded versions of the images and then redistributed them, including a team from the University of Washington. In 2015, two of the school’s computer science professors — Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman and Steve Seitz — and their graduate students used the Flickr data to create MegaFace.

Containing more than four million photos of some 672,000 people, it held deep promise for testing and perfecting face-recognition algorithms.

Importantly to the University of Washington researchers, MegaFace included children like Chloe and Jasper Papa. Face-recognition systems tend to perform poorly on young people, but Flickr offered a chance to improve that with a bonanza of children’s faces, for the simple reason that people love posting photos of their kids online.

In one academic paper, Ms. Kemelmacher-Shlizerman and a graduate student named Aaron Nech estimated the average age of MegaFace subjects at 16.1 years; 41 percent of the faces appeared to be female, and 59 percent appeared male.

In 2015 and 2016, the University of Washington ran the “MegaFace Challenge,” inviting groups working on face-recognition technology to use the data set to test how well their algorithms were working.

The school asked people downloading the data to agree to use it only for “noncommercial research and educational purposes.” More than 100 organizations participated, including Google, Tencent, SenseTime and NtechLab. In all, according to a 2016 university news release, “more than 300 research groups” have worked with the database. It has been publicly cited by researchers from Amazon and, according to Mr. Harvey, Mitsubishi Electric and Philips.

Some of these companies have been criticized for the way clients have deployed their algorithms: SenseTime’s technology has been used to monitor the Uighur population in China, while NtechLab’s has been used to out pornography actors and identify strangers on the subway in Russia.

SenseTime’s chief marketing officer, June Jin, said that company researchers used the MegaFace database only for academic purposes. “Researchers have to use the same data set to ensure their results are comparable like-for-like,” Ms. Jin wrote in an email. “As MegaFace is the most widely recognized database of its kind, it has become the de facto facial-recognition training and test set for the global academic and research community.”

NtechLab spokesman Nikolay Grunin said the company deleted MegaFace after taking part in the challenge, and added that “the main build of our algorithm has never been trained on these images.” Google declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for the University of Washington declined to make MegaFace’s lead researchers available for interviews, saying they “have moved on to other projects and don’t have the time to comment on this.” Efforts to contact them individually were unsuccessful.

MegaFace’s creation was financed in part by Samsung, Google’s Faculty Research Award, and by the National Science Foundation/Intel.

In recent years, Ms. Kemelmacher-Shlizerman has sold a face-swapping image company to Facebook and advanced deep-fake technology by converting audio clips of Barack Obama into a realistic, synthetic video of him giving a speech. She is now working on a “moonshot project” at Google.

MegaFace remains publicly available for download. When The New York Times recently requested access, it was granted within a minute.

MegaFace doesn’t contain people’s names, but its data is not anonymized. A spokesman for the University of Washington said researchers wanted to honor the images’ Creative Commons licenses. As a result, each photo includes a numerical identifier that links back to the original Flickr photographer’s account. In this way, The Times was able to trace many photos in the database to the people who took them.

“What the hell? That is bonkers,” said Nick Alt, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles, when told his pictures were in the database, including photos he took of children at a public event in Playa Vista, Calif., a decade ago.

Mr. Alt’s photos, with a selection of images from MegaFace.

“The reason I went to Flickr originally was that you could set the license to be noncommercial. Absolutely would I not have let my photos be used for machine-learning projects. I feel like such a schmuck for posting that picture. But I did it 13 years ago, before privacy was a thing.”

Another subject, who asked to be identified as J., is now a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Las Vegas. Photos of him as a toddler are in the MegaFace database, thanks to his uncle’s posting them to a Flickr album after a family reunion a decade ago. J. was incredulous that it wasn’t illegal to put him in the database without his permission, and he is worried about the repercussions.

Since middle school, he has been part of an Air Force Association program called CyberPatriot, which tries to steer young people with programming skills toward careers in intelligence and the military. “I’m very protective of my digital footprint because of it,” he said. “I try not to post photos of myself online. What if I decide to work for the N.S.A.?”

For J., Mr. Alt and most other Americans in the photos, there is little recourse. Privacy law is generally so permissive in the United States that companies are free to use millions of people’s faces without their knowledge to power the spread of face-recognition technology. But there is an exception.

In 2008, Illinois passed a prescient law protecting the “biometric identifiers and biometric information” of its residents. Two other states, Texas and Washington, went on to pass their own biometric privacy laws, but they aren’t as robust as the one in Illinois, which strictly forbids private entities to collect, capture, purchase or otherwise obtain a person’s biometrics — including a scan of their “face geometry” — without that person’s consent.

“Photos themselves are not covered by the Biometric Information Privacy Act, but the scan of the photos should be. The mere use of biometric data is a violation of the statute,” said Faye Jones, a law professor at the University of Illinois. “Using that in an algorithmic contest when you haven’t notified people is a violation of the law.”

Illinois residents like the Papas whose faceprints are used without their permission have the right to sue, said Ms. Jones, and are entitled to $1,000 per use, or $5,000 if the use was “reckless.” The Times attempted to measure how many people from Illinois are in the MegaFace database; one approach, using self-reported location information, suggested 6,000 individuals, and another, using geotagging metadata, indicated as many as 13,000.

Their biometrics have likely been processed by dozens of companies. According to multiple legal experts in Illinois, the combined liability could add up to more than a billion dollars, and could form the basis of a class action.

“We have plenty of ambitious class-action lawyers here in Illinois,” said Jeffrey Widman, the managing partner at Fox Rothschild in Chicago. “The law’s been on the books in Illinois since 2008 but was basically ignored for a decade. I guarantee you that in 2014 or 2015, this potential liability wasn’t on anyone’s radar. But the technology has now caught up with the law.”

It’s remarkable that the Illinois law even exists. According to Matthew Kugler, a law professor at Northwestern University who has researched the Illinois act, it was inspired by the 2007 bankruptcy of a company called Pay by Touch, which had the fingerprints of many Americans, including Illinoisans, on file; there were worries that it could sell them during its liquidation.

No one from the technology industry weighed in on the bill, according to legislative and lobbying records.

“When the law was passed, no one who is now concerned about it was thinking about the issue,” Mr. Kugler said. Silicon Valley is aware of the law now. Bloomberg News reported in April 2018 that lobbyists for Google and Facebook were trying to weaken its provisions.

More than 200 class-action lawsuits alleging misuse of residents’ biometrics have been filed in Illinois since 2015, including a $35 billion case against Facebook for using face recognition to tag people in photos. That lawsuit gained momentum in August, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the company’s arguments that the people did not suffer “concrete harm.”

In recent years, technology companies have been treading more lightly in states with biometric legislation. When Google released a feature in 2018 that matched selfies to famous works of art, people in Illinois and Texas couldn’t use it. And Google’s Nest security cameras don’t offer an otherwise standard feature for recognizing familiar faces in Illinois.

“It’s creepy that you found me. I always lived with the philosophy that what I put out there was public, but I couldn’t have imagined this,” said Wendy Piersall, a publisher and City Council member in Woodstock, Ill., whose photos, along with those of her three children, were in the MegaFace database.

“We can’t use the fun art app; why are you using our kids’ faces to test your software?” she added. “My photos there are geotagged to Illinois. It’s not hard to figure out where these pictures were taken. I’m not a sue-happy person, but I would cheer someone else on to go after this.”

Dominique and George Papa with their son Jasper at their home in Evanston, Ill., earlier this month. Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

Some of the Illinois lawsuits have been settled or dismissed, but most are active, and Mr. Kugler, the Northwestern law professor, noted that basic legal questions remained unanswered. It’s unclear what the legal liability would be for a company that takes photos uploaded in Illinois but processes the facial data in another state, or even another country.

“Defendants are going to be creative in searching for arguments, because no one wants to be stuck holding this expensive hot potato,” he said.

A spokesman for Amazon Web Services said its use of the data set was “compliant with B.I.P.A.,” while declining to explain how. Mario Fante, a spokesman for Philips, wrote in an email that the company “was never aware of any Illinois residents included in the above-mentioned data set.”

Victor Balta, a spokesman for the University of Washington, said, “All uses of photos in the researchers’ database are lawful. The U.W. is a public research university, not a private entity, and the Illinois law targets private entities.”

Some of the Illinoisans we found in MegaFace and contacted were indifferent about the use of their faces.

“I do know that when you upload information online, it can be used in unexpected ways, so I guess I’m not surprised,” said Chris Scheufele, a web developer in Springfield. “When you upload information to the internet and make it available for public consumption, you should expect it to be scraped.”

What about the subjects of his photos? Mr. Scheufele laughed. “I haven’t talked to my wife about it,” he said.

Privacy nihilism” is an increasingly familiar term for giving up on trying to control data about oneself in the digital era. What happened to Chloe Papa could, depending on your perspective, argue for extreme vigilance or total resignation: Who could have possibly predicted that a snapshot of a toddler in 2005 would contribute, a decade and a half later, to the development of bleeding-edge surveillance technology?

“We have become accustomed to trading convenience for privacy, so that has dulled our senses as to what is happening with all the data gathered about us,” said Ms. Jones, the law professor. “But people are starting to wake up.”

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The other side of Creative Commons licensing of photos. This (ab)use of CC photos is probably legal. Still. Yikes.

Grappling with the climate crisis, DC’s preservation board rejects front-facing solar panels

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“I applaud your greenness and your desire to save the planet,” said architect and preservation board member Chris Landis, “and I realize that we are in crisis politically as well as sustainably. But I just have this vision of a row of houses with solar panels on the front of them and it just — it upsets me.”

DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board wrestled Thursday with the question of how to balance a climate crisis and the possibility of millions or billions of humans dying versus the danger of a less even roof line in neighborhoods such as Takoma. The board and Historic Preservation Office held to their practice of not allowing solar panels on the fronts of sloped roofs.

Homeowner Steven Preister has lived in his home on 5th Street NW for 35 years, during which time he painstakingly restored an 108-year-old house in need of major repairs to fine condition. Preister testified that he had an independent appraiser look at the house who “said I had extended the life of the house for an additional 100 years.” He added, “My main concern right now is, if we do not change and loosen these standards, will the District be habitable in 100 years?”

The house already has solar panels on the rear of the house and the board approved some on the porch roof and front dormer, but didn’t allow them on the main front roof. Preister was back with a revised plan for panels closer to the roof, just 4 inches instead of 6 off the surface, and with a “skirt” to hide the undersides. All of the neighbors on his block support his proposal, he said, as did Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B by a unanimous vote.

That wasn’t enough to sway the board, which voted to again deny Preister’s application.

Preister’s house on 5th St NW by DC Historic Preservation Office.

At the meeting, most of the members struggled with how to reconcile the climate crisis, which might make DC uninhabitable or destroy most of its historic buildings, with historic preservation’s day-to-day aversion to visible changes in buildings. The ANC resolution and Preister himself noted that DC’s new clean energy law requires the District to reach 100% renewable energy by 2032 including 10% from locally-generated solar power, and the ANC “calls on the Historic Preservation Office … to require consideration of urgent climate considerations … in any design principle relating to ‘achieving a reasonable balance’ with historic preservation.”

Member Gretchen Pfaehler asserted that “I am in favor of sustainability,” but “this detracts from the slope of the roof” in a way that was unacceptable to her. She did suggest she might be open to some other technology which blends in more with the roof. “I think there is a solution but this is not that solution,” she said.

Greta Thunberg told the World Economic Forum in Davos, “I want you to act as if our house is on fire.” The board’s sentiment, in effect, was akin to saying, “We should put out this fire, but maybe the fire department can go back and get a different color hose first.”

ANC commissioner Erin Palmer (whom GGWash endorsed) said in her HPRB testimony, “I’m not sure what we are preserving if we don’t take serious efforts to stem climate change, in part through a more sensible approach to solar panel installations in historic districts.”

The board voted 5-1 against Preister’s proposal with Andrew Aurbach, a historian member of the board, casting the lone vote in favor. Aurbach argued that the sustainability issues outweighed the potential obstrusiveness. He did tell Preister, however, that “there are solutions that might help” make the solar panels less visible.

Marnique Heath, the board’s chair, said, “I share your passion and I applaud you for all that you’re doing both to preserve this house but also to preserve our climate. I hope you will be able to find another solution that you’ll [bring] back to us, because people like you who are real champions for sustainability are going to hopefully help save the planet. We need to do all that we can personally in order to do that, particularly as our governments are not cooperating.”

Some didn’t act like there was a fire at all, like architect Outerbridge Horsey. He said, “Step back and forget about the energy impact, just think about the color and the texture. Would this board think about allowing a glass roof on a historic structure? That’s basically what we’re talking about if you remove the sustainability issues.” Some might say removing the sustainability issues thereby misses the entire point.

Horsey and other members spent some time debating whether this house is different from another nearby, on Dahlia Street NW, where the board in February allowed solar panels facing the street. Members of the board and staff argued that the house there was higher up on a hill and more obscured by trees, as well as that the panels were actually not on the house’s front but a side that, since it’s a corner, also faced the street.

The previously-approved Dahlia St NW solar panels. by DC Historic Preservation Office.

The board also discussed an argument in the 4B resolution that since solar panels are simply mounted on the roof and don’t last as long as the roof itself, they’re “reversible” and “temporary” and thus shouldn’t face the same level of scrutiny as other changes to a building. Aurbach concurred, but Horsey and others argued, essentially, that they weren’t all that temporary and that anything is, at some level or another, reversible.

Despite some hopes that February’s Dahlia Street case would be “precedent-setting,” Steve Callcott of the preservation office, a part of the Office of Planning, was uninterested in making changes to the policies unless the board asked him to. HPO has been issuing successive drafts of sustainability guidelines for historic properties, which have continued to say solar is acceptable on secondary roofs or side or rear elevations but not on fronts.

Callcott did note that they’ve come some way since guidelines said solar panels should never be visible at all from any street. He said that the Department of Energy and the Environment has been asking for them to allow solar panels more broadly, but that he was going to release a final version of the guidelines for public comment without changing their standard.

This might be interesting to John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff and interim deputy mayor overseeing OP, who said last month he would “ask [OP] to look into this more” after a Twitter thread with Vox’s Matt Yglesias. Yglesias wrote,

I would like to install solar panels on my roof, but first I need to go in person to a DC Historic Preservation Review Board meeting to beg for permission to do this and it seems like bullshit to me. This is ostensibly a progressive jurisdiction that ostensibly believes climate change is a big problem and ostensibly would like to promote clean energy … why throw roadblocks in the way of doing it?

Apparently what we’re supposed to do as we beg and scrape at the meeting is promise that the panels won’t be visible from the street. But why is that the standard? The whole problem is that old energy technology is extremely harmful. So why should everything look old? Like obviously if we transitioned to being a country that derived its electricity from different sources, heated its houses in different ways, and powered its transportation differently then as a consequence some stuff would look different aesthetically … why is that bad?

“Things shouldn’t change too much” is, obviously, a conservative doctrine and it’s insane that notionally progressive jurisdictions have decided to entrench it as a core legal principle in land use. Imagine if we just hadn’t done electricity in the first place because the wires are visible from the alleys.

Personally, I think it would be *better* if the panels were prominently visible from the street as well as the adjacent alley because then more passersby would see them and think about going solar themselves. Change is viral and that’s good.

Falcicchio replied:

Historic Takoma co-founder Loretta Neumann and former ANC commissioner Sara Green testified against Preister’s panels at the HPRB meeting. Neuman said, “I don’t ask anyone else to do what I would do or not do. I would never put solar panels on the front of that house. If you approve this I’m extremely worried that not just in Takoma but around the city that these could go up everywhere.”

She continued, “We do have places outside of our historic district where the fronts do have solar panels, for example across the street from our Safeway there are 2 bungalows with shiny installations and it’s too bad because they could have put them on the other side because it’s a north south facing house.” (In fact, for a north-south facing house the choice of side matters a lot, since there’s much more sun on the south.)

Bungalows with solar panels on Van Buren St NW. by Google Maps.

Whether solar should be highly visible, as on these houses, to spread the word about solar as Yglesias suggests, or permitted but with obtrusiveness minimized, as 4B and preservationists like Aurbach advocate, allowing them is still a minority viewpoint in DC’s preservation system. Barring action from the DC Council or stronger intervention by the Bowser administration, residents may have to make their voices heard when the preservation offices releases new guidlines in the coming weeks. Calcott said they anticipate a hearing before HPRB in December.

“I just think that the world is in crisis and we don’t have a lot of time,” said Preister. “Do I want solar panels there forever? No, but if it can relieve carbon emissions I don’t see what choice we have.”

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I’m bracing for another round of inter-generational criticism.

«Greta Thunberg told the World Economic Forum in Davos, “I want you to act as if our house is on fire.” The board’s sentiment, in effect, was akin to saying, “We should put out this fire, but maybe the fire department can go back and get a different color hose first.”»
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Abolish the Historic Preservation Review Board. It is no longer able to accomplish anything good.
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Historical review boards. For when HOAs are too lenient!

Must Reads: The tender, terrifying truth about what happened inside the Trader Joe's hostage siege

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About halfway through the three-hour siege at Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake, the wounded gunman, Gene Atkins, looked at one of his hostages, MaryLinda Moss, and told her it was all over for him. “I just shot at a cop,” he said.

Moss, a 55-year-old artist who exudes calm, feared a suicidal gunman could spark a bloodbath. Through a series of disastrous decisions by Atkins, dozens of strangers had ended up at the grocery store on a hot Saturday afternoon, drenched in fear and surrounded by SWAT teams, helicopters, squad cars and ambulances.

She put her hand on his heart.

“I told him: ‘There’s always hope. I know you have a good heart, and I know you don’t want to hurt anybody.’”

Atkins, 28, protested: “You don’t know what I’ve done.”

Earlier that day, prosecutors say, he had wounded his grandmother during a family fight in South Los Angeles, then forced his girlfriend into a car and fled. Hours later, he led police on a chase, which ended when he crashed outside Trader Joe’s.

“When you put your hand on somebody’s heart,” Moss told me 10 days later, sitting on the stoop of her home in Mount Washington, “it grounds them. I was trying to ground him, and manipulate him, yes, in the best way.”

On July 22, the day after the standoff, she sat down with a voice recorder and recounted, while it was still fresh, everything she could remember about the trauma. It was days before she felt emotionally ready to share her story publicly. When she was, she gave me her recordings, and we talked in person for three hours. The quotes from Atkins and others are based on her recollections.

Video released by police shows the beginning of the incident: Atkins fleeing, crashing into a light pole, shooting at police and then running into the store amid gunfire. He was wounded in his left arm by officers as shoppers and store workers hit the ground. It was about 3:20 p.m.

When the bullets stopped flying, Atkins was trapped inside the store, standing near a checkout counter. Unbeknownst to Atkins and others in the store, 21 people had barricaded themselves in the stockroom.

Moss watched his blood drip onto the tiles. She thinks he asked for her help, so she got up, removed her insulin pump from her hip and took off a long shirt she wore over a tank top. She used her shirt to wrap his arm.

Another shopper, Mike D’Angelo, who would be at Moss’ side for the entire ordeal, suggested Atkins’ belt as a tourniquet. Atkins, who kept a firm grip on his gun, let them.

He began shivering and asked for a jacket. Moss saw some Trader Joe’s sweatshirts near the front of the store. When she walked over to grab them, she discovered Melyda Corado, the 27-year-old store manager lying face down in a pool of blood.

“There’s a woman who’s been shot and she probably needs help,” Moss told Atkins. “And he said: ‘That’s not my fault. That was the police.’” (Atkins has been charged with 31 felonies, including murder.)

D’Angelo and another man struggled to get her body to the door.

Atkins, still in pain, asked for the tourniquet to be removed. D’Angelo used his own shirt as a bandage.


Early on, a father of two said he had left his young children in the car. Atkins took the man’s cellphone and let him go. This was the phone the police called.

Somehow, perhaps because she was so calm, perhaps because she had an instinctive understanding of how to keep a desperate gunman calm, Moss put herself in the position of mediating between the cops and Atkins.

An LAPD officer who identified himself only as Sgt. Ruiz urged Atkins to release the hostages. Moss could feel Ruiz going too fast and, because of cellphone lag, talking over Atkins, which agitated him. At such times, she interceded: “I would say: ‘Stop. We’re taking a few minutes. I am hanging up the phone. Everyone is OK.’”

Over and over, she would slow things down, connect with the gunman, make him feel heard and silently communicate to the other hostages with a raised brow, a nod or a hand signal.

Moss sensed Atkins was trying to end the crisis without getting killed by police.

Her constant thought: How do we keep the man with the gun calm?

There did not appear to be a way to disarm Atkins, who kept saying he didn’t want anyone else to get hurt.

“He wasn’t weak enough that we could easily take him down,” Moss said. “Anyway, I was glad we didn’t have to go there.”

About halfway through, SWAT officer Tom Chinappi took over for Ruiz. He was calm, he listened, he used his first name.

Atkins demanded a phone call with his girlfriend, who was in his car when he crashed. That was his condition for surrender.

The girlfriend, police said, was at County/USC, where she was being prepped for surgery. Getting her on the phone would be difficult.

Atkins was unnerved. He thought the cops weren’t really trying to get her.

Suddenly, Atkins looked outside and saw a black-clad sharpshooter on the roof of the cheese shop across the parking lot. Everyone tensed.

If someone started shooting, Moss reasoned, many bad things could happen. Someone was already dead. Moss stood up and physically blocked Atkins. She was in the SWAT officer’s sights. He swiveled his gun a few degrees away.

“Everyone is now absolutely terrified,” Moss said. “Gene is yelling, and he’s saying, ‘If you don’t get that guy off the roof, somebody’s going to get hurt and it’s going to be your fault just like it was with that other woman!’”

Then he started counting down: “Five, four, three….”

Moss screamed and gestured at the sharpshooter : “Get off the roof! Get off the roof!”

An arm appeared, then a head. It was a second SWAT officer on the roof, beckoning the shooter to retreat.

“It was horrifying,” Moss said, “the scariest moment of the day.”

A feeling of being in a dangerous limbo set in.

“You promised to get his girlfriend on the phone,” Moss told Chinappi. “You need to get her on the phone! We need you to fulfill that promise.”

A big, black SWAT truck pulled up to the store’s front door.

“What is that truck doing out there?” yelled Atkins. “Back it up!” The truck rolled back about a foot.

Again, Atkins told Chinappi he would turn himself in after he talked to his girlfriend. Then, to Moss’ astonishment, Atkins asked for handcuffs.

“I looked at him, and everybody, and said: ‘That’s so brilliant! Oh my God, yes, we have a plan now! Handcuffs mean he can put the gun down, and we can go out.’”


Moss is a sculptor, installation artist and art consultant. Her husband, Richard Wharton, is an actor. They have two children,14-year-old Ellis, who was waiting in the parking lot when the drama went down, and Tyler, 18. While Moss was in Trader Joe’s, her family gathered across the street.

During the standoff, she and Wharton had a short text exchange.

“Does the shooter know where u are?” he asked.

“It’s ok,” she replied. “I can’t text anymore. We are negotiating.”

Moss has undergone years of trauma therapy and healing work. She is thoughtful, and very tuned-in to other people, which is often described as being “present.” During the siege, she understood instinctively that she had to work at almost cross purposes with the police in order to keep everyone safe. She does not second-guess what the police did; she is thankful they shot and wounded Atkins. If they hadn’t, things could have turned out much worse inside the store.

After she walked out of Trader Joe’s, she decided she would process the experience her own way. She did something nice for herself every day. She visited an energy healer. She had a session with her therapist. She got ice cream with her family. She attended a candlelight vigil in Silver Lake, and Corado’s memorial service at Forest Lawn.

Four days after the siege, she met with a group of fellow hostages for dinner and conversation with a trauma specialist.

She does not want to be singled out for praise.

“It’s a kind of microcosm of what is possible when we are present,” she said, “even in a circumstance where our life might be threatened.”


Near the end, four people were left in the store with the gunman. Moss, D’Angelo and two Trader Joe’s employees, Victor and Josie. (Trader Joe’s would not provide their last names.)

Victor unlocked the door so D’Angelo could get the handcuffs. Police urged D’Angelo to come outside, to save himself. He refused. D’Angelo and Moss had worked hard to build Atkins’ trust; he did not want to betray it.

Moss insisted the handcuffs be thrown into the store: “I was using my full, fierce voice. ‘This is the way it has to happen!’ I was screaming.”

The metal bracelets landed inside with a thud.

On the phone, Chinappi said he might be able to get a recording of the girlfriend.

“If you can get a recording,” Atkins said, “you can get a phone call.”

Just get the recording, Moss told Chinappi. “If we can’t get her on the phone,” she said, “at least we’ll have that.”

She asked Atkins his girlfriend’s name, and repeated something she had already told him: She knew people who had made rich, full lives for themselves in prison.

He told her he’d wished he’d met her sooner. “I just needed someone to talk to,” he told her. She told him she would find him in prison to talk. He gave her his name and birth date.

“I do mean it,” she told me. “That doesn’t mean that he’s my ‘project’ or he’s my friend, but I was willing to be present with him that day and I would do that again.”

Atkins’ girlfriend sounded groggy on the recording, but he heard her clearly: “I’m OK, go out.” She said it three times.

After that, Atkins, Moss and D’Angelo started planning how to get the handcuffs on so everyone could get out alive.

“He was working on how to go out voluntarily and it felt to me it was really important to honor that,” Moss said. “If it would save all of us to kill him at that moment, then that was a fine thing to happen, perhaps. But I felt like this was the safest thing to do.”

Atkins wanted to walk to the front of the store, lie down and be cuffed. To Moss, the idea of him walking in full view of the police, holding his gun, was an invitation to disaster.

Moss took Atkins’ face in her hands. She looked into his eyes and, “Your plan scares the shit out of me.” And then, “Do you trust me?”

Without thinking, she took control: They would cuff him where they were, between two cash register counters, put the gun in a grocery bag and walk out together.

“She’s right,” Chinappi said on the phone speaker. “That’s the best way.”

They tried to handcuff him with his hands behind his back, but it was too painful. So they put the cuffs on in front.

Moss, D’Angelo, Victor and Josie formed a circle around Atkins.

“Victor unlocked the door,” Moss said. “And we all went out together.”


Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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This proposed law could help DC tenants facing eviction fight back against dishonest landlords

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The DC Council is back from its summer recess, and members are weighing legislation intended to strengthen tenant protections against illegal eviction.

Currently, DC law generally prohibits eviction except under certain circumstances. One of those is that a property owner may evict a tenant if the landlord wants to live in the unit. As a protection against landlords abusing this provision, the law also prohibits a landlord who evicts someone for this reason from renting the unit to a new tenant for 12 months.

But current law isn’t strong enough, according to Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6). He introduced the Housing Conversion and Eviction Clarification Amendment Act of 2019 in January to add teeth to it by requiring a property owner to reimburse an evicted tenant for the cost of moving out of the property if the owner ousts the tenant but doesn’t subsequently move into the unit

Consequences for landlords who violate the law

The problem, Allen says, is that current law has no penalty if a landlord evicts a tenant but doesn’t move in, or rents out the unit to a new tenant during the prohibited timeframe. There’s nothing to stop dishonest landlords from saying they plan to move in when they actually have no intention of doing so.

“Essentially, we’re trying to close a loophole,” Allen said during a June 17 hearing on the bill.

It’s especially important because landlords may falsely claim they want to move into a rental unit in order to avoid the hassle of formal eviction proceedings, Allen told me. Then they could renovate it and rent it out at a higher price, convert it to a condominium, or sell it. That can undermine tenant rights under another law, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives tenants leverage when a property owner wants to sell a rental unit.

The legislation, which has the support of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, is still in the DC Council’s Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization. Its chairperson, Anita Bonds (at-large) hasn’t scheduled a vote on whether to advance it to the full council. The committee may make changes to the bill before it does so.

Allen co-introduced the bill with Bonds, Councilmembers Trayon White (Ward 8) and Mary Cheh (Ward 3), and Chairman Phil Mendelson Mendelson. Councilmember David Grosso (at- large) signed on as a cosponsor.

Allen introduced the bill in 2018 too. The housing committee, which Bonds has chaired since January 2015, held a hearing but didn’t advance the legislation, which died when the two-year legislative period concluded at the end of 2018.

Tenants usually don’t have lawyers in eviction proceedings

In legalese, the DC Code refers to evicting a tenant so the landlord can move in as taking back the unit for “immediate and personal use and occupancy as a dwelling.”

Unfortunately, some landlords misuse this provision, according to Beth Harrison, a housing attorney at the Legal Aid Society. She explained how the legislation can help during the June 17 hearing.

“We have seen a number of cases brought claiming personal use and occupancy that clearly appear to be brought in bad faith or for retaliatory reasons,” she said. Landlords typically cite this provision as a way to get rid of a tenant who filed a housing code complaint or someone who participates in a voucher program, she said.

In her experience in eviction proceedings, landlords typically concede that they don’t really plan to move in when they’re challenged by a tenant’s lawyer. But that is no relief for the roughly 90% of tenants who don’t have the benefit of counsel, she said.

In addition to requiring a property owner to pay a wrongly evicted tenant for the cost of moving out, the bill would also require the landlord to pay the former tenant damages equal to the cost of one month’s rent that the tenant was paying for each month that the landlord hasn’t moved into the unit, for up to 12 months. It includes a good faith provision that exempts a landlord who genuinely planned to move in but experiences a change in circumstances outside their control that prevents it.

If the council approves Allen’s legislation, it would join other tenant-friendly bills the DC Council has enacted in recent years, including laws that prohibit landlords from immediately tossing evicted residents’ belongings on the sidewalk and place lower caps on rent increases in rent controlled units for elderly tenants and tenants with disabilities.

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