Hewitt Avenue Circle Members Successfully Advocate to Keep Housing at Westchester West Affordable

Many news outlets, from Fox 5, to Real Estate Weekly, and MoCo 360 have reported on Montgomery County’s use of the Right of First Refusal law to maintain affordable housing at Westchester West Apartments in Aspen Hill. The owners of the apartment complex (which is home to many immigrant and working-class families) announced last December their plan to sell the property. A private sale like this could have resulted in rent increases of as much as 5% for tenants. However, the sale did not go through. The county intervened and purchased the property, and then sold it to the non-profit housing organization Enterprise Community Development (ECD). ECD has pledged not to increase rent on income-restricted units by more than the county’s voluntary rent guidelines or 3%.

News stories rightly credited our friends at Action in Montgomery (AIM) and community members for the advocacy it took to spark the county’s action. We at IMPACT are grateful to AIM and the group of determined Westchester West tenants whose efforts showed that policy can work on behalf of maintaining affordable housing and keeping families in their homes.

We’d also like to share that those determined tenants are members of IMPACT’s Wheaton network. They are members of the self-named Hewitt Avenue Circle, a small group of Hispanic women who came together in the summer of 2021 to create a community network of mutual support and action aided by IMPACT’s Senior Network Builder Carmen Hernandez and Network Builder Valerie Salazar. The group formed through shared concern about issues such as lack of recreation spaces for their children, illegal drugs, and pedestrian and traffic safety issues. Many of the women had children at Harmony Hills Elementary School and they all lived at Westchester West Apartments on Hewitt Avenue.

Members of the Hewitt Avenue Circle along with IMPACT staff members
Carmen and Valerie after a circle meeting in 2021. 

Once the decision to organize was made, the circle began meeting monthly with Carmen facilitating discussions on topics like self-esteem, social justice, advocacy, and collaborative action. As the women formed more trusting relationships and grew in self-empowerment, they began to act. Over the next several months, the circle:

  • Met with Councilmember Gabe Albornoz in August 2021 to discuss the community’s need for affordable dental care. Through that meeting, circle members were connected to the Muslim Community Center dental clinic in Silver Spring which provides dental services to uninsured and low-income adults in the county.
  • Submitted testimonies to the September 2021 County Council Town Hall to bring attention to pedestrian and traffic safety issues; increases in crime; the need for more recreation areas and opportunities for youth; and better access to affordable dental and optical care.
  • Organized a Neighbor Exchange block party in April 2022 that drew more than 100 neighbors to the green space outdoors at Westchester West. The event included family activities, music, resource providers with information tables, COVID testing and vaccinations.
  • Met with police and government officials to voice concerns after a spate of vehicle thefts and vandalism in the fall of 2022. Circle members did outreach for and testified at a January 2023 community meeting on safety that was organized in response to their calls for action.

It was just a month before the community meeting on safety that tenants at Westchester West learned of the pending sale of their complex and the exorbitant rent increases that were likely to follow. By the time this challenge arose, members of the Hewitt Avenue Circle were seasoned at advocacy and knew how to partner with organizations to get results.  They worked with representatives from AIM and the Mid-County Regional Services Center to bring the issue to the attention of county officials. And the rest is history.

We’d like to take this opportunity to express our pride and appreciation for the courageous and tenacious women of the Hewitt Avenue Circle. They never doubted the power of a purposeful network to interrupt the status quo and make positive change.

Congratulations go out to Lucia Vasquez, Edith Villelas, Maria Morales, Isabel Velásquez, and Olimpia Alvarez! 🎉🪅🎊

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