Monday, February 23, 2015

Taxes, Lodging, Faith and Service: a deeper look at the work of William Penn House

Thanks to the wonderful world of 21st century social networking, many people now know of some of the challenges that face William Penn House, specifically the possible revoking of our property tax exemption. Just to clarify, this does not effect our sales tax exemption or our status with regards to accepting donations for charitable purpose. We greatly appreciate so many messages of support, and hope to harness these to influence the DC government to change this. At the same time, based on some of the comments, it seems that this is a good time to help educate the supporting community more about why we are so passionate about changing this.

For starters, while it is true that we are a 30 bed hostel, offering affordable, comfortable and safe housing is not about lodging but is embedded in Quaker values and is an express part of our mission. It is our "Ministry of Presence" in the nation's capital. It is why we talk about it is a practice of "Radical Hospitality" - all are welcome.  Lodging is just the starting point. It is what happens around the lodging where the ministry gains traction.  Here is some of what happens:
  • Young adult internships – giving young adults, most often recent college graduates, a chance to live in the heart of DC and continue personal/professional/spiritual development. While interns do have responsibilities to the hospitality, we also encourage and allow for their engagement in other pursuits and consider that their “work time”. Examples from the past include development of Quaker Camps, serving on Quaker committees and with Quaker organizations (Yearly Meetings, FGC, Pendle Hill, AFSC), and developing new Meetings and Worship Groups. We also have active representation in working to stop the spread of HIV in DC with service in the HIV Prevention Planning Group. 
  • Gap Year – providing an opportunity for high school grads who are not sure where to go next to develop independent living and work skills, as well as vocational/avocational direction. In an era where college costs are so high, we owe it to the youth to provide viable options for development.
  • William Penn Quaker Workcamps. These serve multiple purposes – education, spiritual formation, outreach, and service. This section can be a whole pamphlet, but for now just know that these are ultimately about building bridges between issues, within community, and within ourselves, paying attention to everything from Quaker testimonies to neurological development that supports more open learning and mental health. At the same time, we are committed that these are deeply embedded in the community rather than created for those who wish to serve. To do this takes time, and means we – the staff and interns – are a constant presence in the community, especially when we don’t have Workcamp groups. Integrity demands this of us, and it takes time. Our involvement in the urban and community garden movement is how this is playing out right now. And as Friends Schools continue to explore service learning and Quakerism, these Workcamps and what we learn from them are (for some) and can (for others) a vital resource. In addition, we bring back veterans to help run Workcamps, furthering their own development while expanding the values.  
  • Other regular activities such as weekly yoga classes and monthly potlucks, as well as providing meeting space for small non-profits who cannot afford larger spaces but also are doing important work. Each of these has maintenance costs.
  • While so many Friends organizations talk about diversity, racism and intergenerational work, as well as outreach and spiritual formation, these are all very much a part of the fabric of our being on a daily basis. It’s truly striving to let our lives speak. 
Income from the lodging subsidizes all of this work. The staff and interns do much of what we do because it is a passion and a calling, but each of us also has to make ends meet, as does William Penn House. We have done a lot to make sure that fees do not exclude participation in Quaker Workcamps, and this, too, is possible because of the lodging. These are our values; they flow from our faith; the outcomes are not always quantifiable, but their presence is undeniable.

So where does this leave us? The immediate challenge is the financial burden that stretches our budget, no matter what our options are. If the final decision is we have to pay taxes for the percentage of guests who are not here for service/education purposes (although that is not as easily discernible as it sounds and would add to the administrative work), we can do this moving forward; sadly, this would mean having to raise rates which, as is always the case, felt more by those with less. Having to come up with the $18k+ is the challenge.  We have talked about increasing staff/intern workloads and reducing salaries to make budget, but how sustainable is that, really? We are already fairly stretched. An influx of new funds is really crucial to keeping our options open and the programs and services vital. (As I write this, we are awaiting the arrival of the plumber to fix the hot water heater - a reminder that a 100 year-old house also has physical needs.)

Again, we thank you all for your words of support. They warm us. Your voice in DC can certainly help. More importantly, if you value a presence like William Penn House not just in DC but as a part of the Society of Friends bringing Quakerism to the world now and for the future, voices alone may not be enough. Donations to cover immediate financial needs are necessary, and, moving to greater sustainability, either organize a Workcamp, make it possible for others to join or join us yourself on either our Pine Ridge or DC Workcamp this summer, or invite us to help you with your own challenges of outreach, spiritual formation and service are other ways to help. These are what flow from our building, and what give it life beyond the lodging.  Please get in touch with Byron ( to explore more ways to get involved.
                                                                                                                               -Brad Ogilvie