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Put affordable housing for seniors in the new MLK Library

The District of Columbia is about to start an ambitious project to renovate the Martin Luther King Jr. Library downtown. Affordable housing, primarily for seniors, should be a primary element of that vision.

Concept rendering of the library. Image from DC Public Libraries.

One key feature of the MLK Library renovation plan is that it will add up to three floors to the building, a historic landmark designed by Mies van der Rohe that is the downtown mainstay of the DC Public Library system. This provides a rare opportunity to consider how we can best use a public asset to benefit the downtown community and the District as a whole.

DC is confronting an affordable housing crisis that not only threatens the quality of life and stability of the people facing skyrocketing housing costs and diminished supply, but also undermines the diversity of our community. When seniors are priced out of the city, we lose the very people who created the fabric of our communities across generations. Protecting elder citizens' ability to remain in the District is an essential public value.

All public projects involving DC government-owned real estate should make new affordable housing a priority, but none more than the MLK Library. First, it is an ideal location for seniors to live. Residents there would have access to a hub of cultural activity below as well as a broad public transportation network in a vibrant downtown neighborhood. There is no affordable housing within ten blocks of the library site, and certainly no other opportunity for elder citizens on fixed incomes to live in that area.

Equally as important, the infusion of seniors into this community will bring their knowledge, experience, and the time—afforded by their retirement—to the activities and culture of the library itself and the entire neighborhood. These residents will be able to participate formally as docents, tutors, and volunteers in the library and nearby historic and cultural sites. Informally, they will contribute as community members who have chosen their homes for proximity to programs, events, and the everyday amenities we all want and need: goods, services and transportation.

The architecture team of Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson, which won the competition to renovate the library, has stressed the need to "celebrate MLK's renowned Miesian architecture while embracing Washington, DC's contemporary culture and changing needs." Our seniors are central to our culture, and their housing is central to our changing needs.

By taking a creative and fresh look at the District's assets, we can meet our commercial, financial, and cultural goals while also achieving the diversity that creates interesting, lively, and diverse communities. Real estate accounts for about one third of the cost of housing development. By leveraging the city's unique real estate assets—like new floors atop the MLK Library—we can replenish some of the affordable housing we are rapidly losing amid high demand and rising costs.

The library's renovation will cost up to $250 million, with the DC government contributing at least $100 million. We will never have a better chance to create affordable housing downtown at a cost our city can afford. Let's make sure we seize this opportunity to continue building a vibrant city for our long-term residents who have given our community so much, and who have so much more to offer.

Tommy Wells is represents Ward 6 on the DC Council. He is a former social worker, attorney, and member of DC's school board. He was a candidate for mayor in the 2014 Democratic primary. 


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I really like this idea, but I would think it needs to be coupled with provision of additional services that seniors need nearby. For instance, is there anywhere close to shop for groceries? I can't think of anywhere other than a CVS. Just dropping housing in for them without the other necessary amenities seems insufficient.

by Joe on Aug 6, 2014 10:21 am • linkreport

I'm skeptical of the idea that seniors should be in age-segregated housing. Do we have any evidence that such living arrangements are better for seniors or communities as a whole? It seems to me that seniors should live in age-diverse communities, where they can serve as mentors to younger people, keep eyes on the street during the day, and have stronger, healthier people around to keep an eye on them and help them with household upkeep.

by carlosthedwarf on Aug 6, 2014 10:21 am • linkreport

Great idea, Councilman Wells.

Unlike carlosthedwarf, I’m not at all concerned with age-restricted housing given that this will essentially be in the heart of the city. I think, in many ways, it’s ideal to give older residents a buffer from the hubbub, but also allows them access to many of our city’s cultural amenities. In addition, for family members who live in an around DC, the location will be of some appeal to encourage frequent visits, either due to the convenience factor or cultural appeal.

by Glenmonster on Aug 6, 2014 10:38 am • linkreport

As usual Wells comes up with a plan but doesn't say where the money will come from. Thank goodness he won't be mayor.

by Citizen on Aug 6, 2014 10:41 am • linkreport

There's nothing wrong with clustering seniors together. While I understand that some seniors want to live in age diverse settings, there's also something to be said for a supportive community that understands and is focused on a group of people with unique needs. Senior housing is usually coupled with support services and group activities.

There may not be a supermarket in the immediate neighborhood, but, as Well's points out, there's plenty to make up for it and grocery delivery services do work in this city.

Generic affordable housing would be another option as well. But I'm sure when this done, I'll bet that most of the units are high-end, catering to people with special needs: a need for luxury. These units will be kid-less, and likely empty for large parts of the year. So much for diversity.

If the MLK building is expanded, this expansion ought to serve the needs of DC and represent what's best about our social policies.

by kob on Aug 6, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

First, Councilmember Wells, please support the relocation of the Southwest library to 4th Street Southwest from its current location.

This offers a great opportunity for a developer to cover part or all of the cost of a new library as part of a public/private partnership. It also provides the opportunity to provide much-needed new housing located very close to a metro station, above a new DC public library building. This is an opportunity that was unfortunately missed with the Tenley library public/private partnership that failed.

Relocating the new Southwest library to the 4th Street site will also encourage more pedestrian activity and more vibrancy on this developing corridor. The site where the Southwest library is currently located can also be redeveloped into either a new public park or more housing--including senior housing.

by 202_Cyclist on Aug 6, 2014 10:48 am • linkreport

Bad idea. An expanded Central Library should be devoted to refashioning the Central Library building as the primary local cultural and civic asset in the city.

No central library in any major world city has nonrelated mixed use functions integrated into the library project.

DC hasn't demonstrated why such a course of action, unprecedented, is a "world class" idea.

Note that mixed use including housing is something I support for branch library sites, as elements of expanding the role and presence of branch libraries as neighborhood revitalization augurs and assets.

But the central library for a city is extra special and it's inappropriate to mix unrelated uses, just as we don't have housing as part of the court house or police station or city hall.

by Richard Layman on Aug 6, 2014 10:48 am • linkreport

There really isn't a functional need for living spaces for seniors and retirees in the heart of downtown.

by aaa on Aug 6, 2014 10:51 am • linkreport

Unfortunately, DC missed a great opportunity with the MLK library. The MLK library should have been relocated to L'Enfant Plaza from its current Metro Center location. DC could have likely earned sufficent revenue from selling its current property at the Metro Center location to pay for much of the cost of a new library.

Additionally, relocating the MLK library to L'Enfant would have greatly enhanced the Southwest Ecodistrict initiative to make L'Enfant Plaza more vibrant and sustainable. This would have provided a lot of activity outside of the normal business hours in an area that is now mostly vacant during evenings and weekends.

by 202_Cyclist on Aug 6, 2014 10:53 am • linkreport

Nothing to do with the article, but I am shocked the MLK Library is a historical landmark.
What an ugly building.

by Brett Young on Aug 6, 2014 10:57 am • linkreport

It's not a bad idea but rather than all or nothing maybe make half or 1/3 senior affordable. In terms of groceries, there is a Safeway on 5th and L that could be served by a shuttle bus. I assume most senior housing developments provide that kind of service anyway. I'm not sure I buy the part that it is in seniors best interest to be downtown in the thick of things. In my experience most seniors I know prefer more residential neighborhoods and would find Chinatown kinda off putting.

Perhaps leave new development in Chinatown for market rate, and consider reviewing some of the WMATA TOD/adjacent plans for a way to incorporate senior housing. Brookland and Takoma could be a slam dunks if you ask me. If the GA Avenue streetcar happens that could make a lot of sense too. The areas around Anacostia and Stadium Armory probably make sense as well.

by BTA on Aug 6, 2014 10:58 am • linkreport

I'm sorry, but how is housing seniors in the middle of downtown make them "central to our culture and our changing needs"? What "fabric of our communities across generations" is present in Metro Center?

With affordable housing, it's one thing to help people stay in a neighborhood where they lived for 40 years. It's another thing altogether to freight in a very specific group of people, subsidize them heavily, and stick them in brand new apartments in the middle of downtown.

by DM on Aug 6, 2014 11:03 am • linkreport

Councilmember Wells:

The dated Cleveland Park library on CT Ave, located about two blocks south of the Cleveland Park metro station, also offers an excellent location for a public/private partnership to provide DC residents with a new library as well as more housing in an area that is served by both several bus routes and is very close to a metro station.

Of course, many of the neighbors will fight this but it doesn't mean that this isn't worthwhile to pursue.

by 202_Cyclist on Aug 6, 2014 11:05 am • linkreport

"There is no affordable housing within ten blocks of the library site, and certainly no other opportunity for elder citizens on fixed incomes to live in that area."

That is incorrect. There is affordable housing for seniors located at 6th and H streets, NW, which is roughly three blocks away. There is additional affordable housing located on H Street between 4th and 5th Streets, NW. And that's not including any Inclusionary Zoning units in that area, although I'm not sure if there are any.

"The library's renovation will cost up to $250 million, with the DC government contributing at least $100 million."

The District will be hitting the debt cap in the next fiscal year, which means no new capital budget expenditures in FY16 or FY17. Where would the $100 million come from?

by Lurker on Aug 6, 2014 11:06 am • linkreport

People aged 65 and over are the wealthiest segment of society and already enjoy many government benefits designed specially for them. Children under the age of 18 are the most likely to live in poverty.

Should society continue to favor the elderly while ignoring other demographics?

by Falls Church on Aug 6, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

I strongly object to age-restricted housing. If we're going to have affordable housing, make it affordable housing that is open to everybody. Anything else is prejudicial.

by renegade09 on Aug 6, 2014 11:17 am • linkreport

... the MLK Library project is problematic on one hand because while it is great that the city has committed to funding a rehabilitation, there is no plan, no set of priorities.

The problem is accentuated by the failure of DC to have a comprehensive and integrated and public capital budgeting planning and funding program.

The stuff going on with the Carnegie Library is another example. The proposed changes are "overprogrammed" meaning beyond the capacity of the site. (A/k/a "trying to fit 10 pounds of s*** in a five-gallon pail). Accommodating HSW and a visitors center should be addressed as part of integrated cultural planning including both projects.

But that's not how we do things here.

2. wrt affordable housing, there is also a major site at 4th and K St. NW, and senior and 3 affordable/senior apartment projects in the vicinity of NJ Ave. and K St. + Sursum Corda and its redevelopment.

The City Paper had a piece about the apartments at 4th and K St. going off the HUD program, which is something that the city ought to look at in the context of comprehensive planning.

by Richard Layman on Aug 6, 2014 11:48 am • linkreport

r layman

city of alexandria has put ah in a fire station.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Aug 6, 2014 12:06 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised at how much pushback this is getting. The target population would be long-term residents. Maybe housing availability should preference current residents?

For folks who say there isn't a cultural need to put the elderly in the heart of downtown, well, it is a central location with easy access to quite a bit of services and transportation nodes. Arranging to drive grandma to dialysis twice a week can turn into burdens for caretakers, so access is key.

The comments arguing that seniors aren't an integral component of our society point to the bias and preferences of the respective commentator. These people neglect the fact that they too will be old some day and may perhaps desire to live in urban environment with easy access to amenities and services, but may not have the income to do so.

by Glenmonster on Aug 6, 2014 12:08 pm • linkreport

People aged 65 and over are the wealthiest segment of society and already enjoy many government benefits designed specially for them. Children under the age of 18 are the most likely to live in poverty.
Should society continue to favor the elderly while ignoring other demographics?

Ah, but you forget: The elderly donate lots of money to politicians, and children don't donate any.

Count me as another voice against senior housing. Affordable housing open to everybody, including seniors, is fine, but seniors are hardly the only group that gets priced out of the city, and it seems that virtually every affordable housing project these days is oriented towards seniors. Stop it already. The middle aged and young with or without families need affordable units too, and there are a lot less units available to them.

by Zeus on Aug 6, 2014 12:10 pm • linkreport

The comments arguing that seniors aren't an integral component of our society point to the bias and preferences of the respective commentator. These people neglect the fact that they too will be old some day and may perhaps desire to live in urban environment with easy access to amenities and services, but may not have the income to do so.

The question is not whether seniors are important parts of the urban community. The question is why they're deemed more important than working class families with kids. Or young singles struggling to find good jobs, with no pension of any variety to support them. Nobody's talking about barring seniors from this housing, but I, and it seems many others, think that giving them special preference is inappropriate.

by Zeus on Aug 6, 2014 12:14 pm • linkreport

How much affordable housing should be age restricted is a worthy debate but there are very real reasons to have senior specific housing. Most seniors arent working/going to school so it makes less sense to put them in the middle of job/education centers. On the other hand, they will typically have additional social/healthcare needs so it's good to locate them near appropriate services.

by BTA on Aug 6, 2014 12:17 pm • linkreport

CrossingBrooklynFerry -- I have no problem with mixing housing with branch libraries. I've touted the Hollywood Library branch in Portland for many many years as an example of a mixed use project that can strengthen neighborhoods.

blog entry from 2006,

or how affordable housing and a grocery store are combined in SF, blog entry from 2005,

Fire station co-location is comparable to those projects. But it's not like the Alexandria City Hall has housing in it. Note that housing + a fire station is proposed for DC's West End.

But the central library is decidedly different. The second blog entry I cited above discusses this point at great length. I argue that the city deserves a premier local cultural facility and that's what should be done with the Central Library here.

Note that I don't have problems with either mixed use or mixing for profit and nonprofit uses, as long as they are all related to knowledge-information-culture-creative-govt.

The Salt Lake City library has nonprofit uses as part of the central library (local NPR, community college writing center, other elements). The Vancouver Library has rented some space to the the provincial government. Rockville's library does that (space for the govt.) plus the VisArts cultural center. San Diego's new central library rents two floors for a high school. West Hollywood CA includes a childrens museum and the City Council chambers in its library facility.

These are all related uses.

There are some nongovernmentally controlled museums that mix housing on their site (Dallas, Denver, NYC + Newseum in DC), but these again, are not the foremost civic cultural institutions in their respective cities.

p.s., incomparable examples (branch library or branch facility not City Hall, City Courthouse, Central Library) aren't good ways to move the discourse forward.

by Richard Layman on Aug 6, 2014 12:32 pm • linkreport

semi-related but worthy of a separate entry is how we do housing planning in the US and DC. It's mostly driven by the private sector. Where CM Wells is absolutely right is that we should use govt. controlled land parcels to add to the affordable housing stock when we can.

And he is right that we ought to be planning for accommodation of various demographic slices of the housing market in our central places.

It happens that I am going to Germany on a study trip later in the month and I am going to HafenCity in Hamburg as part of the trip specifically because they plan housing differently there as part of big (2/3 of a square mile) regeneration projects.

They specifically plan for and include social housing elements within the overall plan, so certain parcels are carved out for the creation of such housing. (Helsinki plans this way too.)

We don't do that here, and especially in DC.

2. But we have to be careful too. I talk about planning sometimes in terms of "designing conflict in" vs. "designing conflict out." Mixing seniors into noisy entertainment districts, like places a couple blocks from Verizon Center creates anti-nightlife lobbies. It's what I call "designing conflict in" and isn't something that planners should be advocating.

Frankly, while I think it's good from a proximity standpoint, sometimes I think the relatively undense senior housing building across from the 7th St. Metro Station in Shaw isn't the best use of that space either. But when it was developed, there wasn't the sense that there would be demand for market rate housing next to Metrorail stations outside of the core.

by Richard Layman on Aug 6, 2014 12:45 pm • linkreport

Why seniors? Look at DC General and the failure of the mayor's 500 families, 100 days plan to see that family homelessness is a tremendous problem--fueled in large part by a lack of affordable housing, especially 2+ bedroom units. Single people and couples are more able to find housing in accessory dwellings (basements, backyards) than a larger family is. Also, communities are more willing to accept affordable senior housing than they are families. So if we have the chance to build on a district-owned site where there are fewer neighbors to make a fuss, I think mixed-income housing geared towards families would be huge. Put in a daycare (accepting vouchers and big enough to accommodate some downtown workers, too) a great rooftop playground and make it 2-4 bedroom units.

by sbc on Aug 6, 2014 12:48 pm • linkreport

... years ago I proposed mixing seniorhostel and CUA activities in the Brookland Metro station parcels. A colleague pointed out that in Foggy Bottom where GWU has acquired apartment buildings on master leases, and putting students into buildings that already had market rate housing, including seniors, that the seniors weren't too into sharing elevators with drunken vomiting GWU students...

by Richard Layman on Aug 6, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport,-77.045294,3a,90y,179h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s8hivEHgWWW43DRsfwvvSzQ!2e0!4m5!1m2!2m1!1salexandria+courthouse!3m1!1s0x89b7b0f80728fc4b:0xa50019e5acbbebd3!6m1!1e1

Alexandria Court House include frankly unrelated retail. Alexandria City Hall is historic and retains its original form and use. If it were new, or if it were to be renovated in a way to add more space, I am not sure that private, unrelated mixed use would not be put in.

Quite frankly I find these rules about what can go where arbitrary. There are certainly good examples of integrating related cultural uses into a library (another local example of that is Shirlington, with a theater above a branch library) but if it happens that a central library is a good location for housing, and that there is not a feasible funded project for a cultural center, I would not put the housing off the table.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Aug 6, 2014 12:54 pm • linkreport

"The question is why they're deemed more important than working class families with kids. Or young singles struggling to find good jobs, with no pension of any variety to support them."

I think I'd be willing to agree with you here if you were able to provide some evidence about a current disparity between senior and non-preferential affordable housing in the city. I'm inclined to think that there are general disparities for all populations. That being said, I think folks are drawing a false dichotomy. This isn't an "either/or" proposition, it's a component of conjunctive. We can advocate for non-preferential affordable housing and affordable housing for seniors. There's no reason we can aspire to have both.

I also think that in this case, the actual site matters. Sure, we need affordable housing for families and young people too, but those populations are more physically able to walk over a half mile to their transit option.

by Glenmonster on Aug 6, 2014 1:16 pm • linkreport

The target population would be long-term residents. Maybe housing availability should preference current residents?

You have to be a resident to be eligible for affordable housing in DC.

As for how long one has been a resident...I think a core American value is that everyone should have equal rights and equal access to benefits regardless of how long (or how many generations ) they've been a citizen/resident. There's no preferential treatment (or their *should* be none) just because you came over on the Mayflower or lived through Mayor Barry.

by Falls Church on Aug 6, 2014 1:22 pm • linkreport

People aged 65 and over are the wealthiest segment of society and already enjoy many government benefits designed specially for them. Children under the age of 18 are the most likely to live in poverty.

Not necessarily true. While a wealthy person is more likely to be over 65, that doesn't mean someone over 65 is more likely to be wealthy. Some estimates put the poverty rate at 65+ at 23%. Census puts that much lower, but I have no idea how any of them define "poverty." I just think its somewhat disingenuous to say that the 65+ bracket is wealthiest because the averages are thrown off by the ultra-wealthy being largely over that age.

by Another Nick on Aug 6, 2014 1:39 pm • linkreport

@ Falls Church: "There's no preferential treatment"

That's not necessarily true. A bunch of HUD's Moving to Work demonstrations allow preference to be a component of voucher criteria. We also have housing programs that supply vouchers or project-based vouchers to veterans. The difference here is that this would probably be a local initiative. DHCA could apply for something like MTW status (the MTW name is a misnomer, by the way), and potentially include a service component for the development.

Preferences can be structured into affordable housing development packages. In general, they are not, but there are plenty of examples of cases in which a particular population is given first access to a particular form of housing subsidy.

by Glenmonster on Aug 6, 2014 1:51 pm • linkreport

Some estimates put the poverty rate at 65+ at 23%. Census puts that much lower, but I have no idea how any of them define "poverty."

Here's the poverty rates by age group according to Census:

The poverty rate in 2012 for chil­dren under age 18 was 21.8 per­cent. The poverty rate for people aged 18 to 64 was 13.7 percent, while the rate for people aged 65 and older was 9.1 percent.

Here's the definition used to measure poverty (basically it's defined using federally defined income thresholds):

by Falls Church on Aug 6, 2014 2:29 pm • linkreport

"The library's renovation will cost up to $250 million, with the DC government contributing at least $100 million".

$100 million is a lot of money for what would a relatively limited amount of housing - elderly or otherwise. I would rather the District leverage its stake to some how create more affordable housing elsewhere in the District.

For example, allowing the housing at the library to sell at full market price, without an affordable housing requirement, but requiring a payment by the developers of $50 million over 5 years (or some amount or time) to go into the Housing Production Trust fund.

$50 million worth of affordable housing in Fort Totten, Parkview or Fairlawn would serve more of those who need it than what MLK could potential offer.

by Randall M. on Aug 6, 2014 2:29 pm • linkreport

I also think the way we house seniors could be revisited. In a city, do we really need "retirement homes" or senior centers? I think that with a little shift seniors could age in place through the formation of non-profit group homes. You could have residents on the ground floor and non-profit office space for example on upper floors, in return for running the home and providing services to the seniors. Or some homes could perhaps be refurbished with elevators. Given that most of the city is bus accessible which is generally the most senior friendly transportation they could be scattered site and run as a network, especially in some of the less dense parts of the city where land is cheaper. There are hospitals all over the city so it shouldn't be that hard to have some on call medical provider nearby.

by BTA on Aug 6, 2014 3:04 pm • linkreport

Not sure why Wells defends DC's inane height act and then pushes for specific, subsidized affordable housing. Surely you can just adjust the height act to be more realistic thereby enabling supply to meet demand...and what to you get? Affordable housing to some extent. Housing has become UNAFFORDABLE BECAUSE THERE IS NO INVENTORY. Why support an idea, namely subsidized affordable housing, that will simply make housing more expensive for everyone else?

by Ben on Aug 6, 2014 3:08 pm • linkreport

I would also say that having concentrated senior housing could actually free up more housing stock as singles or couples move out of larger homes into one bedroom apartments. Perhaps that could be incentivized somehow.

by BTA on Aug 6, 2014 3:23 pm • linkreport

This proposal could result in turf warfare between senior citizens and the homeless over library couches.

by Steve D. on Aug 6, 2014 4:35 pm • linkreport

The fact that they are spending $250 million for an architectural folly is pretty ridiculous.

by Crickey7 on Aug 6, 2014 5:28 pm • linkreport

No clue why people hate on this building so much; I like it.

by MLD on Aug 6, 2014 5:30 pm • linkreport

BTA -- in Suzanne's former subdivision in Mission Viejo, CA, there is a lot of what you suggest going on. A number of senior group homes are on her parents' street. One was even converted by the owner and she still lives there. Each house typically has 3, maybe 4 tenants at the most.,+Mission+Viejo,+CA+92691/@33.606418,-117.687126,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x80dce921b41d19c5:0x26efb8a700780e15

Service retail isn't really unrelated. But I imagine with these buildings in Alexandria, that they might not be owned by the city/state.

Even if they are, a "commercial district" exception for ground floor retail even in a public building would pertain.

For various reasons, federal buildings don't do this, and most of DC's equivalent public buildings aren't well located--Reeves is an exception, but the bad design of the building isn't supportive of quality retail.

wrt Shirlington etc. I am plenty familiar with these kinds of examples in the region. Again, theater + library is related use. So it is an example of what I was talking about, not what CM Wells has proposed.

More importantly, Alexandria as a city isn't comparable to the top 50 cities in the US in terms of population, or state or national capitals. It's a third tier city at best--even if it is the 165th largest city in the US in terms of population.

DC is the 31st largest city in the US by population and the national capital, which yields a much different framework for comparability.

Cities at the top tier haven't been popping unrelated mixed use into their premier public buildings (City Hall, Court House, Central Library), in either North America or Europe.

by Richard Layman on Aug 6, 2014 6:03 pm • linkreport

Housing becomes affordable naturally as it ages and decays.

by Turnip on Aug 6, 2014 6:36 pm • linkreport

At first it seems like a noble idea until I thought that a cities main library is a noble building and should stand alone functionally to give it more prominence. Then again this library will never look like more than a truncated office building.

by Thayer-D on Aug 6, 2014 9:31 pm • linkreport

I think it looks fine. If there's a problem, it's that it costs 250 million dollars.

by asffa on Aug 6, 2014 9:54 pm • linkreport

How would Mies Van der Rohe have designed the modern DC multi-use building? With apartment/condo balconies...

by Dave G on Aug 7, 2014 9:55 am • linkreport

The additional space at the Martin Luther King Library would work well for shared office/start-up space (expansion of 1776 or We Work comes to mind).

by Statehood Warrior on Aug 7, 2014 11:55 am • linkreport

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