Anacostia: The Extreme Makeover Edition
A Legislative Fix for Blighted City Properties in Ward 8
Photograph ByTwyla Alston
Tucked between the homes of residents in the Anacostia Historic District sit a number of blighted, boarded up and falling apart homes. People have tagged the doors and windows with spray paint, rust and stains mar the paint along the rooflines and the most yard care each sees is an occasional mow.
No on lives in these District-owned homes and the cost to repair them would be considerable.
DC City Council Chair Phil Mendelson introduced a bill in the July that could change the fate of these homes, though. Bill 21-837 “The Historic Preservation of Derelict District Properties Act of 2016” aims to give four properties over to the L’Enfant Trust, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and revitalizing DC’s historic neighborhoods. The Trust would then renovate the properties and sell them to new owners as “workforce housing” — affordable housing for people who work in the area to either buy or rent.
“The benefit is huge — these vacant and blighted properties would be rehabilitated and put back to use,” Mendelson said. “Second, the properties will be renovated or rehabilitated consistent with the standards of the Anacostia Historic District.”
Both Mendelson and Councilmember At-Large Anita Bonds supported the bill at its introduction. Councilmembers Elissa Silverman (I-At-Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and former At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange (D) co-sponsored. The bill will now go through the review and public hearing process with the City Council.
Living Next Door to Squalor
Twyla Alston and her husband Clarence live next door to 1326 Valley Place SE, one of the four blighted properties listed in the Derelict Properties act. It last sold in November 2011 and remains under DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) management. The property is currently valued at about $143,000, according to the DC Real Property database.
The brown, wood house has no windows; rickety wood posts prop up the porch overhang; and a rusted, leaning chain link fence separates the property line from neighboring lots.
“Our neighborhood has lost many historic structures due to neglect by absentee owners,” Twyla Alston wrote in a letter to the City Council. “The properties outlined in this legislation are owned by the District Government and currently represent an eyesore in our community that attract trash, crime and other negative behavior.”
Its one of about 150 DHCD-managed vacant properties or buildings in the District, about 68 of which sit in Ward 8, according to District records.
Chair Mendelson said one woman he spoke to about the derelict properties said she feared that the boarded house next door might blow over and onto hers. City workers that care for the properties had to cut another house in half because one part was falling off the back, he said.
The three other lots listed in the legislation include: 1518 W St. SE, last sold in December 2013 and currently valued at about $149,000; 1648 U St. SE, last sold in May 2004 and currently valued at about $172,000; and 1220 Maple View Place SE, last sold in May 2014 and currently valued at about $198,000, according to the DC Real Property database.
“They’re vacant and they’re falling apart,” Mendelson said.
That’s where the L’Enfant Trust comes in. The non-profit created an acquisitions revolving fund from grant and donation money to rehabilitate and sell historic Anacostia houses in dire condition, said Trust Executive Director Lauren McHale. The 1772 Foundation, a Rhode Island group dedicated to revitalizing historic areas, is the Trust’s biggest donor.
“We wanted to work in a target neighborhood where rehabilitation will help revitalization,” McHale said. “It was clear to us Anacostia was the place to be… It has a really special history and a lot of people don’t realize what’s over there.”
Two other Trust projects in Anacostia lost the foundation nearly $250,000 in rehab costs versus resale price. But the Trust doesn’t want to make a profit — it wants to revive the community’s history.
“They’re very costly rehabs because they’re so deteriorated,” McHale said. “But also, you have to keep that historic integrity in tact. And where you can’t reuse original material, you have to replace with an in-kind material.”
A Windfall for Residents and the District
Every time the city boards up, cuts the grass, installs temporary stabilizing beams or cuts off a section of these houses, it costs. Depending on the project, that bill can soar to tens of thousands of dollars, Mendelson said.
Even worse, if a person gets hurt on a property because of the dangerous conditions from years of neglect, it could mean a liability suit against the District, he said.
“It would be a windfall by no longer having these negative valued properties and the costs associated with that,” Mendelson said.
Handing these properties to the L’Enfant Trust gives the Trust a chance to use their own funds as a tax-exempt non-profit to rehabilitate each of the four buildings to the historic district standards in DC. Then, the Trust can sell them to people who will actually inhabit and take care of the land — they will no longer sit abandoned.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Charles E. Wilson (8A05) thinks the legislation is “brilliant.” He represents the Anacostia neighbors in the Historic District and said he’s watched the community fight for the District to fix these properties for more than 10 years.
“Just imagine getting up in the morning, going to work and seeing a house next door; Coming home, seeing the house; Cutting your grass, sitting on the porch and seeing the house,” Wilson said. “Imagine the kind of disgust that builds up over the years.”
He met with the last four directors of DHCD because this is the neighborhood’s number one priority, he said. But it’s his opinion that the agency isn’t interested in restoring the houses to their original state.
“Fixing up a house is not sexy enough for them,” he said. “A house versus building a large-scale apartment unit or delivering a number of affordable housing units is not enough for them.”
Understanding DHCD’s Concerns
McHale said resistance to the bill comes from DHCD. She and the Trust tried to approach DHCD a few years back about partnering to fix these houses, but she said DHCD was weary of L’Enfant’s lack of experience in development and rightfully so. The Trust decided to get that experience on two other Anacostia properties first — successful rehabilitations — and came back to DHCD for another try.
In fact, the Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation Office awarded L’Enfant Trust a preservation award in 2015 for the program it started with the two homes in Anacostia.
“We support innovative tools that could help avoid demolition of historic homes due to longtime neglect,” a spokesperson for the Office of Planning said. “We also see partnerships with non-profit organizations as an effective way to support preservation.”
McHale hopes this success will show DHCD that the Trust can help repair these homes.
“These properties have been sitting for so long,” she said. “It’s not fair to the neighbors. It’s not safe.”
DHCD Director Polly Donaldson said the agency prioritizes preserving affordable housing. Since Mayor Muriel Bowser took office, she said DHCD has worked to increase solicitations and get the properties fixed or developed — at least half of DHCD’s vacant or blighted properties are in this stage. But giving away a property outside of this process goes against the agency’s mission.
“Doing so could negatively impact our goal to preserve affordability, eliminates DC's first source and CBE priorities, and discourages the District from getting the best deal for its assets by giving them away without a competitive process,” Donaldson said in a statement.
Handing the properties over to the L’Enfant Trust would do this, but Mendelson added that he thinks DHCD’s worries that the District might lose out on the value of these properties isn’t warranted. A resale price might not even come close to the cost to rehab each one, he said.
“These are money losers for the city,” he said.
With Mendelson’s support and the drafted legislation, the bill has made it to Council review. A public hearing was also set for Oct. 6.
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