DC Council, DHCD Battle Over Fate of Blighted Homes

Agency Issues Solicitation for Historic Properties

A broken-down District house at 1326 Valley Place SE on the proposed legislation. Twyla Alston lives near this home. Photo: Twyla Alston

A DC housing agency clashed with the DC Council again in December over how to handle a number of blighted properties in Ward 8’s Historic Anacostia. The DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) put out a call on Nov. 29 for bids on six District-owned properties in dire condition in Anacostia. This goes against the Council’s legislation that allows for four of those properties to transfer ownership to the L’Enfant Trust for rehabilitation. The law passed, 13-0, on Dec. 20 with an amendment to transfer the houses to the Trust by Jan. 31, 2017.

The houses at 1518 W St. SE, 1648 U St. SE, 1220 Maple View Place SE, and 1326 Valley Place SE require complete renovations because the District has left them to deteriorate for years. Neighbors complain that the properties draw crime, devalue their own property, and are not pleasing to live near.

Council Chair Phil Mendelson and At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds introduced the legislation with the idea of fixing the homes at no cost to the District. But if DHCD hands the lots over to a developer, the renovations could cost District taxpayers upwards of $2.2 million. 

Funds for Developers of the Properties

In its Nov. 29 solicitation for offers (SFO), DHCD called for proposals that develop the four houses and two lots into seven single-family homes suited for “workforce housing” – affordable housing for DC residents like teachers, firefighters, and police officers making about $87,000 or less. DHCD Director Polly Donaldson called the agency’s plan an aggressive effort to move forward on the vacant and blighted properties. “We are pleased to show progress in disposing of these longstanding vacant properties,” Donaldson wrote in a statement. “The end result will be new, vibrant affordable homes for District residents making no more than 80 percent of the area median income.”

DHCD offered each of the lots for individual sale, and said the District can likely support the proposed projects up to a total of $2.2 million from the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF). DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has committed $100 million in the annual city budget to the HPTF.

Donaldson stepped up DHCD’s process for rehabilitating or disposing of the vacant properties in 2014, she said. That includes a shortened time for requests for proposals (from years down to 18 months) and a streamlined application for both HPTF and federal funding. Donaldson acknowledged the Council’s and Mendelson’s goals but said DHCD plans to move forward with its application deadline for developers on Jan. 12, 2017. She wants to “ensure that the development process moves expeditiously.”

Council Chair Mendelson said DHCD’s new solicitation is in direct conflict with the Council’s legislation and goes against the best interests of the city. “I think it’s pretty outrageous how DHCD has handled these properties. These properties have been vacant for decades,” he said. “They are dilapidated, they are a nuisance, they are a cost to the city. They have a negative value.”

Rehabilitation at No Cost to Taxpayers

Bill 21-837, “The Historic Preservation of Derelict District Properties Act of 2016,” gives the four District-owned properties to L’Enfant Trust, a nonprofit with experience preserving and revitalizing other buildings and lots in DC’s historic neighborhoods. The bill stipulates the Trust must renovate the properties to single-family homes and sell them as “workforce housing,” the same stipulation as DHCD.

The District would lose out on the sale or rent of the property if the Council’s legislation wins. But Mendelson argued that the cost to renovate and the years of neglecting those sites at the expense of residents far outweigh any benefit of keeping them. “On the one hand, the city has the opportunity to get these houses rehabbed and occupied, free of charge to the city. Or the city could pay $2.2 million to rehab them, maybe to historic District standards.”

The battle over how to handle the properties has dismayed Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Charles E. Wilson (8A05). “The legislation that passed is a win-win for the neighborhood, a win-win for the city,” he said. To him the Council’s legislation provides the best benefit to the residents of Historic Anacostia. L’Enfant Trust has a proven record of rehabilitating historic homes in the area, has the community’s support, and offers a plan that won’t cost the city a dime, he said. He called DHCD’s call for bids “selfish” and “disappointing.” “None of the people who are making those decisions live in the neighborhood, where they have to live next door to a distressed property,” Wilson said.  

DHCD owns other blighted properties in Historic Anacostia, Wilson said. He doesn’t understand why they don’t leave the four properties in the Council’s legislation to the Trust and focus on the others. The agency has neglected them for years despite “screams” for fixes from neighbors. “It really shows a lack of sincerity,” Wilson said.


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