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Anacostia Spruces Up Historic Homes With Grant Program

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This historic Anacostia home was the pilot project in the DC Office of Planning’s Historic Homeowner Grant Program.
Rebecca Sheir
This historic Anacostia home was the pilot project in the DC Office of Planning’s Historic Homeowner Grant Program.

New retail and restaurants aren't the only things changing the face of Anacostia. Something else that's bringing new life to the neighborhood are the houses — like the one owned by 81-year-old Eunice Roy.

"I love my windows," the lifelong Washingtonian says. "Those are the ones they put in for me — I love it."

Roy's new windows came as part of the District's Historic Homeowner Grant Program. Before receiving the grant, Roy says her windows were "old! Air was just coming in. And it was cold in here. But now it's nice. And I just love it."

The D.C. Office of Planning is administering the grant, which can go up to $35,000.

"So you're not turning any house into a palace," says Brendan Meyer, a historic preservation specialist with the office. "We're not doing any work on the interior. It's really the outside of the house: what makes the house weather-tight, because that's the most public part of the house.

"The outside of every house, all of those together, make up the character of the historic district. And that's really what my office is charged with doing: protecting the historic character of the neighborhoods."

Grants are available to low- and moderate-income households in 12 of D.C.'s historic districts: Anacostia, Capitol Hill, LeDroit Park, Shaw, Blagden Alley, Mount Vernon Square, Mount Pleasant, Striver's Section, Takoma, 14th Street and U Street.

Saving homes

Mayor Adrian Fenty launched the program in 2008 in Anacostia, "because that's where the need was greatest," says Meyer. Since then, nearly 100 households have received grants.

"We did most of those before 2010," Meyer explains. "when the city really had some budget difficulties and went through a crunch. So our program was one of the programs that was forced to slow down, in terms of our funding."

But now the program is back and going strong, especially in Anacostia, which has been an official historic district since 1978. It has about 300 homes. And walking around the neighborhood, one will see they're in various conditions. On one block, there's a dark grey one that's barely standing.

"The property owner is not around anymore," Meyer says. "Didn't have the resources to maintain this. Right now the city has come in and stabilized it. And even our grant program can't help this."

But then right next door, there's this bright white house that the program could help, and did.

"The house had aluminum siding all over it, and we ripped off all the aluminum siding to restore it down to the original wood siding," explains Ahmed Jabali Nash, the restoration's project manager. "We painted it, and we restored the front of it, took up the old flooring and put down new tongue and groove flooring, and restored the house back to its historical piece."

Nash co-owns Housing Evaluations Plus, a contracting company that's worked on several grant-recipients' homes in Anacostia. And an interesting thing about contractors like HEP, Brendan Meyer says, is the Office of Planning has nothing to do with finding them.

"The homeowners apply for the grant, and they state what parts of the houses they want to fix up," he says. "And along with that, they include three bids from three different contractors. And part of our review, not only are we looking for what would be the most interesting parts of the house to restore and fix up, but we're also looking to make sure that they're working with legitimate contractors who are licensed, who are giving them a fair price."

As Meyer mentioned before, the Historic Homeowner Grant Program can't help every house. Some, like that dilapidated grey one, need way more TLC than the program can give. And others, like a purplish one a few blocks away, can only go so far.

"This house was in the family for three generations, and three generations were still living in the house," says Meyer. "It was in the worst shape of any house we had in the grant program."

At some point, someone had slapped on this fake-brick siding, and that was falling apart, the porch was crumbling and the rear wall was caving in.

"The maximum grant took care of what we could," Meyer says. "We reconstructed the back of the house. We put up the new front porch. We took off the Insul-Brick siding. We restored the original wood siding that was still underneath there."

Things were definitely looking up. But this was back in 2008, just after the housing bubble, "so this is one of those homeowners that despite our help, despite their best efforts, they eventually got foreclosed on," Meyer says. "And in the short time that they've been out of the house, somebody's stolen the gutters."

So that lovely purplish paint on the original wood siding is now being washed away. It's heartbreaking, Meyer says, but there is a silver lining to the story.

The house next to the purplish one had been in a pretty sorry state, too, "but a developer bought this house, and did the same restoration work that we did on the first house," Meyer says. " So once we fixed this [first house] up, that house became a lot more attractive as an investment, as a place to live.

"So we can't help everybody, but we sure helped the street!"

So much so, in fact, that now the purplish house actually has permits in the front window. "So I know that although the bank had to foreclose, the bank has now sold it to a developer," Meyer says. "And the developer is going to start where we left off, and hopefully get another family in here."

Brendan Meyer says the Office of Planning hopes to continue the Historic Homeowner Grant Program for as long as funding is available. Because even though, as he mentioned earlier, $35,000 won't turn a house into a palace, it can certainly go a long way toward making a person feel like his or her home is a castle.


[Music: "Cold, Cold Heart" by Bill Frisell from The Willies]

Photos: Historic Homes

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