MS. REBECCA SHEIR
To wrap up today's program, we're gonna stay east of the Anacostia River in Ward 8. For decades, ward 8's been a place where you can buy a house for a fraction of what it would cost elsewhere in the District. But, as Jacob Fenston tells us, that very well may be changing.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
It's early on a Sunday morning, and I'm riding around southeast Washington with William Alston-El, a Ward 8 activist, and John Muller, a local writer and historian.
MR. JOHN MULLER
You want to go up to Robinson Place?
MR. WILLIAM ALSTON-EL
We'll go, take Stanton Road to Robinson Place.
We head up the hill to a narrow street perched above Suitland Parkway. It's an entire neighborhood that's empty. 14 apartment buildings surrounded by chain link fence, the windows covered with plywood.
Look, William, you can see somebody's probably up in there. See how the board…
Wanna see if we can get up in there? See that opening in the fence down there? I bet you we can get in. You want to try, William?
Actually, somebody's living in here. Look. They cut the fence.
There's a gaping hole in the chain link fence and the front doors are wide open.
Knock knock. Knock knock.
There are more than 200 empty apartments here. Some look like the tenants left yesterday.
Look. Miss Anderson. 2711. Apartment 302. She left her keys.
This is what Alston-El calls an abandominium.
It's not that dirty. It's not a lot of feces on the, you know, nobody's been in here to defecate on the floors. So you sweep it out a little bit and you live. This would be great. This would be the best abandominium I'd ever been in, because this is really nice.
Alston-El was homeless, off and on, for 10 years, frequently finding a place to spend the night in abandoned houses and apartments.
The human is like an animal. We're going to find somewhere to live, regardless of if it's in a car, in an empty house. A person has to have someplace to live.
Muller and Alston-El have been visiting abandominiums around Ward 8 for a series on the website Greater Greater Washington, and as part of work on a book about the area's history.
Vacant properties are good for no one. You know? They generate no tax revenue for the city. There'll be no property tax. There's nobody living there. It's a drain on the city.
Across the District, there are hundreds of vacant buildings, many of them here in Ward 8, and many owned by the city government. Alston-El and Muller look at this blighted complex and all the people who are homeless are getting priced out of D.C., and say, the answer is obvious. This is potential housing for thousands of people, if someone would fix it up. Not too far away on W Street, in Anacostia, is a building that sat vacant for more than a decade. An abandominium that Muller and Alston-El wrote about two years ago. But now, the place is buzzing with activity.
MR. JIM DICKERSON
When we walk across here, you have to be careful.
Jim Dickerson runs the housing nonprofit Manna Incorporated, which is in the middle of renovating this 24 unit building.
We got one more to go up.
These are going to be affordable units, but not rentals. The two bedroom condos are being sold below market rate, starting at a subsidized 95,000 dollars.
It enables people to build assets and wealth. Equity. Traditionally, in the country, that's how the middle class was built, and that's how people were able to move up the economic ladder.
Dickerson is a pastor and he speaks with religious zeal about the power of home ownership to help people stay in the city as neighborhoods change.
You know, the waters are parting. The Anacostia River's waters are parting, and the forces of gentrification, and folks who are gentrified, they're coming here. I've lived through every neighborhood. I'm 43 years in D.C. I've seen every neighborhood change. And I know what's going to happen here.
Ward 8 has the lowest rate of home ownership in the District, just about one quarter of residents own their own homes compared to 43 percent citywide. Dickerson says residents need to be able to buy into the neighborhood now so they can benefit from the coming changes. It's not just nonprofit groups that are fixing up old buildings. In nearby Congress Heights, I meet realtor Darrin Davis, with Anacostia River Realty.
MR. DARRIN DAVIS
So this is a luxury condo with the hardwood floor, stainless steel appliances.
For years, people have been predicting neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River would be the next to see the development that's been transforming other parts of the city. Before the recession, there was a small boom with developers snapping up old apartment buildings like this one and converting them to market rate condos. But when this building opened in 2009, Davis says the units wouldn't sell.
We offered no condo fees for a year. We offered to pay your bills for a year.
These days, the market has changed, especially for single family homes.
Right now, I have more buyers -- I mean, we are just swamped with buyers, people calling.
Paulette Garner House is one of those buyers. She grew up in D.C. and has lived here most of her life. Now she's looking to buy in historic Anacostia.
MS. PAULETTE GARNER-HOUSE
I've seen that part of Ward 8 sort of be left behind, and to see it become a vibrant and growing, and I definitely want to be a part of that innovation. You know, who doesn't want to?
But it hasn't been easy finding a place she can afford.
The same house that was maybe four years ago something I could afford. Nothing's changed about the houses. But just the supply and demand has changed.
She's looking for a house that's under 300,000, something that's pretty hard to come by anywhere in the city these days if you don't want to do lots of repairs. But, she says, she's not giving up. Like other first time homebuyers looking in Ward 8, she wants to get in on D.C. real estate while she still can. I'm Jacob Fenston.
You can photos of some of D.C.'s abandominiums on our website, metroconnection.org
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jonathan Wilson, Jacob Fenston, Kavitha Cardoza, Lauren Ober, Lauren Landau and Martin Austermuhle. WAMU's Managing Editor of News is Memo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" Managing Producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our Editorial Assistant. Our intern is Tyler Daniels. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU Engineering and Digital Media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.
Our theme song, "Every Little Bit Hurts," is from the album, "Title Tracks," by John Davis, and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. This week, we also heard from local musicians Show Pony, Y Told, The B-Side Shuffle, Star FK Radium, Drop Electric, Buildings, Sans You, and Cigar Box Planetarium. We have info on all the music we use on metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song. You can also hear the entire show on our website by clicking "This Week On Metro Connection." Or, by subscribing to our podcast, or also on iTunes, Stitcher and the NPR News app.
We hope you can join us next week when we'll shine the spotlight on the past, present and future of Silver Spring. From how the area got its name to the redevelopment of its downtown. Plus, the long playing power of vinyl in Maryland's fourth most populous place.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1
It was a great city for us to be in. And we knew it would be a successful store. And still is.
I'm Rebecca Sheir, and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 News.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and International law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.