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Ward 8: Will Real Estate Heat Up On The East Side Of The River?

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"Abandominiums" across the street from the new Ballou High School in Congress Heights.
Jacob Fenston/WAMU
"Abandominiums" across the street from the new Ballou High School in Congress Heights.
William Alston-El, left, and John Muller at the Parkway Overlook. (Jacob Fenston/WAMU)

For decades, poverty has been on the rise in D.C.’s Ward 8, as low-income residents relocated from other neighborhoods that were becoming more expensive. Ward 8 was a place where you could buy a house for a fraction of what it would cost elsewhere in the District. But that may be changing.

Abandomonium in action

Early on a Sunday morning, William Alston-El, a Ward 8 activist, and John Muller, a local writer and historian are driving around Southeast Washington.

“You want to go up to Robinson Place?” asks Muller. Alston-El drives up a hill to a narrow street perched above Suitland Parkway. It’s an entire empty neighborhood: fourteen apartment buildings, nestled among vacant parking lots and courtyards, surrounded by chain-link fence, the windows covered with plywood.

“Look, William, you can see, somebody’s probably up in there,” says Muller. “Want to see if you can get up in there? See that opening in the fence down there? I bet you we can get in there.”

“Yeah, somebody’s living up in here,” says Alston-El. “They cut the fence.”

There is a gaping hole in the chain-link fence, and the front doors of several buildings are wide open.

There are more than 200 empty apartments here. Some look like tenants left yesterday. The morning sun, through the mini-blinds, hits a bright red accent wall in one bedroom. In another room, children’s handprints and names cover the walls, in red, green and blue. In most units, the keys are still in the front door.

Many apartments had the keys still in the doors. (Jacob Fenston/WAMU)

“Look,” says Alston-El, picking up one set of keys, and reading the tag. “Miss Anderson. 2711, apartment 302. She left her keys."

This is what Alston-El calls an “abandominium,” and it’s a pretty nice one.

“It’s not that dirty, no one’s been in here to defecate on the floors, so you sweep it out a little bit, this would be great. This is a nice apartment. This would be the best abandominium I’d ever been in, because this is really nice.”

Alston-El was homeless off and on for ten 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 if it’s in a car, in an empty house. A person has to have someplace to live.”

Alston-el and Muller have been visiting abandominiums around Ward 8 for a series on the website Greater Greater Washington, and as part of work on a forthcoming book about the area’s history.

“Vacant properties are good for no one,” says Muller. “They generate no tax revenue for the city through property tax, it’s a drain on the city.”

Vacant buildings + low home ownership = ?

Around the city, there are hundreds of vacant buildings, many of them in Ward 8, and many are owned by the city government. This complex, called the Parkway Overlook, was purchased by the D.C. Housing Finance Agency earlier in March, at a foreclosure auction.

Alston-El and Muller look at these blighted apartments, and at all the people who are homeless, or being priced out of D.C., and say the answer is obvious. This is potential housing for thousands of people, if someone would fix up the buildings. The Housing Finance Agency plans to sell the property to a private developer sometime this year, to be redeveloped as affordable housing.

Jim Dickerson, founder and chair of Manna, Inc, which is rehabbing a 24-unit building in Historic Anacostia. (Jacon Fenston/WAMU)

Not too far away, on W Street in Anacostia, is a building that sat vacant for more than a decade. It was an abandominium that Muller and Alston-El wrote about two years ago. But now, the place is buzzing with the activity of about two dozen workers – plumbers, masons, and electricians.

The affordable housing non-profit Manna Incorporated is renovating this 24-unit building, which it has been working to acquire from the District government for the past six years. 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. The $4.6 million project includes funding from private groups, as well as $1.5 million from the city.

Jim Dickerson is the chair of Manna, which he founded in 1982. He says home ownership is the key to helping people climb out of poverty, and stay in neighborhoods as prices soar.

“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. He sees the renovation of this building in Anacostia as a story of death and rebirth.

“This building has been resurrected.” he says. “This was a major drag. It sits in a hole as you see from the street, and it was just like it was dragging everything else down into it — a sinkhole.”

Dickerson’s group, Manna, initially worked in the Shaw and LeDroit Park neighborhoods in Northwest D.C., and focused on rehabbing houses for formerly homeless families. Now, in those parts of the city, average home prices are more than half a million dollars.

“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," Dickerson says.

Ward 8 still has the city’s cheapest housing, but it also has the lowest rate of home-ownership. Just about one-quarter of ward residents own their homes, compared to 43 percent city-wide. 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 non-profit groups that are fixing up old buildings. In nearby Congress Heights, Darrin Davis, with Anacostia River Realty, shows off a unit for sale.

“This is a luxury condo, with the hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, granite counter-tops," Davis says.

20 of the building's 24 units are already pre-sold, and are scheduled to open in October. (Jacob Fenston/WAMU)

Ward 8 the next to change?

For years, people have been predicting neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River would be the next to see the development that has been transforming the rest 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. They tried all sorts of promotions – even offering a free car. Every condo buyer would get a free Smart Car, worth $12,000.

“We offered no condo fees for a year, we offered to pay your bills for a year," he says.

These days, the market has changed, especially for single-family homes.

“Right now, we are just swamped with buyers calling,” Davis says.

Paulette Garner House is one of those buyers. She grew up in D.C., and has lived here most of her life. She’s looking to buy in Historic Anacostia.

“I've seen that part of Ward 8 sort of be left behind, and to see it becoming vibrant and growing, I definitely want to be part of the innovation. Who doesn’t?” House says.

But it hasn't been easy finding a place she can afford.

“The same house that was maybe four years ago something that I could afford, nothing’s changed about the houses, just the supply and demand has changed,”

She’s looking for a house that’s under $300,000, which not easy to come by anywhere in the city these days, if you don’t want to do tons of repairs. But she says she’s not giving up. Like other first-time buyers looking at Ward 8, she wants to get in on D.C. real estate while she still can.

Music: "Epilogue" by Cigarbox Planetarium from Society of Rubber Cement

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