City Paper is not for tourists
The head honchos of the District’s executive and legislative branches are engaged in a battle over four ramshackle houses in Historic Anacostia that’s dragged on for more than half a year and probably won’t conclude anytime soon. Meanwhile, neighborhood residents are being forced to tolerate the decades-old eyesores despite their efforts to have them rehabilitated, and the city overall is grappling with a significant housing shortage.
In a yet-unreported budgetary sleight of hand, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson successfully included provisions in the city’s budget for the next fiscal year that prevent Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration from using any local funds to get the four vacant homes refurbished and occupied. The District owns and manages them, and they stand within a few blocks of each other in the historically black neighborhood near the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. As development pushes eastward, real estate in this area has become increasingly valuable. And because the houses are within the Anacostia Historic District, their exteriors cannot be razed.
The political turf war over the homes dates back to last fall and has slow-boiled during the course of 2017. With Mendelson’s latest move in the ongoing saga, it remains unclear how the city will refurbish the houses, which continue to decay and have galled neighbors for years.
“This is disappointing because at the end of the day, the people who are going to suffer are the residents who will continue to have to live near blight,” says Troy Donte Prestwood, chair of the neighborhood commission that covers the homes. “The community’s hope is that the council and the executive can get on the same page, so we could put these homes back into good use.” Anacostia residents went to Mendelson for a legislative solution almost two years ago, Prestwood and others recount.
In December, the council passed legislation requiring the Bowser administration to transfer the houses to The L’Enfant Trust—a D.C.-based nonprofit that specializes in historic preservation and has offered to redevelop the homes into workforce housing at no cost to taxpayers. Residents have widely praised The L’Enfant Trust’s work in Anacostia, which includes renovating two similar homes in line with historic standards.
Despite the council’s legislation, Bowser’s Department of Housing and Community Development released a solicitation for proposals to rehabilitate properties late last year and, in April, awarded the project to the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights. DCCH has been a stalwart of that neighborhood’s transformation over the past three decades, but the houses in Anacostia would be its first east-of-the-river projects. (DCCH did not respond to requests for comment.)
In an interview, Mendelson defends his recent budget amendments, which explicitly prohibit any dollars from D.C.’s affordable housing coffers, as well as any “operating, capital, contingency, or other District funds,” from going toward the redevelopment of the properties. The amendments include an exemption for the “maintenance” and “stabilization” of the houses to reduce the risk of them utterly collapsing.
“It’s as old as the United States that the legislature has the power of the purse,” Mendelson says. He notes that his recent budget provisions are “consistent” with the council’s December legislation.
LaTasha Gunnels, who lives next to one of the vacant homes, explains that men use the adjacent house as “the neighborhood bathroom,” and the smell of urine is sometimes so strong that she can’t sit outside. Gunnels says she has also seen big rats, drug activity, and evidence of PCP around the property, adding that it once took the District about a year to remove graffiti from the house. She’s at her wit’s end about the situation.
“I’m very frustrated with the city. And I’m not happy. And I wish that Mendelson and Muriel Bowser can sit down together with the L’Enfant Trust and just work something out,” Gunnels says. “It’s depressing living next to one of these homes, and at times I’m concerned about my safety.”
The housing department has a portfolio of about 150 other abandoned properties, two-thirds of which are in Wards 7 and 8. Historically, residents have accused the agency of so-called demolition by neglect—a reputation that DHCD, under Director Polly Donaldson, says it’s working to fix through faster dispositions that would result in more affordable housing.
The council’s plan with The L’Enfant Trust would have produced homes for middle-class families who do not make more than 120 percent of the area median income, or nearly $131,000 for a household of four. The idea was to bring greater economic diversity to the neighborhood, which some residents say it sorely lacks. The L’Enfant Trust would have financed the phased redevelopment of the homes through both grants and proceeds from from eventually selling them.
Bowser’s plan, on the other hand, made up to $1.6 million in District affordable housing funds available to DCCH for work on the four homes and to another nonprofit that was concurrently granted the rights to redevelop two empty lots in Historic Anacostia. The properties would have been sold to families making up to 50 and 80 percent of the area median income, or roughly $87,000 at most for a household of four.
Now, due to the language Mendelson put in the fiscal year 2018 budget, which goes into effect Oct. 1, local government money is off the table. And because the District passed an emergency version of the budget earlier this summer—as is standard given D.C.’s unique relationship with Congress—DHCD currently cannot use those funds for the houses.
In a statement, the department says its competitive solicitation and disposition process ensures that low- and moderate-income families benefit the most from the redevelopment of city-owned properties. “We remain committed to transforming these houses into affordable homes for our residents as quickly as we can,” DHCD says. “Given the [budget] amendment, we are working on solutions that will still enable us to meet this critical goal.” (A DHCD spokesperson says the agency is still exploring options for how it will do so.)
On a more-fundamental note, Bowser’s office has maintained that the separation of powers in D.C.’s Home Rule Act means that the executive branch is primarily responsible for disposing of city-owned property: Therefore, the administration contends, the council went out-of-bounds by trying to grant the four houses solely to The L’Enfant Trust. “The executive is wrong about that,” Mendelson says, adding that the council frequently participates in land-disposition agreements related to District property. “They can’t cite anything that says [the council doesn’t have a role].”
Prestwood, the chair of the neighborhood commission, says that in an ideal world the executive would quickly get city-owned properties redeveloped, and construction on the four houses would kick off tomorrow. “For so long, these properties have just stood, and to me they stood as a testament to dysfunction in local government—over multiple administrations and multiple agencies,” he says.
“I love a good fight as long as it’s for the people—as long as it’s for the soul of the community,” says Prestwood. “Any other type of fighting is usually unproductive.”