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In 1999, the D.C. Housing Authority launched a 60-acre experiment in Congress Heights: Take more than $100 million, raze two blighted housing projects, build a neighborhood from scratch, and rename it Henson Ridge.
The project gained traction with a $30 million Housing and Urban Development grant from the feds. Over the course of the next nine years—and counting—the Frederick Douglass Homes and Stanton Dwellings projects were dismantled and remade.
The neighborhood had much to brag about: bright town homes, a new street grid, lawns that conjured the new urban-style developments in the suburbs. There were cul de sacs and playgrounds and floor plans named after Ellington and Fitzgerald.
The most crucial aspect, however, the one that defined Henson Ridge, was its government-engineered DNA—those homes would be a 600-unit model of affordable housing, populated with a range of incomes. The plan was to play out in four phases: two low-income rental phases and two homeownership phases.
Residents started moving into Henson Ridge, which is bordered by Alabama Avenue SE and split by Stanton Road SE, in 2003.
Good press followed. The new residents gushed about their fresh starts and first steps toward middle-class stability.
The 280 public-housing rental units were completely occupied by 2007. The homes sold ranged from the high $200,000s to the low $300,000s for three- and four-bedroom units. The first homeownership phase was completed by the beginning of 2007. In April, the next homeownership phase began.
“It was rock and roll down there” a year or two ago, says Jan Silverman, director of sales and marketing for Henson Ridge. He says the sales team had been closing on one to two homes a week. Then in the early part of 2008, the Ridge was all dust-bowl ballads. The nationwide housing crisis had come to Frederick Douglass Court.
In April 2007, 167 town homes went on the market. Ninety of those homes have yet to be sold, Silverman says.
While sales have increased in the last few weeks, Silverman admits the crumbling housing market has had an effect. “We have definitely experienced a slow down over the last couple of months,” he says.
Residents say the new neighborhood has issues bigger than the housing slump—primarily, it’s starting to feel a lot like the old projects.
“I guess wherever you go, there’s going to be something to worry about,” says resident Antione Johnson. “You got to stay where you can afford.”
On the afternoon of July 6, Johnson woke up to a teenager banging on his Bruce Place door, screaming for help. According to the police report, the boy had been stabbed in the neck, shoulder, and elbow. “He was just bleeding,” Johnson recalls. “I couldn’t tell where the blood was coming from.” After the ambulance took the boy away, Johnson wiped off the blood from his front door.
For him, the initial euphoria of living in the new experiment has worn off. Johnson and his neighbors say crime has become an issue. They complain about teenagers hanging out all night, and about the rowdy parties up Bruce Place SE.
“It’s not better or worse than other areas in southeast,” says Officer Larry Reed. “We get a lot of recovered stolen autos here,” along with burglaries, assaults, and drug possessions, he says. On a recent weekday evening, Reed is idling at the entrance to Douglass Court. He says he was ordered to watch over Henson Ridge for his entire shift. He says that for now, the neighborhood is considered a “hot spot.”
Commander Joel Maupin says there has been a “little increase” in crime at Henson Ridge. There has been one murder, a domestic case which was solved. The main problem has been loitering teenagers with nothing to do.
“I think it’s getting there,” says Larry Dwyer, the housing authority’s director of planning and development. “It was a tough neighborhood to start with. Not just Henson Ridge….I think there definitely have been some growing pains, no question about it. Part of it is the general neighborhood dynamic, the emerging neighborhood.”
Dwyer says a revamped rec center is still on his to-do list. Residents say District officials have been promising a new rec center since the early ’80s. A wooden cutout of Smurfette still takes up space next to the ping pong tables. Outside the rec, teenagers and old men hold court in the dark, sitting on jersey barriers and sipping from clear plastic cups.
Dwyer says he’s noticed that Henson Ridge residents have adopted their own informal zero-tolerance policy—fingering neighbors who haven’t bought into the concept of a fresh start. Three tenants, he says, have been evicted “for cause.”
Schnetia Green certainly keeps a list of people she thinks need to go. She worries about those teenagers, and has a few specific ones in mind, including the boy who lit fire to some hay laid to protect new grass off Douglass Court and the others who use the grass under her window as a urinal.
Other incidents are more serious. Green remembers the June 17 afternoon when bullets punctured her apartment. She says she was watching TV from her bedroom when she heard the first gunshot.
Her bedroom has three windows that look onto a set of steps where kids hang out. “I heard the kids out there,” she says. “I assumed it was firecrackers or a bullet….They were out there carrying on and then I just heard the shooting.”
Green, 65, a retired teacher’s assistant, is a housing project veteran who had spent decades in the Frederick Douglass Homes and Barry Farm before returning to the newly christened Henson Ridge. Firecrackers or bullets, she was used to both.
Green didn’t take the sound as any warning shot. But she did call the police when she heard a bullet shatter her living room window. The police were already swarming her block on Bruce Place SE. At least two other houses had already been hit.
After the police took their report on her window, Green retired to her kitchen for a glass of ice water. As she opened the freezer door, a second bullet tore a hole above her kitchen table. It then amputated the handle to her fridge—missing Green’s limbs by a few inches. “It really frightened me,” she says. “I was going to go through the wall myself.”
Mostafa Bouaichi, 57, says a bullet just missed his wife’s ear as she walked through their kitchen that day. Christina Garner, 37, came home from a Hawaii trip to find twin bullet holes above her kitchen table. She stuffed each with tissues. A month later, all three residents say, the pocked walls have yet to be fixed despite promises from Henson Ridge management.
Green moved into Henson Ridge a year ago. Now she’s starting to have second thoughts. “It’s not as safe as I thought it would be,” she says. “I’d rather stay in one of the older houses. They were brick….No bullet would come through the other house.”