City Paper is not for tourists
Homes Not Jails’ second try at DIY is built on shaky ground.
There isn’t much of a front door at 1959 H St. NE. Instead, there’s a jumble of foam wrapped in layers of masking tape. A thin strip of wood dangles from the top. On the porch, there’s a black sofa, tiny piles of litter, and some mail stuffed into a cardboard box.
Knock on the wood strip a few times and what passes for a door tilts open. A man peers out. He says his name is Joe. He’s homeless, and he has been squatting in the house for a month now as a volunteer for the radical housing advocacy group Homes Not Jails. His scraggly hair has the consistency of pipe cleaners, and it peeks out from underneath a black baseball cap with a net back. A rural-Virginia twang drips from his words as he talks.
Joe leads the way into the house. Upstairs, a kerosene heater sits on the hallway’s wood floor. A red plastic container half-filled with kerosene rests just a few feet away. Joe sleeps on a mattress with a comfy blue spread in the back room up here. Thomas, a homeless man who says he finds shelters too confining, sleeps in the front room upstairs.
The bathroom has a sunny skylight, but the rest of the ceiling has been torn out. It was rotting, Joe says. It lies in pieces all over the floor and bathtub.
Otherwise, the house is in essentially good condition. Its walls are intact, and the wood floor looks promising beneath a film of paint and dust. Though it has a long way to go before it’s habitable, it’s clear that some work has been done on the place.
Making 1959 H St. NE habitable is precisely what Homes Not Jails promised, however, when it took over this house on a cold cloudy morning last Thanksgiving. The group, which sprouted up in the District after the World Bank protests here last April, met at the former Hechinger Mall in D.C.’s Langston-Carver neighborhood. Activists marched through the residential blocks of H Street NE near Benning Roadwith media in towand then seized the house where Joe sleeps today. Homes Not Jails members unfurled two giant banners in front of the place and began hauling supplies into the seized property.
The group vowed to work around the clock in eight-hour shifts to get the home ready for Nadine Green, a District resident with two children who said that she couldn’t find a landlord who would take her Section 8 housing voucher. The voucher would soon expire, she explained, and she would be homeless.
Four months later, the unassuming two-story, white-brick house is tidier, though it’s still cluttered. Red plywood is nailed over the windows. The house has no water, heat, or electricity. A white banner hangs lazily over the porch rail. Its large black letters, smudged by rain and wind, announce “Homes Not Jails.”
Green doesn’t live here. Joe and Thomas do. For the moment, at least.
There are thousands of abandoned homes in the Districtas many as 30,000, according to some accounts. Through its protests and direct action, Homes Not Jails wants to seize some of those properties to house the homeless and D.C. residents who remain trapped on a 12,000-name waiting list for Section 8 housing.
The original Homes Not Jails was formed in San Francisco in 1993. It has attempted dozens of home takeovers in the Bay Area, though it has always been evicted eventually. The Homes Not Jails movement later spread to both Boston and D.C. The District’s contingent has seized two other houses besides the one on H Streetone last July, at 2809 Sherman Ave. NW, and another in late February, at 304 K St. NE. The H Street house is the only one that the group has managed to occupy for more than a few days.
Each Homes Not Jails takeover in D.C. has succeeded in drawing crowds of neighbors and intense media coverage. What the group’s protests haven’t managed to provide is safe, livable housing. That gap between protest and practice bothers Mark Phillips, who serves as director of the Carver Terrace Community Development Corp., a neighborhood group in the vicinity of the H Street property.
Phillips says that his group has worked hard, along with the Metropolitan Police Department and the Department of Justice’s Weed and Seed program, to rebuild this formerly drug-saturated neighborhood. “[Homes Not Jails] wouldn’t have been able to walk down that street a few years ago,” Phillips says.
Community leaders such as Phillips say they support Homes Not Jails’ goal of refurbishing vacant houses. They even wanted to help with the H Street house’s rehab. They are dismayed, however, that they haven’t had substantial contacts with the protesters.
Worse yet, Phillips complains, is that the activists haven’t cleaned up the property completely. He argues that such half-done jobs encourage illegal squatting and drug use. “It seems like they’re more concerned with making headlines,” Phillips says.
It’s not the first time Homes Not Jails has had trouble with neighbors. Though the group’s first D.C. target, seized on July 19, 2000 (“Lose-Lose Situation,” July 28, 2000), was vacant when Homes Not Jails took over, it turned out to be a privately owned property that was set for public tax auction. As a result, D.C. police, with encouragement from neighbors, booted the group out. (Police also intervened in the third Homes Not Jails occupation in February.)
Determined to learn from that previous error, Homes Not Jails targeted a house that its members believed was owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Group members canvassed the 1900 block of H Street NE, telling neighbors of their planned Thanksgiving takeover and asking for their support.
Initially, the group’s second protest accomplished considerably more than its first effort. Homes Not Jails volunteers cleaned up the kitchen and living room, put in a new banister, planted flowers, and installed the bathroom’s skylight. Several neighbors say they supported the action and even gave the group food and water.
Jennifer Kirby, head of D.C.’s Homes Not Jails contingent, also attended a December meeting of neighborhood groups, at which she talked with 15 community leaders about the effort. Everyone involved left that meeting believing that a partnership between the protesters and the neighborhood to fix up 1959 H St. NE was possible.
As the winter set in, the H Street
honeymoon came to an end.
Neighborhood leaders kept a close eye on the progress of the house. Phillips notes that when they saw an abandoned car in the yard, along with a metal drum in which the group ignited fires to keep warm, there was a collective cringe.
Kirby argues that her group’s work has been slowed by the lack of electricity and water at the house, utilities they can’t turn on legally. She adds that the car on the lawn was an eyesore inherited by Homes Not Jails and that the group subsequently got rid of it.
Asked about Phillips’ complaints, Kirby says, “It sounds like I should give him a call.”
But Homes Not Jails has a bigger problem than a fix-up project with no utilities and a junked car: Once again, a house that the group has seized (valued at $58,035 in May 1997) has turned out to be a privately owned property.
District housing records reveal that HUD seized the property’s mortgage note in May 1997 for $115,141 because the original owners, Charles Evans III and Barbara C. Washington, had not made payments on their Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage. Typically, if the owners of a property default on an FHA mortgage, HUD pays off the mortgage company and auctions off the house.
In this case, HUD sold the mortgage note for 1959 H St. NE, along with more than 8,000 other defaulted notes, to the Salomon Bros. mortgage company in September 2000 for $467 million. If and when Salomon Bros. forecloses, it will own the property. Neither Salomon Bros. nor Litton Loan Services, its contractor handling the property, would confirm whether it intends to foreclose on the house in the near future.
Homes Not Jails hopes to convince Salomon Bros. to donate the house to the Baltimore Environmental Crisis Center, a nonprofit with a housing-donation program, and thus gain a tax write-off. Kirby argues that it won’t take the activist group long to finish refurbishing the propertyif Homes Not Jails can gain control of the house and turn on its utilities.
Phillips remains skeptical. “When I first spoke with them,” he recalls, “they said they didn’t expect to be there that long because they’d be arrested. I think now they’re making it up as they go along.”
In essence, disputes such as the one over 1959 H St. are clashes of style and turf. Community leaders favor traditional channels; Homes Not Jails prefers a more ad hoc approach.
“We’re doing this because the city is not meeting people’s needs,” says Kirby. “If we’re stepping on other people’s turf…there’s such a crisis in our city, we have to get around that. The housing needs in the city have been neglected for so long that we need someone to step up and take direct action.”
ANC 5B11 representative Bernard Richardson doesn’t have the same crisis mentality. “We’re still willing to work with them,” says Richardson. “I support their idea 100 percent. We all care about the homeless. We could have really assisted them with the funding. If you get the community involved, a lot can come out of it.”
In the meantime, the house at the center of the controversy remains tangled in the competing interests of Homes Not Jails and community leaders and in the slow grind of HUD bureaucracy and Salomon Bros.
Only Green, the woman who was about to lose her housing voucher, seems to have made her way out of the H Street labyrinth. After the publicity from the Homes Not Jails action, Green and her children were granted another housing voucher and found a place to live in a new Section 8 housing complex on Barnaby Road in Southeast. CP