When defensive neighbors chased muddle-headed activists out of an abandoned row house, the city was the biggest loser of all.
When D.C. Battalion Fire Chief James Short Jr. completed his building inspection and walked out the front door of 2809 Sherman Ave. NW last Friday afternoon, he seemed to have gone about the task with some glee. As a widening grin expanded across his face, Short hitched up his trousers and declared the building unsafe. A danger, in fact. With that, the Columbia Heights row house was boarded up a second time, by order of the D.C. government.
The shuttering was the final act in the District’s latest municipal melodrama. For three media-saturated days, activists who had taken over the abandoned property with intentions of rehabilitating it for a homeless family—cleaning the building and its environs, repairing and painting its walls, even planting some white flowers called Compact Innocence in the front yard—were forced to evacuate. Around 8:30 that evening, two neighborhood stabilization officers from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs supervised a crew of city workers as they cut plywood boards and nailed them over the home’s first-floor doors and windows.
The crush of local media generally reported the story as a victory for vigilant Sherman Avenue neighbors and as a defeat for the “ragtag assemblage of housing activists,” as the Washington Post referred to them.
And what did the neighbors win, exactly? A boarded-up house, in a section of town where police and fire officials seem to respond more vigorously to guerrilla activists than real victims. “We had a shooting two days ago, and we couldn’t get no one to come around here,” said one neighbor, surveying the eight squad cars that had converged on two city blocks as he strolled by Friday afternoon with a child in hand.
In most parts of town, neighbors—let alone interlopers from the media—wouldn’t declare a boarded-up building a victory. And as time goes by, Sherman Avenue won’t, either. Friday’s story may have played out as a case of outraged neighbors beating naive activists, but in reality, we all lost the battle. A homeless family remains homeless. An activist group has botched a worthy effort. A neighborhood hasn’t gotten any safer. And a city with too many homeless families, too many blighted properties, and too much apathy about both of those problems finds itself no closer to solving either of them.
The first loser last week was the homeless family itself. Instead of occupying a newly renovated house on Sherman Avenue, Lenora Yarborough, fiance Clayton Mosley, and their two children had to keep sleeping on friends’ sofas.
That’s a far cry from what the activist group, Homes Not Jails, had promised them. In press releases and before the TV cameras, activists had declared that they were transforming the abandoned house into a home for a family desperately in need of shelter. “Lenora, Clayton, and their two children have been homeless for three years,” read one flier handed to neighbors and passers-by on Wednesday. “They live in different friends’ houses and wish to stabilize their lives by living under the same roof.”
Even if the activists had succeeded in fixing up the house, the family would still have been out of luck. Despite what one Homes Not Jails member called “extensive research,” activists failed to realize that 2809 Sherman Ave. had been put up for bid in a tax auction that same week. If owner Paul Musoke fails to pay the tax lien in the next six months, the successful bidder will become the house’s rightful new owner. And any unauthorized occupants—even a homeless family invited in by well-meaning activists—would be out on the street again.
As it turned out, Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, anxious to defuse the situation, arranged with the feds for the family to receive an emergency Section 8 voucher. The voucher hardly ensures the family housing, however.
Homes Not Jails, of course, wound up losing just as much. The activists took an important cause and made it look like a gimmick—and a poorly planned one at that. They entered the property and the surrounding neighborhood without even approaching neighbors on the street, giving the community the impression that their takeover was indeed hostile.
A simple knock on some doors might have won over many of the folks who ended up vociferous adversaries. The activists, after all, were cleaning up, planting flowers, and generally erasing blight—something it’s hard to quarrel with, even if you’re a homeowner who’s wary of homeless people. Few people really want to live next to a boarded-up building.
And introducing the family that might have occupied the house wouldn’t have hurt, either.
But instead of showing the new neighbors the basic respect that comes with introducing yourself and explaining your plans, the activists treated Sherman Avenue to a spectacle many people in black D.C. neighborhoods have seen too many times: a largely white group of outsiders with an agenda, imposing their we-know-better-than-you-do will.
So Sherman Avenue residents ended up fighting the faceless, unsympathetic homeless and a group of largely young white activists who looked as if they had just come back from a Phish concert. No wonder the debate about blight and homelessness got poisoned by D.C.’s toxic racial environment.
Walk down Sherman Avenue today and you get the sense that in the long run, the neighborhood may be a bigger loser than the family or the activists as a result of last week’s tussle.
In three days of media demagoguing, vocal residents successfully defended their neighborhood from interlopers. But who benefited? An absentee landlord, Musoke, whom city officials finally tracked down in Uganda. According to neighbors, Musoke owns several other properties in the neighborhood, all in similar states of disrepair. In other words, he’s the kind of guy many District community leaders would normally tar and feather. But last Friday, Sherman Avenue’s best and brightest turned out to defend him.
Now that his neighbors have taken to the streets to protect his right to blight, will Musoke—or a successor owner—repair the property and hand it to a hard-working family of strivers? Few others in the neighborhood are selling houses to folks fitting that description. For anxious neighbors, living near a boarded-up building may be better than having property values suppressed by formerly homeless residents or having the block threatened by gentrification, but that’s hardly the same thing as a victory.
The final loser is the District itself. After last week’s spectacle, it’ll be a long time before anyone else takes a chance on connecting any of the city’s thousands of abandoned properties with its propertyless residents.
With just a little effort and attentiveness by city agencies, these properties could again be a net gain for both the tax rolls and the communities in which they sit. Instead of moving in that direction, the city spent its resources to board up 2809 Sherman Ave. a second time. A week later, we’re right back where we started. CP