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When Habitat for Humanity announced a house-building “blitz” in Anacostia this spring, 35 members of Congress, including D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, showed up to lend a hand. The lawmakers wielded hammers and hoisted beams as the media snapped their photos.
The site of the blitz was Park Skyland, a six-block community of modestly priced homes off Good Hope Road SE. To the dignitaries who participated in the project, the neighborhood no doubt looked like a perfect place for Habitat’s new town-house development, the largest ever undertaken by the group. It is a quiet enclave of nice brick homes, which appear to fit nicely alongside the Habitat town houses.
That’s also how it appeared to Habitat managers. After all, the group is used to being hailed as a savior when it plops low-cost dwellings in inner-city neighborhoods. The Habitat formularequiring low-income families to help build their own houseshas earned praise from everyone. Liberals love it because it helps the poor, and conservatives love it because it helps the poor without using taxpayers’ money. Thanks to an efficient PR machine, the group has more volunteers than it needs. And every time a Habitat house goes up, a puffy news story follows.
But Park Skyland residents don’t share the consensus view on Habitat. Unlike most communities that Habitat moves into, Park Skyland doesn’t suffer from a surplus of renters and low property values. Instead, the community is a tiny little pocket of relative affluence in Anacostia that is populated by nice carsJaguars, Mercedeses, Volvoswell-groomed lawns, and stable middle-class black residents. New neighborhood town houses have sold for $113,000 to $115,000the high end in Ward 8. Only 8 percent of all houses in the ward are worth $100,000 or more, and fully one-quarter of the housing stock is subsidized by the government.
Inner-city ills surround the community. Just up the hill, hookers stroll in front of the elementary school, and over a block or so are Woodland Terrace and Bruce and Ainger Places, some of the city’s worst drug corridors.
Citing their community’s fragile ecosystem, Skyland residents warned that Habitat would completely overwhelm them with its plan to put between 68 and 110 low-income residentsmostly single moms with young kidsin a community that only had about 100 homes to begin with. The development, they feared, would replicate the public housing models they had seen fail miserably elsewhere in Anacostia and the District. So like any good group of homeowners, they fought back.
James Taylor Jr. and his wife couldn’t believe they were still in D.C. when they first looked at their $113,000 town house in Park Skyland four years ago. The area was pristine, the houses new, and the neighbors were people like them: older folks with good jobs and grown kids. Their house was one of nine town houses on the street built by a developer who intended to build 36 homes but was foreclosed on and never finished the other side of the street. The Taylors assumed that eventually someone else would come in and finish the project, which would only boost the value of their own home.
But in 1994, they learned that the new developer was Habitat, which had bought the land from the Resolution Trust Corp. for $189,000. In 1994, Habitat executive director Carol Casperson sent the local advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) a letter informing it of the planned development, prompting Taylor to incorporate the Park Skyland Civic Association. The association collected signatures from 70 residents on a petition opposing the development, which was proceeding without public input.
The petition apparently marked the first organized resistance to a Habitat project in the group’s history. In an effort to mollify the residents, Habitat president Dennis Smyth wrote a letter to Taylor claiming that the development would not depress neighborhood real estate. Market values of Habitat homes, he pledged, would range from $100,000 to $115,000, and the group intended to “complet[e] the community as it was originally planned.” The original plans required that the fronts and sides of all townhouses have brick façades, according to a 1995 letter from D.C. Office of Planning director Albert Dobbins to Taylor.
When the first four houses went up in 1995, though, Taylor and some of his neighbors discovered that Habitat’s assurances were the only façade in the plan. The Habitat houses were completely vinyl-sided, without a hint of the brick that is characteristic of not only Skyland Terrace but of Anacostia in general. And while Taylor’s town house has three bedrooms, two and a half baths, and a basement and deck, the Habitat houses have three bedrooms but only one bathroom, no basement, and no deck. The houses are valued at about $65,000barely half of Taylor’s.
When Taylor approached Casperson with his concerns, he says she responded, “You will learn to live with it.”
The civic association first appealed to its ANC and then tried to oppose the development at the zoning board and the planning commission. However, there was no procedural opportunity to stop the project: Habitat is using the 13-year-old construction permit that was granted to the original developer. Taylor has a mountain of documents from government officials telling him that he doesn’t have any leverage to stop or alter the Habitat development. The upshot is that Habitat has been able to make changes to the original plan for the town houses, like removing bathrooms and basements, without any public hearings.
Taylor is also concerned that Habitat has changed the design for the retaining walls in back of a row of town houses that border Fort Stanton Park. The development was constructed on compacted landfill from Metro construction, so the soil needs to be buttressed to keep the houses from sliding down the hill in a big mud slide. The original development plans called for concrete retaining walls in the back of the houses, but Habitat has opted for a cheaper approach: treated railroad ties. Taylor fears that the ties will leave the houses in peril in a few years and sink property values in the neighborhood.
Now, with nine of the Habitat town houses finished and occupied, the civic association has few options left except a lawsuit. But that seems unlikely; the group has no money to speak of, and the only lawyer they could get to represent them pro bonoon the advice of former Ward 8 Councilmember Eydie Whittingtonis former taxicab commissioner Karen Jones Herbert. (Herbert was ingloriously dumped from the taxicab commission last year after activist Sandra Seegars discovered that she illegally held two driver’s licenses and did not live in the District.)
Before Habitat moved in, Skyland residents never had a reason to be NIMBYites. They lacked the skills of neighborhood activismfiling suits, lobbying politicians, building support networkshoned by leaders in Shaw, Georgetown, and Dupont Circle. So once the Habitat development took root, Taylor and his neighbors on the civic association found themselves overmatched.
Habitat had President Clinton, powerful congressmen, and the force of righteousness, which they waved at every hint of protest from neighbors, who were brushed off as uncharitable snobs. Casperson told the Washington Post in 1995 that the neighbors didn’t understand the poor. “They have a lot of misconceptions about people who happen to have a different economic status,” she said.
Taylor still fumes over Casperson’s comment. “She said we don’t remember what it’s like to be poor!” he says as he reaches over to pick up an old black and white framed photo of three children sitting on the stoop of a ramshackle house. “That’s me and my sisters at our house in Anacostia. Take a look at that shack and tell me if I don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”
Terry Dawkins tells a similar story. A sales manager for Washington Sports, owner of the Washington Wizards and Capitals, Dawkins grew up in Washington’s inner city and opted to move to Anacostia because he wanted to keep his tax dollars in the District. He says the people from Habitat were condescending to Skyland’s older residents, dismissing legitimate concerns over the development.
“They tried to pit middle-class blacks against poor blacks, and that wasn’t the case at all,” says Dawkins. “Most of us are not that far from being [poor] ourselves. It’s not like we’re tucked away on some island where there are only rich people.”
Casperson insists that Taylor and Hawkins are alone in their criticism of Habitat, and ticks off the project’s long line of supporters, including the 35 members of Congress.
“Jim Taylor is a strange man,” Casperson says. “I think he thinks he is one of those big protesters in the streets from 1968.” She says Taylor has accused her of having a “white slave-owner mentality,” and says he went around the neighborhood telling people Habitat intended to build some shacks on Skyland Terrace. “These guys are relentless to get their names in the paper,” says Casperson.
When asked about the substance of Taylor’s complaints, she is equally dismissive. The rap that Habitat didn’t build the sort of homes it had promised, she says, is “untrue.” And she gets downright snotty when asked about the wisdom of cramming six people into a house with one bathroom. “How many bathrooms did you have in your house growing up?” she asks.
She hedges when I ask her about Habitat’s skirting the public hearing process, saying that only two people showed up at the zoning hearing on some changes to the development. She doesn’t mention that because Habitat is using the original construction permit for the development, only the witnesses who testified on the original plan 11 years earlier were allowed to testify at the 1995 hearing. Two of those people did, and at least one of them opposed Habitat’s plan.
Casperson deflects all questions about the quality of the Habitat houses and the impact of moving large numbers of poor people into a middle-class neighborhood by taking personal potshots at Taylor and Dawkins. “I think these guys need to think about doing something positive,” Casperson says, adding that maybe they should consider volunteering at the local elementary school, as some of the Habitat moms are doing. She also suggests checking out Taylor’s Park Skyland Civic Association, which she says isn’t legal. “Our homeowners would like to join a civic association, but only a legal one,” she says.
In fact, Park Skyland was incorporated with the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in November 1995 and is current in all its taxes and other fees. Further, Casperson’s characterization of Taylor as a “strange man” and a “crackpot” is as baseless as her comments on the civic association.
Taylor is the classic “old head,” a term coined by sociologist Elijah Anderson to describe older black residents of neighborhoods on the edge. Old heads are the people who still tell the neighbors’ kids to mind their manners and keep an eye on their streets. A retired federal worker, Taylor is a dedicated volunteer and an active member of the League of 8,000, a public-works advocacy group whose members include Dupont Circle activist Marilyn Groves and former At-Large D.C. Council candidate Paul Savage.
In their early meetings with Habitat, Taylor and other Park Skyland folks inquired about recreational areas for all the kids who would be moving into the development. Casperson told Taylor that the kids could play at Stanton Elementary School and at the Fort Stanton recreation center, and refused to consider building a playground in the new development.
Taylor had reason to be concerned. As he drives up Wagner Street to the back of Stanton last Friday morning, he points to a woman who’s sitting out on the steps of the playground on 25th Street. “She’s not out here for the air,” he explains. Wagner and 25th is a popular spot for the neighborhood prostitutes, and the kids from the Habitat homes would have to pass through the scene on their way to the playground. He then drives down the road a ways and points out a path from Skyland Terrace through some woods that surfaces around Bruce Place and Woodland Terrace, a public housing project and a thriving drug market. We drive past Ainger Place, another menacing street, and Taylor explains that this is the route that kids from Habitat would have to take to get to the Fort Stanton rec center. “The kids who live here now won’t walk through this,” Taylor says.
What saddens Taylor is that he says he holds no ill will toward the people who live in the Habitat homes. He has even served as a character reference for a young woman applying to move into one of the homes. Even so, because the opposition to the houses has been characterized as opposition to poor people, the neighborhood is not especially friendly. “This lady across the street is so nice and considerate keeping her place up. I admire her. But I guess because of what Ms. Casperson said…there’s this ‘them and us’ mentality.”CP