1518 W St. SE
1518 W St. SE Credit: The L'Enfant Trust

A drawn-out quarrel over city-owned property between D.C.’s executive and legislative branches has reached a watershed moment, reinvigorating a debate about responsible public stewardship.

Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration announced Tuesday that it has awarded four blighted homes in Historic Anacostia to the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights, despite a law approved by the D.C. Council last year that required the Department of Housing and Community Development to transfer the properties to the L’Enfant Trust, a nonprofit that specializes in historic preservation. The developer proposes to transform the four houses into five single-family homes (one is a duplex) priced at affordable levels, and it has developed more than 130 units of affordable housing over the past 25 years. Some of the Anacostia houses have sat empty in D.C.’s care for decades.

“Residents and DHCD agree that the best way to achieve these goals is through a competitive bidding process that is clear, transparent, and equitable,” DHCD Director Polly Donaldson said in a statement. “We’ve made good on that promise, and we are pleased that we have completed a major step in transforming these long-standing properties into affordable housing for Ward 8.”

But some Anacostia residents felt that the D.C.-based L’Enfant Trust was the right group to redevelop the homes and supported the council’s legislation, spearheaded by Chairman Phil Mendelson and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds. They expressed concern that the homes could negatively impact nearby property values, might collapse, and were attracting illicit activity. The trust, these residents noted, had already successfully fixed up a couple of Anacostia houses.

Meanwhile, Mendelson has cast the administration’s actions with respect to the four properties as intransigent, and remains deeply displeased that Bowser’s side has advanced a decision that will cost taxpayers up to $1.6 million from the District’s affordable-housing fund across six vacant sites. In a blistering statement Wednesday, he called the decision “a waste of money [that] violates the law.”

“The course the Administration is now taking—to ignore the legal transfer of title, to unnecessarily spend precious dollars, to disregard the Anacostia community, and to award the houses to an inexperienced developer—is not governing in the best interest of the District,” Mendelson argued.

The trust did not participate in DHCD’s typical solicitation process, launched last November—after the council had held an October hearing on the legislation—but maintains that it has the expertise and experience to renovate the properties into workforce housing in accordance with historic standards. Lauren McHale, the trust’s executive director, said last month that the group had enough financing to refurbish one of the homes and would be able to put the proceeds from its eventual sale into the following project and so on. The group also got a significant grant for the renovations—promising to do the work mandated by the legislation at no cost to city.

Andre Byers, president and CEO of DCCH, has not responded to a request for comment on the award, but told City Paper in March that his organization was “excited about the opportunity to compete for the development of affordable housing.” The group has been significantly involved in the transformation of its eponymous neighborhood, particularly under late director Robert Moore.

The workforce housing under the L’Enfant Trust’s plan would have been eligible for residents making up to 120 percent of the area median income, or $130,000 a year for a family of four, per the law the council passed. Mendelson points to this as a way to “produce a net gain for a neighborhood that is demanding income diversity.”

DHCD says the affordable housing expected to open at the sites via its plan will be reserved for households making no more than 50 or 80 percent of the area median income, or a max of $86,880 a year for a family of four currently. The agency adds that once renovated, the homes must stay affordable for “at least 15 years for homeownership and 40 years for rental housing,” but that it is still making “final gap financing determinations.” Also under this plan, the four houses will be converted into homes ranging in unit-size from two- to four-bedrooms.

Bowser and DHCD have said the council’s legislation relied upon a flawed process for disposing of District land and that—if it were enforced—it would have set a harmful precedent of not vetting developers. After a February oversight hearing at which Donaldson declined to comment on the legislation, the administration even alleged that the council was violating D.C.’s Home Rule Act through the law. Mendelson retorted that this claim was “mind-boggling,” saying the trust has a proven track record and Bowser did not veto the legislation.

The chairman hasn’t indicated whether he intends to legally challenge the administration’s action, but he previously told City Paper he was weighing his options. “We’re paying for something we could have gotten for free,” his statement reads. In its release Tuesday, DHCD said “every vacant and blighted property in [its] inventory will be in the process of transformation into affordable housing and mixed-use communities by the end of 2017.” The four historic homes are part of this portfolio, which contains more than 150 properties.

As part of the solicitation, DHCD also awarded two vacant lots in Anacostia to nonprofit Mi Casa for redevelopment. The Historic Anacostia Block Association plans to host a meeting Thursday night that Mendelson is expected to attend, at which DHCD’s disposition of the four blighted houses will be discussed.

This post has been updated with additional details from DHCD.