Muriel Bowser and Phil Mendelson both want to be stewards of good government. Yet in an ongoing tug-of-war over four vacant homes the city owns in Historic Anacostia, the mayor and the D.C. Council chairman are accusing each other of not doing what’s in the best interest of residents. Meanwhile, the houses continue to deteriorate, untouched.
The squabble emerged last year, when the council—at the urging of Mendelson and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds—passed legislation requiring the executive branch to transfer the four properties to the L’Enfant Trust, a nonprofit that specializes in historic renovations. Anacostia residents had long complained about the derelict condition of the old homes, which the Department of Housing and Community Development administers.
But in a statement provided to City Paper, Bowser’s office contests the validity of the legislation, charging that the council has overreached its authority under D.C.’s foundational charter. “The legislation is a non-starter because it violates separation of powers as established in the Home Rule Act,” the administration says. Congress implemented the District of Columbia Home Rule Act in 1973. The administration says D.C.’s executive branch has had the responsibility to dispose of land since before this act was passed.
“It is especially egregious when legislation tells the Mayor who the property should be given to,” the statement further explains. “This is nothing more than a clear sole-sourced disposition of land by the Council—for properties that have demonstrated interest from multiple parties.” The executive branch says it’s “committed to a fair and open” bidding process.
And so a low-burning constitutional quarrel has risen from a set of unoccupied buildings.
“This is their latest argument,” Mendelson, plainly peeved, said in an interview this week. The chairman noted that DHCD only launched the solicitation process for the properties in late November—after the council had initially approved the legislation. “Clearly, there’s an ulterior motive,” Mendelson said, declining to “speculate” about what it might be. “And they never raised this home-rule issue, which—just to even repeat those words—is mind-boggling.” He pointed out that DHCD’s process makes roughly $2 million in District funds available to whoever wins the bid for the homes, while the trust would fix them at no cost to the city. “It has nothing to do with home rule—it has to do with wasting money,” he said.
What will happen next remains unclear. Mendelson says he’s “weighing options.” And the mayor’s office didn’t provide comment about potential legal action or review when asked.
Having thought the matter was resolved, neighborhood residents are growing impatient with the D.C. government. Virgie Barron, who’s lived in Anacostia for 22 years, recently told City Paper that the city has owned one of the homes “for as long as I can remember.”
“They have done absolutely nothing with this house other than cut the grass,” she noted. Barron supports giving the houses to the L’Enfant Trust, whose plans she sees as a “gift.”
Last October, DHCD Director Polly Donaldson testified against the legislation during a council hearing. She said the department agreed about turning the four properties over to developers to make them into affordable housing. But she objected to the bill because it would evade the District’s competitive bidding protocol, which vets development plans.
In February, DHCD announced two applicants who had made offers on the solicitation, which includes the houses and two vacant lots also located in Anacostia: nonprofits Mi Casa and the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights. The L’Enfant Trust did not participate in the process, and DHCD says it expects to award the properties in April.
Still, during an oversight hearing the council’s housing committee held earlier this month, Donaldson repeatedly declined to address why DHCD had not complied with the legislation when pressed by Robert White. Mendelson says the agency had a chance to raise the home-rule issue then and before.
“We can’t do anything without the mayor’s signature or tacit approval,” he says, pointing out that the council followed a “transparent” process when considering the bill. “She had the opportunity to veto this. We could not pass it without [Mayor Bowser’s] involvement.”
The L’Enfant Trust’s executive director, Lauren McHale, says her group did not apply for the bid that DHCD solicited because the organization had been working with the council when the solicitation was released. “We were following the lead of the council,” she says.
The L’Enfant Trust met with DHCD for the first time to discuss the properties about four years ago. Between 2013 and 2014, it refurbished a couple of other historic Anacostia houses that had been privately owned. McHale says the organization surveyed community members, who were concerned that the D.C.-owned homes created nuisances and could collapse.
“Every time we asked them what was the plan, they didn’t have one,” McHale says of the agency, which operated under then-Mayor Vincent Gray until 2015. “Nobody seemed to have any answers.” That’s when, McHale recounts, the L’Enfant Trust went to Mendelson, who toured the properties. “It made sense to go to the chair of the city council,” she says, adding that the trust has full funding to fix one home, and got a $70,000 grant for all four.
“The bottom line is, and you can quote me on this: We just want to see the homes completed and done,” McHale insists. “The neighborhood has lived with these houses for just too long. Whether it’s another nonprofit developer or us—that’s not what’s important.”
Last July, Mendelson and Bonds, who heads the council’s housing committee, proposed a bill “authoriz[ing]” the Bowser administration to give the houses to the the trust “without charge.” In exchange, the nonprofit would redevelop them—in accordance with historic standards—into “workforce housing” for civil servants and other middle-income families.
After the council amended the legislation to “require” the transfer, members gave it final, unanimous approval in December. An “emergency” version of the legislation also passed that month, mandating the title-change to the L’Enfant Trust “no later than Jan. 31, 2017.”
This expedited form of the bill became law in mid-January, but Bowser returned it to the council unsigned. Following a standard congressional review period, the permanent form of the bill became law late last week. Bowser also did not sign this version. To date, the administration has refused to transfer the four blighted Anacostia properties to the trust.
Discussing the dispute, the mayor told WAMU this month that “the council doesn’t really have the ability to make a sole-source disposition” and that it’d likely be “unprecedented.”
Mendelson contends that it wouldn’t be because the council regularly green-lights land-dispositions. (Though it’s usually at the administration’s behest.) “Does she really want to claim that dispositions are a private matter for the executive alone?” the chairman says.
“The legal mumbo-jumbo comes down to—very conveniently, they are now asserting that [transferring District property] is an executive function, and that the council doesn’t have authority with regard to dispositions,” Mendelson adds. “Do they really want to go there?”