Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration is once again thumbing its nose at the D.C. Council.
Two months after District lawmakers passed an emergency bill requiring Bowser’s administration to transfer four ramshackle, D.C.-owned homes to a nonprofit developer willing to repair them at no cost to the city, those homes remain in D.C.’s care. The deadline for the transfer: “no later than Jan. 31, 2017.”
They continue to rot—empty—while the Department of Housing and Community Development attempts to find other parties to refurbish them, angering residents and the D.C. Council chairman.
The four houses are located in the Anacostia Historic District and have been vacant for years, even before Bowser became mayor. They are managed by DHCD’s Property Acquisition and Disposition Division, or PADD, which aims to renovate uninhabitable houses. PADD’s current portfolio includes over 150 sites, roughly half of which are in Ward 8. Most PADD properties are now “in some form of disposition,” according to the department’s director. The program is also one of the agency’s “top priorities.”
But residents like Virgie Barron, who has lived in Anacostia for more than two decades, have long lost patience with the District regarding the derelict houses the city owns. Barron lives a couple of homes from one of the four vacant properties at issue, on U Street SE. She condemns DHCD’s handling of the house, and worries about the house’s structural integrity after many years of neglect and vacancy.
“Not only does this house attract a lot of negative behavior such as trash collection and loitering, but at one time it had a family of raccoons living inside,” Barron says. “I’m concerned that if not addressed soon, this house will fall onto my neighbor’s house and injure someone.” Last year, she supported the council’s legislation, which directs DHCD to transfer the homes to the L’Enfant Trust, a local organization focused on historic preservation that has rehabilitated properties in Anacostia.
At the urging of At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the legislative body’s housing committee, and Chairman Phil Mendelson, the council passed both emergency and permanent bills in December mandating the properties’ transfer “in fee simple and without charge” to the trust. A bill that advances as an “emergency” avoids congressional review, which is standard procedure for local legislation because of D.C.’s unique jurisdiction. Bowser, though, returned the two versions of the legislation to the council unsigned, after DHCD testified against it in October. The agency has maintained that such a transfer would undermine its solicitation process for development projects.
“In moving properties out of our inventory, we use a competitive solicitation process that is fair, transparent, and open,” DHCD director Polly Donaldson says in a statement. “This best ensures that all interested developers have the chance to bid on properties that will ultimately result in new, vibrant affordable homes for District residents making no more than 80 percent of the area median income,” or nearly $87,000 a year for a family of four. By contrast, the council’s plan calls for the properties to be turned into “workforce housing” set aside for homeowners whose total household income cannot exceed 120 percent of area median income, or about $130,000 for a family of four.
So D.C.’s executive and legislative branches disagree about who should do what with the houses. Although the emergency legislation is in effect, and the permanent version is expected to become law in March following congressional review, DHCD has taken steps to get the homes redeveloped through its own means. In late November, the agency solicited development bids for the houses as well as for two lots in Anacostia. Donaldson says the window to bid on these properties “recently closed,” and DHCD is “in the process of reviewing the proposals” it received. She did not specify the number of those proposals or provide comment on the agency’s stance on the emergency law.
Meanwhile, Mendelson says he’s weighing what to do if the Bowser administration doesn’t transfer the vacant houses to the L’Enfant Trust. “I’m not there yet, but I’m not done with the issue,” he says.
Describing DHCD as “a bad actor” with respect to the four homes, he adds that the agency “should be ashamed of how it’s handled this situation.” In solicitation documents, DHCD has stated it “shall make up to $2.2 [million]” from the District’s affordable-housing fund available to bidders for the six Anacostia properties—an incentive the chairman finds “mind-boggling” because the L’Enfant Trust, which he says “feels badly burned,” has promised to cover the costs of renovating the four houses.
“It’s theoretically possible someone would come along with something better than [the trust’s offer], but I think that’s so unlikely it’s not worth spending time on the hypotheticals,” Mendelson explains. (Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White has not responded to City Paper‘s requests for comment.)
For now, the L’Enfant Trust is “in limbo” on the properties, says Lauren McHale, executive director of the organization. She says the trust anticipated receiving the houses in January and has tried to work with DHCD “for many years,” having met with the agency about its proposal last July.
“If the buildings were transferred to us, we would start work tomorrow,” McHale says, noting that the conditions of the homes, built around the beginning of the 20th century, are worsening. “We would be capable of doing that and we would be up for that.”