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The District’s executive and legislative branches do not see eye to eye on how to bring run-down, city-owned properties back into good use.
Amid a rash of bills considered Tuesday, local lawmakers gave final approval to legislation that would permit a D.C.-based nonprofit to take ownership of, and rehab, four such homes in Anacostia. The two-story houses, situated in the neighborhood’s historic district, have remained derelict for years, even as investment in east of the river communities has gradually flowed in. One recent marker of that paradigm shift: Busboys and Poets will soon open a location on a central stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, where a furniture store used to be.
Neighbors have long bemoaned the sorry state of the four homes, especially because they are managed by the District government. The Department of Housing and Community Development holds them in a portfolio administered by the agency’s Property Acquisition and Disposition Division, or PADD, whose mission is to ensure blighted and vacant houses become livable again. PADD oversees more than 160 properties, just under half of which are in Ward 8, and more than a dozen of which are within the Anacostia Historic District.
The council’s unanimously passed bill, introduced in July by Chairman Phil Mendelson, requires the mayor to transfer the four properties to the L’Enfant Trust, an organization with expertise renovating historic homes. The group purchased two decaying houses in Anacostia that had been privately owned, and finished work on them between 2013 and 2014—within six months of commencing. Given their terrible initial conditions, the trust sold the properties at a loss, but was happy to do so to help preserve the neighborhood’s historic character. Homes in historic districts typically can’t be torn down, and few for-profit companies are eager to risk losses.
At a legislative press briefing Monday, Mendelson described DHCD’s handling of the properties, which were built around the end of the 19th century, as “pretty outrageous.” “They are dilapidated; they are a nuisance; they are a cost to the city; they have negative value,” he explained. “And the trust [has repeatedly gone] to DHCD and said, ‘We will renovate these properties free of charge if you just give us them.’ And the city said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that, we’re going to instead mothball these properties for another four years.'”
A year before Mendelson proposed the legislation, the L’Enfant Trust came to lawmakers with concerns that the four houses in question—located at 1220 Maple View Place SE, 1648 U St. SE, 1518 W St. SE, and 1326 Valley Place SE—could further sustain damage over the winter and even collapse, in turn dinging the values of surrounding properties. At an October hearing, residents almost universally spoke in favor of the proposal.
DHCD did not. Polly Donaldson, the department’s director, said that while the administration supported the aim of making the vacant houses habitable, handing them to a third party like the L’Enfant Trust would set a bad precedent and undermine DHCD’s procurement process. Donaldson added that interest in PADD sites was high, committing to put out a solicitation for groups to redevelop certain Anacostia houses in November.
“We have already begun not only to address the four homes that are the subject of this legislation but to return buildings across the Anacostia Historic District and the District to vibrant occupancy,” she testified. “To sole-source this disposition in this manner puts at significant risk our efforts to use a fair, transparent, competitive, online process to create affordable housing … and get the best outcomes from the assets we own.” Last Thursday, DHCD released the promised solicitation, for the four properties as well as two lots. A pre-bid meeting has been scheduled for Dec. 13 and responses are due Jan. 12—a quick turnaround.
But even though the council authorized the four homes’ transfer to the L’Enfant Trust, DHCD seems intent on carrying out this administrative exercise while it can. “DHCD understands the goals of the council and of the chairman to advance the redevelopment of vacant properties, and expeditiously,” Donaldson explained in a statement Wednesday. She reiterated the Dec. 13 meeting and Jan. 12 deadline, adding that “the end result will be new, vibrant affordable homes” for residents who make under 80 percent of the area median income.
It appears that the council’s action Tuesday will ultimately supersede DHCD’s executive process as a matter of law. If Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoes the bill, she will face a council supermajority that could override it. The legislation mandates that the homes be redeveloped into “workforce housing” for public servants like firefighters and police officers, retail employees, and healthcare workers—people making moderate income.
A spokesman for Bowser says the mayor “agrees we need to take action” on the properties and intends to review the latest version of the bill “before making a final decision on if [it] gets us to where we need to be.”
For his part, Mendelson says the “11th-hour” solicitation for the properties is “in conflict” with the bill. “Clearly it creates a confusing situation, and I think it’s an unfortunate situation,” he said Monday when asked what would happen after Tuesday’s session. “The government—and it’s not just the current administration—has been negligent with these properties for decades … and the city is [now] turning its back [to the trust] and saying, ‘No thank you.’ That’s outrageous and a bad use of public funds, bad management of public funds.”
More than half of PADD properties are “at various stages of disposition,” and each must be affordable to families earning about $87,000 annually or less, according to DHCD. Its solicitation process for single-family homes takes about a year to 18 months, from issuing a request for proposals to at last selecting developers.
Meanwhile, these four specific houses will continue to deteriorate in the weeks ahead as D.C. works out a disposition.
Lauren McHale, executive director at the L’Enfant Trust, says her organization doesn’t stand to profit much, if at all, from refurbishing the houses to sell them: It’s for the community and preserving its heritage. Although she expects the properties can be renovated in roughly 18 months with sufficient funding, thanks in part to tax exemptions, McHale notes that the trust has not conducted final analyses of the sites as its staff has not had access to them. Still, she estimates that three of the properties will cost “a little over half a million each to redo,” and the largest one—a 3,000-square-foot duplex on Maple View Place SE—will cost “about a million.”
“There will be a loss, we understand that,” she says. “But with our fundraising capabilities and grants, we can try to reduce that money gap as much as possible.” In a best-case scenario, the trust would be able to begin “pre-construction” work in early 2017. “We’re just in a holding pattern and anxious to start whenever we can.”
“Frederick Douglass himself would have walked by these buildings and known them,” McHale adds. “These are not fancy houses by any means. They’re simple vernacular-style structures, but they really help tell the story of Anacostia, how it developed, and the working-class people who lived there.”