No one lives at Lincoln Heights.
It doesn’t appear that way at first glance. On a recent afternoon, there are plenty of people outside. A few children play in one of the courtyards formed by U-shaped triads of low-rise apartment buildings. Two women sit outside one of the apartments.
But when I approach them and introduce myself, one quickly says she’s not a resident. The other one? Nope, she isn’t either.
Across the courtyard, a young woman fumbles with her keys to lock an apartment door as she wheels out a baby stroller with the other hand. She pushes the stroller into the small courtyard and walks around in circles, trying to coax the baby to sleep. Does she live at Lincoln Heights? She shakes her head.
I exit the courtyard and hike up a small hill to another row of garden apartments, where a woman is sitting outside in purple T-shirt advertising the 2014 Lincoln Heights pre-July 4 celebration. I tell her that I’m hoping to speak with Lincoln Heights residents.
“They’re not gonna talk to you,” she interrupts. “Not a single one of them is going to talk to you. They don’t trust you.”
Residents of the Lincoln Heights public-housing complex have ample reason to distrust outsiders who come through the neighborhood peddling stories. By this year, the city was supposed to have demolished all 440 dilapidated apartments and relocated the residents to new units under the signature New Communities program to replace distressed public housing with mixed-income communities. Instead, all 440 apartments remain intact, if barely, and just 32 families have received new housing. The rest remain in their aging apartments, where they complain of a host of maintenance issues, in a neighborhood plagued by crime, poor planning, and neglect.
The stalled progress is not unique to Lincoln Heights. The other three New Communities projects have also reached a near-standstill, with missed deadlines piling up faster than bricks and mortar. At Northwest One, the initiative’s inaugural project located near NoMa, the city’s been unable to figure out how to build new housing, so a giant parking lot currently sits where low-income apartments once stood. Attempts to plot out with community members the redevelopment of Barry Farm, by the Anacostia Metro station, have nearly turned violent. At Park Morton, in Park View, the stagnation got so bad that last year the city canceled its contract with the project’s developers, the Linthicum, Md.-based Landex Corp. and District-based Warrenton Group, and effectively hit the reset button.
But Lincoln Heights has been arguably the hardest of them all. With the city having delivered on so few of its promises, residents who might have initially jumped at the prospect of upgraded housing have grown suspicious of interlopers coming to talk about New Communities. People like me.
As it turns out, the woman I find at the top of the hill is exactly the right person to discuss New Communities’ shortcomings. A 35-year resident of Lincoln Heights, Patricia Malloy serves as the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area and as the chair of the resident council for the Lincoln Heights New Communities project. She’s been involved in the effort since it began in 2006. But the excitement she had at the start of the project has turned to cynicism.
“Talk to the damn Housing Authority,” she says, referring to the agency that runs D.C.’s public housing, including Lincoln Heights, and shares responsibility for the redevelopment with the mayor’s office. (Like her neighbors, Malloy is initially less than thrilled to discuss New Communities, although she grows more talkative with each successive opportunity to critique the New Communities process.) “They don’t want to redevelop this. They want us living like slaves.”
Last week brought a rare instance of tangible progress for the Lincoln Heights project. Pennrose Properties of Philadelphia and the Warrenton Group filed a zoning application to build 150 apartments in a new complex called Deanwood Hills, on a vacant lot at 5201 Hayes St. NE. Fifty of those units will go to Lincoln Heights residents as the city demolishes their current homes. The developers submitted renderings that show an undulating four-story apartment building with green courtyards and plenty of surface parking.
Count Malloy unimpressed. “Pennrose bullshit,” she mutters when I bring up Deanwood Hills. As for Warrenton: “Warrenton had Park Morton, too. You got rid of them once; you should have gotten rid of them twice.”
Progress hasn’t come quickly to Deanwood Hills, either. Pennrose and Warrenton won the rights to develop the site after the District acquired it in 2008. Nearly seven years later, it’s still a vacant lot, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence with thoroughly superfluous “Hard Hat Area” signs. Warrenton’s website continues to anticipate a 2013 groundbreaking. Warrenton and Pennrose did not return calls for comment.
But it’s not the glacial pace of development surrounding Lincoln Heights that’s frustrated residents; it’s the complete lack of movement at the public-housing site itself. Looming over Malloy’s apartment is a strip of low-rise buildings whose windows bear the signature red plywood boards of long-term vacancy. Malloy says they’ve been that way since 2009— at a time when tens of thousands of D.C. households are waiting to receive public and other subsidized housing.
What progress has occurred around Lincoln Heights serves as a reminder of what’s not happening. One of the core principles of New Communities is building housing for a mix of incomes in order to deconcentrate poverty. But the 150 apartments at Deanwood Hills will all be reserved for families making under 60 percent of area median income. The only major Lincoln Heights New Communities project that’s been completed, half a mile northwest of the public housing at 4800 Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave. NE, is also 100 percent affordable.
Building low-income housing around Lincoln Heights makes plenty of sense for developers. Because market rents are low, they can charge about as much at income-restricted properties as they could at market-rate buildings. But by capping the incomes of the tenants, the developers are eligible for federal tax credits, upping their bottom line.
For the city officials in charge of New Communities, however, the proliferation of low-income housing and complete absence of market-rate units represent a concession to reality. Last year, the city commissioned a study of the troubled New Communities program from D.C.-based Quadel Consulting and Training. Quadel delivered a report in September that recommended rethinking some of the initiative’s mantras, like creating a mix of incomes.
Lincoln Heights was the prime candidate for this rethinking. While the other three sites are near Metro stations, Lincoln Heights is about a mile from the closest station, isolated in a poor section of town that has none of the development buzz the other areas do. The city’s literature on the Lincoln Heights New Communities project from 2006 specifies that one-third of the new units should go to households making more than 80 percent of area median income (in other words, upward of $86,000 a year for a family of four). But for the foreseeable future, marketing condos and townhouses at Lincoln Heights to middle-class families remains a fantasy.
“What you all fail to realize is that Park Morton and Barry Farm are totally different from Lincoln Heights,” says Malloy. “The demographics are totally different.”
Lincoln Heights was only included in New Communities after political pressure from then-Ward 7 D.C. Councilmember Vince Gray, who wanted his ward to get some of the action. Under his mayoral administration, progress at the site he lobbied for was virtually nonexistent.
These days, it’s a little hard to figure out who’s in charge of the project. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development is ostensibly leading the way, but the official responsible for New Communities there departed earlier this year, and the position remains unfilled. DMPED spokesman Joaquin McPeek noted that the use of federal tax credits for Deanwood Hills saves the city from having to subsidize the project and that income-restricted housing does still contain a mix of incomes, if a limited one. A Housing Authority spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the lack of progress to comment on.
As things stand, the 2006 plan for Lincoln Heights (which also includes the smaller public-housing complex of Richardson Dwellings, just to the east) reads like the Christmas wish list of an unrealistic child. It called for a 40 percent increase in full-time employment and a 25 percent increase in wages and salaries; in reality, the area remains one of the city’s very poorest. It envisioned a “robust, mixed-use Town Center” at the corner of Nannie Helen Burroughs and Division avenues, with 566 residences above offices and 30,000 square feet of retail that could include a “bookstore, coffee shop, or restaurant.” Today, the intersection features a boarded-up old theater, a gas station, an empty lot, and plenty of speeding cars. At Lincoln Heights itself, renderings show neat rows of suburban-style townhouses in place of the crime-ridden, scattered garden apartments that dot the hilly landscape.
If a plucky tourist more interested in history than in present-day attractions ventured into the Lincoln Heights area, he’d find a sign near 5201 Hayes, part of the Greater Deanwood Heritage Trail, bearing the headline “A Self-Reliant People.” The text begins, “Largely ignored by city officials and isolated from downtown D.C., Deanwood remained semi-rural until around World War II.” After the war, it continues, “the National Capital Housing Authority tore down old houses to build fully modern apartment complexes.”
The story ends in the postwar era. Since then, those modern apartment complexes have ceased to feel so modern. The attention lavished by the Housing Authority seems to have vanished. And the residents again feel largely ignored by city officials. It’s as if, to those in charge, no one lives at Lincoln Heights.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery