The partially finished site, as it appeared in 2013
The partially finished site, as it appeared in 2013

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Before he’ll tell me about the status of his project, Roger Black insists that I read a story from the Washington Post‘s real estate section this weekend and call him back. The story is headlined, “Anacostia’s Burgeoning Potential Catches the Attention of Home Buyers.” Naturally, “Anacostia” refers not just to the neighborhood of Anacostia but also to neighboring Congress Heights. “For the first time in many years,” the story states, “several encouraging signs of revival are beginning to emerge there.”

Back to Black. “What’d you think of the story?” he asks. “Typically the Post or whoever always reports the negative. I thought it was very positive. You see what’s trending. It’s just a matter of time before the gentrification is going to the far Southeast.”

“The gentrification” has been in the works for Congress Heights for some time, even if those perpetrating it usually use different descriptors. Long suffering from under-investment, the neighborhood is set to receive two major projects by its Metro station that promise to be transformational. The trouble is that both have run into hurdles. The bigger one, the redevelopment of the sprawling St. Elizabeths campus, failed to attract interest from big-name developers, and Mayor Muriel Bowser is reserving the right to rescind the development rights awarded to a lesser-known team by Vince Gray just before he left office. Across the street, a planned mixed-use project has prompted concern from the Zoning Commission, which will need to approve it, due to alleged abuses by the property owner.

But buried amid the stalled projects is a tangible sign of progress, and it belongs to Black. In November 2013, I wrote a story about an auction at which a mysterious buyer purchased a sizable chunk of Congress Heights for $4,010,000. The buyer, I determined, was named Roger Black. But no one seemed to know anything about him or his plans for the property, and he wouldn’t return my calls. Neighbors were glad to hear that the derelict property, where construction began and was then abandoned, might be returning to productive use, but they were dismayed that in their neglected corner of the city, the sale of a 59-lot site could go virtually unnoticed.

Just over a year later, some of those homes are on the market. Formerly known as Congress Heights Vistas, the site is now rebranded Woodcrest Villas. And it’s starting to sell.

Last May, a press release from LYNK Capital announced that LYNK was providing a loan for the property, and indicated that the 70 condos and 24 townhouses would list for between $240,000 and $360,000. Evidently the gentrification has started to arrive since then. The Woodcrest Villas website says townhomes are available “from the high 300s”; Black, now more than happy to discuss the property, says they start at $375,000, with condos going for $240,000 and up. Around 10 townhouses are under contract, he says, and some of the condos are pre-selling, although they can’t complete those transactions until the condo approvals are finalized.

“We all knew it was just a matter of time,” says Black. “Build it and they will come. We’re the least expensive new home product in D.C.”

Black is certainly not the only developer to take an interest in Congress Heights: WC Smith owns practically half the neighborhood and has constructed its share of suburban-style townhouses. And this project is still far from complete. Most of the lots remain vacant; Black and his team have just upgraded and completed the existing 18 townhouses and eight-unit condo building. But in a neighborhood where progress is often illusory, the conversion of a long-vacant site to actual homes is a welcome change of pace.

Does it signal gentrification? Everyone has his own definition of the thorny term. But in a neighborhood that still has few sit-down eateries or stores, and where housing remains among the cheapest in the city, I would argue—-as I have before—-that the replacement of nothing (a vacant lot) with something (affordable homes) isn’t any of the negative things (displacement, whitewashing) that gentrification connotes. It’s simply an improvement.

Photo by Aaron Wiener