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

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On typical days, the sprawling collection of abandoned, mostly-built houses and vacant lots tucked behind 4th Street SE sits fenced-in and empty, a distorted mirror image of the flattened construction site across the street, which will soon become the new Ballou High School. But on a recent Wednesday afternoon, a crowd of mostly men (mostly wearing lots of hair gel) milled about the property, examining the vinyl-sided rowhouses and making small talk. Then the auctioneer called the event to order.

“You’re here today to buy 400 to 472 Woodcrest Drive,” began the auctioneer, Tranzon Fox’s Suzy Stegmaier. “The property and all improvements are sold in as-is condition.”

The property in question is a 59-lot site on a hillside in Congress Heights, known as the Congress Heights Vistas. The improvements are 18 cookie-cutter townhouses, plus another eight stacked units in four houses, that were finished by the Bernstein Companies after the previous developer, UniDev, ran out of money and bailed on the project. The condition is near-complete for the constructed units, and not-at-all-complete for the remaining lots that’ll eventually supply the rest of the property’s 94 units, save for a few concrete foundations.

Standing in front of one of the existing townhouses, Stegmaier and a colleague laid out a few ground rules, and then she was off to the races, calling at lightning speed for bids of $6 million for the property. There were no takers. In a blur of syllables, she dropped the starting bid to $5.5 million, then 5, then 4.5, descending all the way to $2.5 million before a silver-haired man in gold-rimmed sunglasses and a black blazer raised the card bearing his bidder number, and the contest was on.

Slowly, the bids climbed, as a Tranzon Fox wrangler with an impressive handlebar mustache urged bidders with outstretched arms and pleas of “C’mon! C’mon!,” and cheered their reluctant card-raises with fist-pumping yelps of “Yeeeah!” At one point, Stegmaier asked for bids of $3.9 million. No one bit.

Handlebar turned to the silver-haired bidder. “Three eight-and-a-half!” he yelled hopefully. “Three eight-and-a-half,” Silver concurred.

“Ya! Ya! Ya!” shouted Handlebar.

A man with a cast on his arm soon put in a bid for $3.95 million. Silver nudged the bid up to $3.96 million. No one else reacted.

“Going once,” said Stegmaier. “Going twice.”

A man in the back with a shaved head, a red waffle sweatshirt, and baggy cargo khakis lifted his sign bearing bidder number 959 to up the bid to $3.97 million. Silver went to 3.98. Red agreed to 3.99. Silver raised his bid to $4 million.

“Ten,” said Red. $4,010,000.

“I’m done,” conceded Silver.

And just like that, in a haze of congratulations and signed documents, a sizable chunk of Congress Heights was handed to a man no one seems to know, for purposes no one but the red-shirted man himself can guess.

* * *

The winning bidder is named Roger Black. He lives, or at least recently lived, in Deale, Md. Several lawsuits have been filed against him in recent years, including a case that was reopened this year in which he and others were accused of knowingly selling shoddily constructed condos in Anacostia and defrauding customers. The case file states, “Black regularly conducts business in Washington, D.C., and is currently developing and selling his own condominium ventures in southeast Washington, D.C.”

That is the full extent of the information I was able to gather about Black. I couldn’t reach him by phone; Sacha Moise, a real estate agent who helped him at the auction, has called, texted, and left him voicemails over the past two weeks, but got no response. None of the developers active in the area with whom I spoke have heard of him. Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry has as much knowledge as anyone when he says, “I understand he’s a white developer.”

Simply put, the sale of a 59-lot site to a developer no one has heard of, in an auction that the city officials I talked to outside of Ward 8 had no idea had occurred, would not happen in Petworth or Cleveland Park or Capitol Hill—-or even Anacostia, a struggling part of Ward 8 that has recently received outsized public attention. But it happens in Congress Heights, where residents complain of neglect from the city with good reason.

And this is not the only case. The day after the Congress Heights Vistas auction, a 16-unit, four-storefront, 18,000-square-foot property on the neighborhoodÕs main drag, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, was scheduled to be auctioned. I was unable to determine how much was paid for it, who bought it, or even if the auction took place.

Last week, Mayor Vince Gray announced a $187 million investment in affordable housing, and one of the properties he plans to rehabilitate is a 20-building, 266-apartment complex just north of Congress Heights, the aptly named Parkway Overlook, which has sat vacant and overlooked for more than six years. The behemoth of a property received practically no attention from the city government or the press until a Washington City Paper story and a mayoral visit at the behest of a local ministry this summer.

To be clear, the Congress Heights Vistas is private property, and the city has no direct role to play in its planning or construction. Then again, for another private development, the Howard Town Center on Georgia Avenue NW, the D.C. Council approved an $11 million tax abatement last year even though D.C.’s chief financial officer said it wasn’t needed. Clearly, the city doesn’t mind lending a hand when so-called priority corridors are involved.

But when it comes to out-of-the-way places like Congress Heights, a huge site can remain vacant for years, and then be sold to a largely unknown bidder, all without attracting attention from city officials or top developers. And so while large swaths of the city are carefully planned to include a mix of uses and incomes, Congress Heights continues to accumulate a combination of cookie-cutter low-income apartment buildings and cookie-cutter suburban-style townhouses—-where it gets any development at all.

Congress Heights residents are used to feeling neglected. “The fact that that property continues to fly under the radar is not shocking to me,” says Nikki Peele, who’s lived in Congress Heights for the past six years and writes the Congress Heights on the Rise blog, “because for a lot of people in the city, Ward 8 as a whole continues to fly under the radar.”

“Development of vacant land in Ward 8 is very difficult,” says Barry. “It took 25 years to get the Giant,” referring to the store on Alabama Avenue SE that is the only supermarket in the ward.

“Part of the problem is that a number of developers don’t think we have much spendable income,” Barry continues. “And we don’t. We’ve got about a $28,000 average income.” (The median income for workers in the ZIP code that includes Congress Heights is $27,227, according to 2011 data from the Census Bureau; the per capita income there, including people who don’t work, is $17,608.)

How to break this cycle remains a point of debate. Barry looks to the fact that three-quarters of his constituents are renters and argues that Ward 8 needs to focus exclusively on homeownership. Peele thinks the neighborhood needs to attract more middle-income professionals in order to lure retailers, and laments that so much affordable housing is being built in and around Congress Heights.

We don’t know, of course, what type of housing Black plans to create at the Congress Heights Vistas. But in depressed housing markets like Congress Heights, affordable housing projects are often more viable for developers because they come with tax credits.

Other potential bidders had concrete plans for the site. The nonprofit Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, in partnership with the Ward 8-based Washington Business Group, was hoping to build an energy-efficient affordable housing complex as a demonstration of how green building can reduce costs for low-income residents, according to AEDC president Stan Jackson. But the bidding quickly rose beyond the team’s means.

“Even in our stretch thinking, we were comfortable at about 3 [million], maybe 3.5,” says Jackson.

But Black would have bid even higher. After the auction, I asked Moise, his real estate agent, if he and Black had set a maximum bid ahead of time. He nodded. Was $4 million close to it? He shook his head, suppressing a grin.

“We’ve had our eyes on this for many years,” Moise said. “Many, many years. And it finally came to a head.”

Black’s $4,010,000 bid comes out to less than $68,000 per lot, or $43,000 per unit. It’ll take a lot of work and expense to finish building the units and the accompanying infrastructure. But in a city where the average single-family home sells for more than $800,000, Black’s price for the Congress Heights Vistas looks like either a steal or a sign of just how far Congress Heights is lagging behind most of the city. Or both.

Moise says he has no idea what Black’s plans are for the site, how he’s financing it, or even whether he’s operating alone or with a group of investors. The project, with all its significance for the neighborhood, remains a mystery, while any site of comparable size in most of the city would attract instant interest from D.C.Õs heavy-hitting developers, and of course its politicians.

“I think when it comes to D.C.’s understanding of east of the river and Congress Heights, they are more familiar with what is going on half a world away then they are with what’s going on across the bridge,” says Peele. “I do not feel that my neighborhood is getting remotely the attention it should be getting. I feel like we’re an afterthought at best.”

Photo by Aaron Wiener