A rendering of the early plans for the Big K site.
A rendering of the early plans for the Big K site.

Denise Johnson had a system. Members of the audience at the Department of Housing and Community Development headquarters last Wednesday were supposed to write their questions on yellow cards and pass them to the front of the room. But when developer Tim Chapman finished presenting his plans to overhaul the so-called Big K site in Anacostia, the ground rules quickly evaporated.

“You think you can come in and give us any kind of bullshit?” one man shouted.

“Stop shucking and jiving us and telling us that we’re part of this process,” said another participant.

Greta Fuller, the advisory neighborhood commissioner representing most of Historic Anacostia, stood up before Johnson, the DHCD project manager for the redevelopment, had a chance to begin reading the cards. “Why didn’t I get to speak for the community?” she asked. “I think that you blindsiding us with what you’re going to do does not help us.”

Fuller and other audience members then rattled off a list of complaints about the process and the plans for the Big K site, which involve five stories of apartments above ground-floor retail.

Some wondered how the guidelines from DHCD had changed so much from the initial 2012 solicitation—which stated, “The Big K Community Advisory Group recommends that the Site include no housing”—to now, when the project is predominantly residential.

Others questioned the scale of the development, arguing that a six-story building would be out of place in low-slung Anacostia. Fuller complained that the renderings of the new building appeared more in character with Columbia Heights than with her historic neighborhood. One participant urged DHCD to stop using the name Big K, which comes from a defunct liquor store on the site, when referring to the project.

But the most common complaint concerned the very nature of the housing that Chapman and DHCD were proposing. Their plans call for 100 percent affordable housing, available only to people making less than 60 percent of the area median income.

In neighborhoods like, say, Columbia Heights, the city and housing advocates have worked to ensure that low-income residents aren’t left behind as a wave of economic development passes through. But in Anacostia, residents are worried about the opposite threat: that in a neighborhood that’s on the cusp of development, well-off professionals will be kept out and the push for affordability will hold back economic growth.

The fight over the housing at the Big K project highlights the ways that traditional debates about affordable housing can get flipped on their heads when high-end development begins to come to poor parts of town. Places like Anacostia can find themselves stuck in a strange middle ground, where the “affordable” units are out of the price range of most current residents but unavailable to higher earners who might be able to help bring much-needed dollars to the neighborhood. Residents say they understand the need for affordability, but question whether concentrating it in already struggling neighborhoods is a good idea.

D.C. typically defines housing that’s limited to people making less than 80 percent of area median income as affordable, with some units capped at 30, 50, or 60 percent. But the median income for the D.C. area, which includes the wealthy Maryland and Virginia suburbs, is more than $107,000 for a family of four. That means that the 60 percent cap at the Cedar Hill Flats (as the Big K apartments are being called) makes the apartments eligible to families of four making up to about $64,000, or individuals earning no more than around $46,000.

But the median household incomes in the two census tracts that make up Historic Anacostia are $30,313 and $19,519, according to the 2011 American Community Survey. These “affordable” apartments, then, are available to families making considerably more than the neighborhood average.

Chapman says one-bedroom apartments will be renting for between $1,149 and $1,189, while two-bedrooms will fall in the $1,300 range. No Anacostia residents I spoke with could think of any apartments in the neighborhood that are that expensive. (Several people mentioned Sheridan Station, the new development near the Anacostia Metro, where the upscale apartments are all rented out. But one-bedrooms there rent for as little as $750, and no more than $1,025.)

Still, it’s actually not the lack of true affordability for the neighborhood that has residents upset. It’s the fact that Chapman and DHCD are shooting for an affordable housing building at all.

“They’ve been saying for years that Anacostia cannot get retail because we don’t have the income,” says Fuller. “So how will you have retail if you have low-income?”

Fuller says she understands the need for affordable housing but would prefer a mix, perhaps with 80 percent market-rate housing and 20 percent affordable. She also questions how the retail Chapman and his architects envision—a “tablecloth-style restaurant” and other “higher-end retail” along the lines of Starbucks—can survive without a more affluent customer base.

Danae Tuley, a real estate agent who’s lived in Anacostia for more than six years, wonders who exactly will move into the apartments. “I don’t know who it’s going to appeal to,” she says. “A lot of the renters here tend to have large families or people living together. So with predominantly one- to two-bedroom units, at that income level, I don’t know that that would appeal to the low-income demographic in this area.” Tuley worries that people from outside of the neighborhood still attach a “stigma” to Anacostia and won’t move in, and that with the apartments unfilled, the management may be forced to cut costs by trimming staff or shirking maintenance.

At last week’s meeting, several attendees suggested that what Anacostia really needs is rental housing for middle-class professionals. Current residents of the neighborhood who might want to move into the Cedar Hill Flats, as well as people from outside the neighborhood who find that the rents there are cheaper than at comparable places west of the Anacostia River, can’t move in if they make above 60 percent of area median income. That’s holding Anacostia back from the kind of economic boom that other neighborhoods along the Green Line have enjoyed, according to some neighbors.

DHCD Director Michael Kelly declined to comment through his spokesman, Marcus Williams, who said in an email that it would be inappropriate to comment on the housing affordability while DCHD is “still in negotiations with the developer to determine the most feasible financing structure for the project.” But he noted, “As the [area median income] and cost of living continue to rise throughout the city, the proposed Cedar Hill Flats would preserve affordable housing options for low and moderate income residents for the years to come.”

This is the crux of the city’s challenge. D.C. is, by some measures, the least affordable housing market in the country, and so there’s clearly a need for more housing—lots more housing—that working-class Washingtonians can afford. The question is where to put it. The wealthiest parts of town aren’t seeing much new development of any kind. In places whose real estate has recently become hot, it’s hard to persuade developers to forgo big profits and set aside more than a small handful of units for low earners. (Developers of large new residential buildings are required to make a small percentage of the units affordable.) In the poorest sections of D.C., residents complain that they’ll never see positive change if the city keeps concentrating poverty there with new low-income housing.

And in places like Anacostia—a walkable, Metro-accessible neighborhood with plenty of retail-ready storefronts and a palpable sense that its time is just around the corner—there’s a feeling that dumping more affordable housing there will hold back the inevitable emergence from its current poverty.

Whether or not the development is good for Anacostia, it looks to be pretty good for Chapman. The developer, who declined to comment for this story, probably wouldn’t be able to charge more than the planned rates for apartments in Anacostia, regardless of any income restrictions. But because the units are labeled affordable, Chapman will receive a federal tax credit. Not bad, for someone who will reportedly acquire the property from the District for $1.

Rendering courtesy of PGN Architects