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Just south of Anacostia, on a hill overlooking the Suitland Parkway, lies a ghost town.
I first encountered it earlier this summer while driving around Southeast D.C. with Reuben Pemberton, a Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs official who was showing me buildings with some of the highest outstanding vacant-property tax bills in the city. These properties were largely alike: boarded-up apartment buildings subject to frequent break-ins by people seeking shelter or a place to do drugs. But the empty buildings on Robinson Place SE stood apart for their sheer scale.
The cluster of buildings dwarfed the others in terms of both price tag—while the other properties owe five or six figures, the total bill for the Robinson Place addresses is more than $5 million—and size. Here were 20 apartment buildings, with red boards over the green-trimmed windows like a Christmas celebration gone awry, and taunting, years-old “Now Leasing” signs fluttering off a couple of the brick facades. The buildings lined an eerily silent dead-end road with only one other house. The sole sign of recent human activity was a heap of discarded mattresses, dumped where they’d be unlikely to bother anyone.
Pemberton was surprised to find an open gate in the chain-link fence that surrounds the complex. We drove into a small parking lot by the old management office, where a Jaguar and an SUV were parked. Pemberton advised me to stay in the car and got out, putting on a D.C. government cap to lend himself an official air. As he approached, a woman stepped out of the SUV. She wore a “security” shirt and said her security company had been hired by the D.C. Housing Finance Agency to monitor the vacant property—for more than half a decade.
This was news to Pemberton; city property records show that the apartment complex belongs to NHTE Parkway, L.P., with an address in Alpharetta, Ga. “We always go off of what’s reflected in the property tax records,” says DCRA spokesman Helder Gil. “If that’s not who actually owns the property, then whoever owns the property needs to update the records with Office of Tax and Revenue.”
According to a Housing Finance Agency official who was not authorized to speak on the record, the HFA manages the property and has attempted several times to obtain an exemption from the vacant property tax, but so far has not received it, and the tax bill has continued to grow. But that’s the least of the problems for the Robinson Place properties. The bigger issue is why a complex that used to house more than 1,000 low-income people in 266 units has sat vacant and deteriorating for six years—and whether it’s ever going to become affordable housing again.
Until 2007, NHTE Parkway, L.P. was the owner and operator of the Robinson Place complex, known as the Parkway Overlook Apartments, and all of the tenants received Section 8 assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under a Housing Assistance Payments contract. But the owner neglected Parkway Overlook’s upkeep, and the property quickly deteriorated.
“We had a lot of drug trafficking and murders in the neighborhood, a lot of drive-by shootings,” says Parkway Overlook Tenant Association Vice President Cynthia Eaglin, who lived at Parkway Overlook for 16 years. “HUD allowed us to live on that property with all the rodents, and the management team went downhill, maintenance went downhill because they weren’t doing what they were supposed to do.”
Parkway Overlook failed its HUD inspection several times—five according to Eaglin, and between three and five according to the HFA official. So HUD withdrew its Section 8 subsidy, the property went into default, the tenants were forced to leave, and the HFA, which had issued nearly $15 million in bonds to NHTE Parkway, L.P. in 2001, retook the property as the “mortgagee in possession.”
Since then, the HFA has tried three times to dispose of the property. All three attempts were unsuccessful. The most recent began in 2011, when the HFA issued a request for bids that yielded eight responses. The agency selected a team consisting of Philadelphia-based Pennrose and D.C.-based Blue Skye. But a funding gap prevented the team from carrying out the plans for Parkway Overlook, so the arrangement fell through in January 2013. (Pennrose’s Ivy Dench-Carter, who oversaw the project, says it was an HFA decision to cancel the agreement.) And once again, the HFA was stuck with a property it couldn’t seem to get rid of.
On June 28, the HFA submitted a so-called final claim to HUD—something it’s entitled to do if it’s been unable to sell a HUD-assisted property for more than five years. If HUD accepts the HFA’s analysis in the final claim, the HFA’s debt to HUD—which paid the bondholders for the property after it went belly-up and expected repayment from the HFA—is wiped clean. That means the HFA gets to dispose of the property however it wants, without HUD approval—and it’s no longer required to keep it affordable housing.
The HFA official insists the agency is seeking to keep Parkway Overlook affordable. And there’s plenty of pressure to do so. On June 30, the nearby Brighter Day Ministries United Methodist Church held a sermon in support of affordable housing at Parkway Overlook, and Mayor Vince Gray was in attendance. According to Pastor Charlie Parker of Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church (which partnered with Brighter Day), who led the sermon and spoke with Gray, the mayor seemed supportive but wouldn’t give a concrete promise to preserve the property for low-income residents.
“He seemed very sympathetic and enthusiastic,” says Parker. “He stopped short of making an absolute commitment to it. But he did text the gentleman who’s in charge of the HFA and asked him to make sure he’s working with the residents’ association down there, and he seems committed to the idea.”
Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro says Gray is “committed to keeping [the complex] affordable.”
Last week, Eaglin and the tenant association president met with HFA Executive Director Harry Sewell to discuss Parkway Overlook’s future. Eaglin says the meeting went well, and that Sewell “really wants to see it stay affordable” but was likewise noncommittal because he’s still negotiating with HUD. Sewell, Eaglin says, asked them to give him until mid-August, at which point he’ll have more information. Sewell could not be reached for comment.
If HUD approves the HFA’s request, the agency has several options for disposing of the property, including another solicitation to developers and an auction to the highest bidder. But there’s no guarantee that these routes would produce affordable housing.
A Parkway Overlook that’s not primarily dedicated to affordable housing would be a mistake. So unlike previous attempts to revive the development, it’s time for the mayor’s office to get involved—with hard cash and not just text messages.
Over the years, media coverage of Parkway Overlook has been limited almost entirely to the various violent crimes that have taken place there. Since it’s become a ghost town, it’s gotten virtually no notice.
But the site holds tremendous promise for the city as a source of affordable housing. For one thing, it’s huge, and it already exists. If the city can resurrect it, that’s 266 fewer units of affordable housing that it needs to build or otherwise obtain.
For another, the units are larger than most being built these days. Nearly half of the units—127 of them—are three-bedroom apartments, and another 100 are two-bedrooms.
“There’s a lot of single mothers that have more than one child and need those three- and four-bedroom apartments,” says local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Anthony Muhammad. “Those are hard to come by in any part of the city.”
Finally, Parkway Overlook’s location—historically a detriment, with no through streets and few reasons for anyone to visit—can become a real asset. Currently, getting from Parkway Overlook to the Congress Heights Metro station requires a circuitous mile-long walk around the St. Elizabeths East Campus. But with the city planning a massive mixed-use redevelopment of St. Elizabeths, it would be simple to tear down the fence behind Parkway Overlook and connect a road through St. Elizabeths to Robinson Place. Not only would this cut the distance to the Metro in half, it’d also enable new Parkway Overlook residents to take advantage of the amenities at St. Elizabeths, and it could make Parkway Overlook an attractive place to live for people working at St. Elizabeths.
“That would be awesome,” Eaglin says when I propose a St. Elizabeths connection, noting that the most recent development team had actually discussed such a plan.
But Catherine Buell, who leads the St. Elizabeths development effort for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, says the only time she’s been contacted about Parkway Overlook had to do with running utility lines under the property.
The potential of Parkway Overlook won’t be realized, in terms of affordability or neighborhood connections, without help from the city. All three development efforts failed because of funding issues. If the next one is to succeed, it’ll happen either because the developer finds a way to transform the property into something more profitable—and presumably less affordable—or because the city chips in some cash.
The 2011 request for bids specified that proposals relying on any city funding would be “deemed infeasible.” But Gray announced in February that he was investing $100 million in preserving and creating affordable housing—and preserving Parkway Overlook’s affordability would be a relatively cheap and effective means toward that goal, and a way to repopulate the complex after more than a half decade of vacancy. (Ribeiro notes that Gray “doesn’t make the decisions on how all the $100 million gets spent.”)
“There have been a number of developers who were very close to making the numbers work on that, and needed just a little more subsidy from the city or HUD—given the scale of the city budget, a relatively modest amount,” says Parker.
Both Parker and Eaglin say the new Parkway Overlook doesn’t need to be 100 percent affordable, and that a mix of incomes could be beneficial. But Eaglin says the majority of the former residents are still in the District, and many would like to return to Parkway Overlook.
“We were a loving family at Parkway Overlook,” says Eaglin, “and I’d like to see that community come back again.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery