If you’ve ever walked down 14th Street NW, you know the Frontiers condominiums at S Street. Set apart from the graceful townhomes that line the surrounding streets, Frontiers is made up of squat rowhouses with featureless brick façades and narrow windows.
The condominiums look like public housing units—and they are, built in 1977 by the National Capital Housing Authority. Residents were placed there by lottery—a lucky draw for those who had lived in more depressed neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. In the late 1990s, then-tenants were able to buy their units for between $100,000 and $150,000 each.
The neighborhood looks different now. Luxury condos and apartments are under construction from downtown to U Street NW, with a new restaurant opening every month. Frontiers is now one of the last refuges of poorer, mostly black residents who could never have bought in at 2012 prices.
Shirley Jones has lived on the corner of 14th and S streets for two decades. She retired from her job at D.C. General Hospital a few years ago, and now has to raise her voice over the din of drinkers on the patio across the street—but she likes the change.
“Lord, I just set out here, looking at the people all dressed up,” Jones says, smiling into the balmy Saturday evening. “This street be just like a little Georgetown. Very nice.”
Nice enough that the humble Frontiers looks increasingly tempting to developers seeking new construction sites. Since last summer, several have called up the condo association, figuring they could buy people out, knock down their houses, erect new buildings, and make a killing when yuppies moved in.
A year and three offers later, Frontiers isn’t going anywhere. Jones says she would’ve made $750,000 on the last proposal, which she wanted to take. But a few of her neighbors weren’t interested in selling and tanked the deal for everybody.
“What I heard is, most of ’em wanted more money. Nobody’s stupid. Everybody knows it’s an up-and-coming area,” Jones says. The developers seemed nice, she added. “But can you trust ’em? This is what people are afraid of. I think most people are afraid of being taken.”
For most housing projects in fast-gentrifying areas, redevelopment is simply a matter of time. But because of the particular circumstances of Frontiers’ formation, it may never happen at all.
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Josh Olson, the director of acquisitions at Monument Realty, knew Frontiers was going to be tough when he unearthed the condo association’s bylaws. Along with the 14th Street homes, it also covers three smaller clusters of identical houses over on 11th Street. Redeveloping any one of the parcels would require unanimous consent from the owners of all 54 units—so just one person could doom any deal.
Still, the land is so valuable that Olson figured it was worth a try. Last June, he called the owners together in a meeting room at the posh Washington Plaza hotel, providing munchies and an open bar. He described Monument’s offer: Between $681,000 and $810,000 per house, depending on location and whether the developers got all the zoning changes they wanted.
Almost immediately, some owners started demanding more money. “We’re living on a gold mine!” one guy protested. “You can live on the gold mine for the rest of your life!” replied Olson, whose patience started to erode after several minutes of audience chaos. “You’re not going to get gold out of the gold mine unless you sell!”
Monument asked people to turn in cards indicating whether they were interested. But the firm ultimately didn’t submit a formal offer, giving up late last year.
That didn’t discourage Lakritz Adler, a smaller outfit that specializes in complicated deals. The company convened an initial meeting in late August at equally swank Donovan House. Seeking to win over undecided residents, principal Josh Adler detailed staffer Clinton Canady to meet with each owner individually. As the proposal firmed up in December, the firm even threw the owners a party at Ben’s Next Door on U Street. The entertainment was somewhat unlikely: An appearance by Adler’s college a capella group, the world-renowned Yale University Whiffenpoofs.
“We’re literally doing community organizing work,” says Adler. “But we’re doing it from the outside, which is tough.” No wonder: It’s a lot easier to organize people to stay in their homes than to leave them.
Adler’s bid started out simple, but soon got more complicated. Some owners insisted they should be paid more for having more bedrooms or having recently renovated their homes. Offers topped out at almost $1 million. Adler argues that even the lower amounts would be much better than owners could get selling their homes individually. The payday could have allowed residents to buy someplace else and have a nest egg left over.
“For a lot of the owners, this would be a life-changing event. If you own a home with no mortgage, and have half a million in the bank, a sensible person would never be worried about money again,” Adler says. “If this works out, these people are making out like bandits. They are cashing in. They are getting a crazy great deal.”
The condo’s board, however, wasn’t so sure. When they presented Lakritz Adler’s offer to residents in December, they emphasized all the caveats: The buyout money wouldn’t come until years down the road, for example, and homeowners would get nothing if the developer had to back out. Adler says next to nobody tried hard to advocate for the deal. Adding to the confused atmosphere, some people in the majority-black association suspected that the developer was colluding with the association’s president, a white man named David Levey. A speechwriter, Levey bought his unit for $425,000 in 2010 and completely renovated it.
“They just took an unfair approach to him and whoever was white on the board,” says Dale Young, an African-American who owns a unit on 11th Street and wanted to take the deal. “They said things like, he was in it to take peoples’ property.” (Levey actually offered to buy Young’s house, and said he’d buy others if given the opportunity.) In March, Lakritz Adler’s proposal sputtered, too. (Adler still holds out hope that the association might reconsider.)
Levey thinks more developers will come courting, and says they’ll consider each offer carefully. But Adler points out that the deal will just keep getting more difficult as the units turn over at market prices—the last house on the west side sold for $550,000—and the new owners have less to gain by selling to a developer who can offer more because of the land’s potential.
Still, the idea was probably doomed from the start. Homeowners aren’t just motivated by economics: Many simply don’t want to leave, for any amount of money that a developer could rationally offer, because their home matters more than cash.
Take Lenna Burke, who retired last year from her job as a secretary for the National Park Service. Her children are grown and live in Maryland, but she’s been living in her house on N Street for 20 years, and doesn’t plan on moving—on Mother’s Day, her whole family came back to visit. “These people are trying to force us out of here. That’s just my opinion,” she says. “If it can be convenient for everybody else, why can’t it be convenient for me?”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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