MANNA Up: Jim Dickerson and Frank Demarais say the city’s stiffing affordable condo owners.
Tanya Davis spends most of her hours on the couch, watching cable television shows depicting graphic surgeries and other invasive medical procedures.
It’s not that she’s lost her job or depressed. She’s bed-ridden, waiting for her baby—“Ella” is the chosen name—to be born, and the due date is in December.
Pregnant for the first time at 40, Davis’ delivery anxiety is driving her TV habits: She wants to familiarize herself as much as possible with health care jargon and hospital-speak. Fortunately, that particular worry will fade; the real stress point is what happens after the baby comes.
If Davis feels imprisoned in her apartment now, she suspects the sense of entrapment will only grow. These two bedrooms, this living room nook, and this open linoleum kitchen in her condo are sufficient—for the moment. But three years down the road, her toddler will be running around bumping into things, and Davis and her husband might want another child. Then what? Move?
That may not be option. Davis lives in a designated “affordable” condo in Kenyon Square in Columbia Heights. According to the rules and regulations she signed on to, she’d need to stay in it for 11 years to walk away with at least half its appreciated value.
Sell now, and she’ll leave with barely anything—no nest egg to purchase another house. Worse, she’ll have used up any first-time homebuyer programs available to her, meaning she’ll actually be at a disadvantage heading back into the real estate market.
“You’re not getting anything from it, and the person in the unit is financing it. Here you are trapping them,” says Jim Dickerson of the housing nonprofit MANNA, Inc.
Kenyon Square is one of several relatively new condo buildings with designated affordable units, priced below market rate and geared toward buyers making below the area median income level. Others include the Solea and Union Row near 14th and U Streets, and City Vista in Mount Vernon Square.
MANNA helped qualify buyers for City Vista. “We’re not for anyone making a windfall profit,” Dickerson says. “But we are for someone making equity on their investment.”
From a practical standpoint, the units are often better-suited to people who don’t plan on changing their lifestyles for decades. For the first 20 years after its purchase, the unit must be first marketed to someone “in the same income class as the Affordable Dwelling Unit Owner,” according to Kenyon Square’s condo rulebook. So it’s not as if Davis—who earns 40 percent of the area median income—could turn the keys over to a lawyer pulling in six figures and walk away with a sweet profit soon.
But finding an eligible buyer is a challenge, says MANNA’s Frank Demarais. He and his co-workers heard from thousands of people interested in affordable condos at City Vista. But after running credit checks and the like, sales reps there “still didn’t find enough buyers to fill 89 units.”
If Davis can’t find a buyer in her income bracket, she can sell to a market-rate buyer. But she can’t recoup any of her condo’s appreciated value within the first three years. Over time, she’ll receive more: 20 percent after six years; 40 percent after nine; 80 percent after 18.What’s left over goes into a city fund supporting future affordable housing.
MANNA reps think that buyers should be entitled to the normal market-rate appreciation, according to Shiv Newaldass, director of advocacy at the nonprofit. So if the market rate value of Davis’ condo increases by $50,000 over three years, she should recoup exactly that amount, along with the original cost of her condo.
“If there’s been a drop in the real market value, we don’t think you should be entitled to anything,” says Newaldass. “It’s part of being a homeowner.If your house has lost value, it’s not wise to sell. So don’t sell.”
Davis says that, even before she bought the condo, she “knew the time would come” to leave it. But when she heard Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham announce during a community meeting that affordable units would be coming onto the market, she jumped in and signed a contract.
That was 2005, when Davis lived only with her dog. She had called Columbia Heights home since the late 1990s and felt connected to the neighborhood. And she’d already looked into other nonprofit, moderate-income housing opportunities, to no avail.
Four years have passed, and Davis isn’t so single anymore. She lives with her husband and an elderly woman with dementia whom she met at church years ago, then invited into her home. Add the baby—and the dog—and that makes five. “A small townhouse in the city would be nice,” says Davis.
The city says it expects owners like Davis to continue living in their homes, not rent them out.
But some people—reasonable people, even—say they plan to cheat the system, because it’s the only sensible way to own an affordable unit and still go on living your life without suffering major consequences. One City Vista resident told Washington City Paper that he intended to sublet his condo to a family member whenever he outgrows it. (Naturally, he asked that his name not be published.)
The city’s new inclusionary zoning rules, which went into effect in August, now force developers to set aside a number of units deemed affordable. Prior to that, most of the rules binding people like Davis were negotiated individually by the city.
The new rules should ease sellers’ burden, said Sean Madigan, spokesperson for the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. People like Davis can search for qualified condo buyers on the new website DChousingsearch.org. The city also plans to “establish a list of qualified buyers,” as people sign up for future affordable condo lotteries.
The new rules also created a different policy for re-sale restrictions involving a complicated equation that factors in the 10-year compound annual growth of the area median income.
“It does make sense to stay longer,” Madigan says of affordable condos. But, these days, few short-term owners are reaping big benefits on their properties anyway. “Back in the go-go days of the real estate market, you’d flip a property and get a 40 percent return, and that’s just not going to happen anymore.”
MANNA’s Newaldass talked his own sister out of getting a City Vista unit, convincing her she would regret the decision because she might want to sell before it made financial sense to do so.
“I see it as the lesser of two evils. People can either leave the District, or move into these units with heinous restrictions. Still, it means more for these people to be in their community, to stay in D.C.,” he says.
Dickerson, who is also a pastor, compares the whole process to marriage. “I don’t really counsel people before the marriage; I counsel them a year later, when the stars in their eyes are gone,” he says. “It’s the same with home ownership. It’s hard to hear some of the tough facts. But then they’re very susceptible and vulnerable.”
This story will appear in this week’s issue of the Washington City Paper. Image by Darrow Montgomery.