L'Enfant Trust developed home with green siding and a porch
Credit: Courtesy of L'Enfant Trust

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Nearly five years ago, four dilapidated, abandoned homes in Anacostia were stuck in a tug-of-war between Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council. But these days, the city-owned properties are housing families again for the first time in decades.

It took years of bureaucratic battles, fundraising, and construction, but the nonprofit the L’Enfant Trust has finally sold off two of the homes and now has a third on the market. It’s an outcome that might have once seemed unthinkable for neighbors who have been urging the District to do something—anything—with the historic homes for the better part of the past 20 years. And it’s a bit of a win for Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. He believes it’s a clear example of how the city could better use its own land to house people, and how it often fails to do so.

“My only regret is that the city has done nothing to scale this program to [include] more houses,” Mendelson says. “These houses are no longer vacant and blighted, and we’re getting taxes on these properties from families who live in them.”

Mendelson was the driving force in engineering the transfer of these four properties to the trust, which agreed to renovate the homes using private funds and make them available to homebuyers of more modest means, an approach that Bowser fought tooth and nail. She tried instead to award the project through a more traditional solicitation and picked the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights to manage the process in defiance of Council legislation favoring the trust, specifically.

But that deal fell apart in no small measure due to Mendelson’s resistance (he used budget language to block Bowser from spending affordable housing funds on the homes, among other maneuvers). Over the administration’s frequent objections, he insisted that the Council had the authority to hand the properties over directly to the trust. As much as anything, it became a fight about who has power over land in the city, and how local leaders can put vacant properties to productive use as they address D.C.’s housing crisis.

“We just got caught in the arm wrestling between the Council and the mayor’s office,” says Lauren McHale, the trust’s president and CEO. 

Bowser relented and handed the homes over in 2018, and after three years of work, the first property (at 1518 W St. SE) sold last February for $410,000. The trust found a buyer for 1326 Valley Pl. SE by September (for $649,000) and nearly closed on a deal for 1648 U St. SE before negotiations fell through at the last minute, McHale says. She hopes to start work on the fourth and final home, at 1220 Maple View Pl. SE, once the trust can finish fundraising to meet a projected $2 million price tag.

McHale says the three other properties weren’t quite that expensive—the group budgeted $500,000 for each one, though she says costs have reached up to $730,000, depending on the house in question. But, in general, McHale stresses that the trust is “taking a huge hit on these properties” financially, considering they come with affordability requirements. The Council’s legislation stipulates that buyers can make no more than 120 percent of the area median income (about $154,000 for a family of four) but McHale says the trust has so far sold to people earning much less than that.

That’s not a model that can work for most developers, even those handling affordable projects, who often count on market-rate units helping to offset the costs of affordable apartments. But in this case the land, often the most expensive part of any development play, came completely free of charge. McHale says her organization also scored a low interest loan from the preservation-focused 1772 Foundation, with the $1.5 million investment seeding their efforts. It helps, too, that the trust earns a steady (if modest) income stream from managing easements on historic properties throughout the rest of the city.

“We’re able to take this money that we’re raising largely in Northwest and put it into Southeast,” she says. “And we’re doing this to keep these affordably priced and make sure existing residents have a chance of acquiring these. … We don’t want to go in and change Anacostia. We don’t want to push anybody out.”

But could this really be a model elsewhere, as Mendelson hopes? It’s quite far from being a comprehensive solution to the city’s housing woes, but it could be a small way to make a difference, particularly when it comes to affordable homeownership (a frequent point of emphasis for Bowser and lawmakers alike). 

The city’s Department of Housing and Community Development controls plenty of other vacant homes and lots that could be handed over to similar nonprofits: up to 150 as of 2016. A spokesman for the agency said it doesn’t currently control other properties that are in quite the same situation as the Anacostia homes, but it’s safe to assume there are plenty of promising opportunities, especially in neighborhoods like Anacostia that are finally starting to see more development (and higher prices as a result).

“I would like to think that DHCD has learned from this,” Mendelson said. “But I see no evidence of that so far.”

A DHCD spokesman said the agency works “every day to transform vacant and blighted property into affordable housing opportunities for our residents,” but also said that “DHCD has not been engaged by the L’Enfant Trust regarding other properties.” Mendelson believes the agency should be doing that engagement proactively, but he was unsure of any methods he could use to force officials to do so.

McHale says she sympathizes with the agency, to an extent. She suspects officials didn’t take action in Anacostia for so long because they knew how expensive the process would be, considering the homes are in a historic district and therefore come with complex standards for rehabilitation. And there are certainly many other demands on the agency’s attention (and its dollars) when it comes to affordable housing issues in the city.

But that isn’t an excuse for inaction. McHale says the District could easily have chipped in a small amount of funding to help the Anacostia project get off the ground (had it not gotten stuck in the turf war between the legislature and the executive) and there’s no reason it couldn’t do so elsewhere. Ditto for other foundations focused on these issues, she says, considering that most of the trust’s support has so far come from out of state.

“We’re the developers of last resort on properties like these,” McHale says. “There’s a reason other developers aren’t clamoring for these buildings. … It takes a lot of time and a lot of money.”