Photo by the author.

Anacostia waits. With entire half-blocks of its commercial district vacant, many of the remaining occupied buildings serve a plenitude of aid agencies. With nearly a fifth of the historic neighborhood’s residential properties vacant, this area of the city remains an economic dead zone.

Although a smattering of small businesses have opened in the past year in Anacostia, joining established merchants including a music store, clothing boutique, flower shop, and Jamaican eatery, and a promising arts district has begun to attract visitors from within and outside the neighborhood, this small corner of the city remains lost, forgotten economically.

The headquarters of the Department of Housing and Community Development anchors the gateway to Historic Anacostia at 1800 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, but many storefronts sit vacant on either side, down Good Hope Road SE and up “the Avenue.”

Northwest corner of 13th & Good Hope Road SE. Photo by the author.

At the northwest corner of 13th and Good Hope Road, a former gas station was torn down years ago, leaving a vacant lot. At 1909-1913 MLK Jr. Avenue SE the external shells of three adjacent two story brick buildings covered with multicolor wheat paste flyers loom over the street. More than five years before, a fire gutted the interiors.

Across the street, a handmade sign in recently opened Second Chance Convenience Store proclaims, “!Sorry! no E.B.T” posted next to a sign that reads “NO Change Without A Purchase.” This is the Southside. This is Old Anacostia. Pretentiousness doesn’t stifle life here. “Watermellon [sic] Slices 1.75-2.25”

Anacostia’s stock of vacant residential properties

2315 High Street SE. Photo by the author.

According to a limited canvassing report provided by DCRA, Historic Anacostia has 40 vacant properties, 16 blighted properties, and 2 vacant lots. 3 of the properties in the report, the Big K homes, are cited as “government owned.”

Vacant properties are “complaint generated” according to DCRA, meaning that as citizens report the properties, DCRA follows up. According to officials I spoke with, DCRA has a staff of no more than two responsible for visiting and inspecting vacant properties across the entire city.

Although Anacostians have been diligent in their canvassing and reporting, a recent walk of the residential neighborhood revealed vacant properties and lots that have, presumably, not yet been reported to DCRA. For example, the list of 40 vacant properties omitted several abandoned homes on W Street SE between 13th and 16th Street, some less than a half block from the Frederick Douglass National Historical Site.

1326 Valley Place SE. Photo by the author.

Another house not included in DCRA’s list is 1326 Valley Place SE, owned by Darwin Trust Properties, LLC, whose “CEO was incarcerated” during ongoing demolition by neglect litigation. Therefore, the city “successfully secured a court order allowing DCRA to abate the violations.”

To put pressure on owners of vacant and blighted properties, city legislators created a Class 3 property tax rate for vacant commercial and residential properties and a Class 4 tax rate for blighted properties. Class 3 properties are taxed at $5 per $100 of assessed value, Class 4 properties $10 per $100 of assessed value.

In contrast, Class 1, residential real property including multi-family, are assessed at $0.85 per $100, and Class 2, commercial and industrial, are taxed $1.65 per $100 up to the first $3 million of assessed value, and $1.85 for value exceeding $3 million.

”[W]ith regard to the high number of city-owned properties that remain vacant and in some cases blighted, I share your frustrations,” writes Nicholas Majett, Director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. “Hampered by recent economic downtown in the economy, a number of D.C. Government offices remain focused on this problem. At this time, DC owned properties are treated like privately owned properties with respect to vacancy and maintenance. The difference is that there is no tax reclassification.”

Historic rehabilitation grants provide hope

Photo by the author.

Anacostia became recognized by the city as a Historic District in 1973. The Anacostia Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The nomination form submitted to the National Register of Historic Places says,

The Anacostia Historic District is an area of approximately twenty squares in southeast Washington, generally encompassing Uniontown, the Griswold Subdivision, and immediately adjacent areas.

The architectural character of the Anacostia area is unique in Washington. Nowhere else in the District of Columbia does there exist such a collection of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century small-scale frame and brick working-class housing.

The Anacostia Historic District is dominated by three major architectural styles — the Cottage Style, the Italianate, and the Washington Row Style. A number of Queen Anne houses are scattered throughout the historic district.

During the past several decades, much of the housing in area of the Anacostia Historic District has fallen into a state of disrepair. In recent years community organizations, the Neighborhood Housing Service and the Department of Housing and Community Development have been encouraging people to rehabilitate their houses, many of which are in good condition, needing only routine maintenance work. A number of single-family houses have recently undergone dramatic changes as a result of rehabilitation work.

In 2007, Anacostia was selected by HPO for a pilot program that awarded competitive grants of up to $35,000 to repair and restore the exterior of the area’s historic homes. More than fifty grants were awarded to homeowners totaling nearly $900,000. The average grant size was $16,856. 

Despite strong community participation, the grant program was not renewed for the neighborhood.

What will happen to Anacostia’s vacant properties?

Is Old Anacosia’s historicity part of its livable future?  Will forthcoming change whitewash its history, making the neighborhood unrecognizable? Change happens slow here.

The default inclination of many in our city is to frame and discuss development and revitalization in terms of identity instead of economics and investment. By steadfastly misdirecting the conversation away from policy, for years, and towards identity Anacostians, newcomers and generational residents, have suffered gravely.

Change has been painfully slow to reach Anacostia.

Whereas city officials, academics, the media, and others have begun touting Anacostia as an emerging neighborhood célèbre there is a raw disconnect between the hype and the reality.

Residents want the vacant properties cleaned up and dealt with yesterday while seemingly everyone from bloggers to elected officials and bureaucrats are overlooking the problems of the here and now to speculate on the possibilities of tomorrow. To many, optimism in Anacostia is an oxymoron.

Plans have come and gone while the crumbling homes and buildings of Old Anacostia continue to sit, as they have for years, decades, and wait for life to return to this small bend of the capital city.