1220 Maple View Place SE Image by John Muller.

Four homes in Historic Anacostia have sat vacant and in disrepair for decades, despite years of neighbors’ efforts to redevelop and preserve them. The DC government owns these blighted properties and just recently designated them to be rehabilitated and turned into affordable housing. But some neighbors and DC Councilmembers say an earlier plan— one that would make them market rate homes— should be the one moving forward.

How the DC government came to own these properties

The houses at the center of this controversy are located at 1326 Valley Place SE, 1518 W Street SE, 1220 Maple View SE, and 1648 U Street SE. Here they are on a map:

Each home has a unique story of how it became vacant in the first place, but they're similar in that they're all now in the hands of the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

The agency has a Property Acquisition and Disposition Division (PADD) that seeks out long-term vacant and blighted properties and buys them through a variety of methods, including out-right purchase, use of eminent domain, or tax sale foreclosure purchases. From there, DHCD redistributes the properties to individuals or developers who will revitalize the sites and incorporate some amount of affordable housing (funded in part through money from the Housing Protection Trust Fund (HPTF), the city’s local affordable housing fund).

As of the fourth quarter of 2016, the program had 161 properties waiting to be distributed and developed on its roster. In a statement, DHCD says that “every vacant and blighted property in [its] inventory will be in the process of transformation into affordable housing and mixed use communities by the end of 2017.” Recently, the agency released a solicitation for proposals on five more of these properties in Ward 8, and says it now has 100 development sites in its inventory.

1518 W Street SE Image by John Muller.

Tired of waiting for DHCD, residents wanted a different path for these four houses

These four particular properties have been on DHCD’s roster for years (one went on as early as 2004), but despite repeated concerns from neighbors, they continued to sit vacant.

Eventually, a historic preservation non-profit, The L'Enfant Trust, offered to rehab the buildings and sell them at market rate. The Trust proposed using grants and private money to fix the buildings; it was not interested in using Housing Production Trust Fund money to subsidize the homes and make them affordable to people with lower incomes.

Some neighbors were excited about this; the neighborhood has often asked for more market-rate investment, as many residents feel their ward should not continue to host more affordable housing (it already has a lot of projects either in the pipeline or already in existence).

1326 Valley Place SE Image by John Muller.

Last year, after pressure from advocates and a few councilmembers, the DC Council passed a bill requiring that the mayor (who holds authority over DHCD) transfer the rights of four of the homes to the L’Enfant Trust. While the PADD rules do say the houses should become affordable housing and L’Enfant did not have plans to make them that, the DC Council was responding to community pressure to simply make something happen at these long blighted properties; it was willing to work around the PADD process, and the bill was finalized in January 2017.

But the mayor did not sign, and in November DHCD began a competitive bidding process, asking developers for proposals on how they would develop the four sites. In keeping with its mandate, DHCD asked for proposals that would produce affordable housing. The L’Enfant Trust did not participate in the bidding.

Last month, DHCD announced that it will award the development rights to the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights, which wants to turn the sites into five homes (one would be a duplex) and offer two to households making up to 50% of AMI (about $49,000 for a family of three). Land ownership has yet to be formally transferred, but DHCD plans to enter into an agreement this summer.

1648 U Street SE Image by John Muller.

Now this has become a political battle, with the fate of the homes uncertain

DC Council chair Phil Mendelson is not happy about this decision, saying that to transfer the homes through the PADD solicitation process is “to ignore the legal transfer of title, to unnecessarily spend precious dollars, to disregard the Anacostia community, and to award the houses to an inexperienced developer,” all of which “is not governing in the best interest of the District.”

Mendelson wants the mayor to honor the bill the Council passed last year and give the homes to the L'Enfant Trust, claiming that the executive office ignored a clear legal directive from the DC Council.

And he’s not the only one upset. Neighbors are tired of the wait and just want a solution; many have lost faith in the government agencies involved.

There are also concerns that one building,1220 Maple View Place, might not be standing by the time the political battle is over— it’s already leaning precariously due to neglect. Last month, a pile driver began the pounding holes for the nearby Maple View Flats development, and afterward neighbors shared worries that the historic homes would not survive the vibrations.

In a city facing an incredible shortage of homes and affordable homes, it’s surprising that so much political energy and capital is being spent on four homes with such slow, frustrating results. Many neighbors just want a solution to long-standing blighted buildings, which at least for now still have an uncertain future.