This article was first published by Street Sense Media on June 26, 2019.
After two years of independently led organizing, the residents of Savannah Apartments are finally able to secure permanent affordability for their homes. When their building was put on the market in 2017, Tiffany Jessup and her fellow residents worked together to independently purchase the building.
“The apartments were coming up for sale,” Jessup said. “We see a lot of renovation in the area, and so we knew that it was just a matter of time. We, as the residents and tenants, wanted to band together to make sure that we were going to be afforded the best opportunities to stay in our places.”
Located near the Congress Heights Metro station, the 65-unit complex is a perfect target for the private market to redevelop. New projects such as the Washington Mystics’ entertainment arena have appeared as a part of a $65 million plan to remake the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital into new retail, residential, and office space, according to an article in the Washington Post.
The impending renovations of the Savannah Apartments mark the first official purchase of the Douglass Community Land Trust.
In anticipation of rising housing prices around the construction of the 11th Street Bridge Park, Ward 8-based nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River proposed the creation of a community land trust within their Equitable Development Plan. The 11th Street Bridge Park would be the District’s first elevated park, stretching across the Anacostia River to connect the Anacostia and Capitol Hill neighborhoods.
The Douglass Community Land Trust exists under the umbrella of City First Homes, a community development finance provider, and partners with BBAR. The land trust aims to re-center power among residents during development, according to the land trust’s executive director, Ginger Rumph.
“This is about community control and really trying to provide ways for folks to be in charge in directing the way their development occurs around them,” Rumph said.
Beyond development, the land trust also seeks to create permanent affordability for rentals, housing, and local businesses.
The Douglas Community Land Trust has committed $1.3 million dollars to the Savannah Apartments as a mixture of permanent and “bridge” funding, according to Rumph. Essentially, $700,000 is being given to the project permanently while the other $600,000 function as a loan without interest while additional permanent funding sources are sought.
The funding provided by the land trust will help the tenants at the Savannah Apartments preserve long term affordability. It follows an $8.2 million dollar award granted from the DC Department of Housing and Community Development.
The Savannah residents plan to utilize the $8.2 million dollars to renovate the units, while funding from the land trust will be used to establish permanent affordability. Ensuring long-term preservation and renovation are a priority for the residents, as some have not been upgraded for 24 years, according to Jessup.
“Keeping the rates down will allow us to continue to afford our homes for longevity,” Jessup said. “My family is the longest living residents on the property – we’ve been there 26 years. These apartments have not had any type of upkeep, upgrade, or anything done. My parents just got a new refrigerator two years ago.”
In 2017, the Savannah residents exercised their rights under the District’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), allowing them to purchase their buildings with the help of a developer of their choice. Under TOPA, landowners are required to give their tenants the opportunity to purchase the housing accommodation they reside in before vacating or demolishing it.
The residents also gained $8.2 million from the Department of Housing and Community Development after applying for funding through a partnership with the nonprofit developer National Housing Trust (NHT). The Savannah residents chose NHT as the new owners of the property and they are now working together to plan renovations.
Even through the residents of the Savannah Apartments had organized before the land trust had gotten involved, a community land trust can facilitate a relationship between residents and their rights in many other situations as well.
Construction and redevelopment for thousands of new apartments have been either planned or initiated in Ward 8 over the past two years. In a climate of such rapid expansion, a community land trust provides an opportunity to manage gentrification, according to DCLT advisory board member Kymone Freeman.
“Gentrification is cultural genocide,” Freeman said. “It’s an opportunity to put a leash on gentrification and remove displacement from the equation. Gentrification as we now know it is public policy without public interest. With the land trust, it’s public policy with public input.”
Since 2000, low-income populations have been pushed out of communities all over DC and primarily moved into Wards 7 and 8, according to a Washington Post article.
The Capitol Hill neighborhood displaced 75 percent of the low-income population, while the Shaw neighborhood displaced 57 percent. Meanwhile, the population of lower-income people has grown by 60 percent in neighborhoods like Good Hope.
The Douglass Community Land Trust has integrated a strong community influence into every step of the process – from the advisory board to community outreach. The advisory board is made up of 12 people, seven of which either live or have a business in Ward 8. However, community engagement will never be entirely perfect, according to DCLT Advisory Board Member Sheldon Clark.
“It’s an ongoing battle,” said Clark, who lives in Ward 8. “I don’t think that a community based organization ever gets to the point where they should sit up and say, ‘Hey, we’ve completely solved this outreach and education component.’ We’ve ramped up and we’ve done more, and it’s just always going to be a challenge.”
The land trust has primarily been in talks with other projects that are already in progress, similar to Savannah Apartments. However, the executive director hopes to broaden its scope through different forms of land reacquisition and stewardship.
“As we are getting off the ground, our pathway to acquiring units has been to look at projects that are underway and see what kind of gap there might be that we could fill,” Rumph said. “Ultimately, we hope to have a variety of different ways that we could be of service to the community.”
Although the land trust was envisioned to prevent displacement surrounding the 11th Street Bridge Park, the DCLT has begun its impact years before the park will be opened.
The Bridge Park is estimated to begin construction in 2021 and ultimately open in 2023, according to a newsletter from BBAR.
For Jessup and other community members, the land trust represents more than just a project – but rather a chance to be a part of history.
“Being a native Washingtonian, and growing up seeing things the way that they are – I know that history repeats itself,” Jessup said. “Being on the advisory board allows me to see not just for my community, but just for the broader Washington, DC area, that building up of the east Anacostia river. It gives me a sense of knowing that things are looking up and headed in the right direction. There’s hope for the city.”
Correction: This article has been updated to include a photo of the Savannah Apartments. The previous photo showed the Savannah Heights Apartments at another location.