Built to replace Ellen Wilson housing project, townhouses are a mixed-income model

When Juanita Jones moved into her newly constructed townhouse on Capitol Hill, she kissed the floors, the walls and the doors, and hoped she would be able to afford to stay. That was in January 1999, when Jones became one of the first residents to move into the Townhomes on Capitol Hill, a federally funded project that replaced the abandoned Ellen Wilson public housing project with mixed-income townhouses.

Fourteen years later, Jones is still there, and the city’s first social experiment with mixed-income housing has become a model for other developments, even if it made only a modest contribution toward solving the District’s affordable housing problem.

After the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a $25 million grant to a neighborhood group in 1993 to tear down 134 abandoned units at Ellen Wilson and replace them with an equal number of mixed-income homes, many civic leaders doubted whether middle-class professionals would live in the same development with public housing tenants.

They clearly have, with a third of the Townhomes’ residents now making market-rate monthly payments that subsidize those of people such as Jones who pay much less.

The development did not replace public housing units on a one-for-one basis. When the Ellen Wilson project was demolished, most of its former residents never made it back into the townhouses that took its place.

Today, there’s a waiting list of 600 families for the development’s subsidized units — and the District closed its waiting list for housing assistance in April with more than 70,000 names.

But in a powerful measure of the Townhomes’s success, it is now virtually impossible to tell where the surrounding, historic Victorian rowhouses of Capitol Hill end and the development begins.

“We knew that Capitol Hill worked,” said architect Amy Weinstein, who designed the development by meticulously emulating the Victorian townhouse aesthetic of Capitol Hill in the new townhomes. She also proposed two new streets through the former Ellen Wilson property. The resulting I Street SE and Ellen Wilson Place knit the Townhomes back into the surrounding neighborhood.

“It was already a mixed-income, mixed-racial community,” Weinstein said. “You had senators living in English basements with an African American family who had been on the Hill for five generations living above. So we asked ourselves, how can we replicate this? We didn’t really create anything new.”

Presented with the first pick of 134 homes, Jones chose a two-
bedroom unit next to the main office. “I wanted to be the first house on the corner so that if anything ever happened, I could easily get out.”

Jones, 59, grew up in Arthur Capper, another public housing project just across the freeway. While her more-affluent neighbors pay full freight, she and the Townhomes’ low-income residents pay about 30 percent of their income to live between Sixth and Seventh streets, four blocks south of the Eastern Market Metro.

The Townhomes exists under a limited equity cooperative structure, described by property manager Richelle Payne as the step between renting and buying. Both the initial payment to purchase a share in the co-op as well as the monthly carrying charge are determined by the resident’s income.

There are 33 units reserved for people earning less than 25 percent of the District’s area median income — for an individual, $18,778 or less. Thirty-four units are allocated for residents who make between 25 and 50 percent of median income. Those who live in the remaining 67 units are in the top half of the District’s income bracket, earning up to $123,395.

In the early 1990s, the District’s Department of Public and Assisted Housing was so poorly run that HUD awarded the Hope VI grant to a neighborhood community development corporation on the city’s behalf.

An integral piece of the Hope VI application was a 40-year economic plan to address long-term maintenance needs. In contrast to other federally funded projects, the Townhomes is financially self-sufficient and does not require an operating subsidy from the government.

“Our concept was you build up a large surplus in the early years, and when those lines cross and your operating income is no longer equal to your expenses, you have this reserve to draw from. And that is, in fact, what has happened,” said David Perry, a neighborhood leader who helped form the community development corporation.

Payne, the property manager, estimates the current reserve is more than $2 million.

When the community group embarked on the effort to build the Townhomes, the concept of mixed-income communities was almost nonexistent. Today, the majority of new public housing developments are based on the mixed-income model, largely out of financial necessity.

“We no longer have the resources we’re supposed to have to make public housing the best it can be,” said Adrianne Todman, director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority. “So we need to create other solutions. If we don’t, in 10 years, you will find many of our sites vacated and boarded up.” As is the case with the Townhomes on Capitol Hill, higher-income residents in market-rate units subsidize their lower-income neighbors.

Perry remembers how skeptical many of his Capitol Hill neighbors were about the mixed-income concept. Many neighbors told him that the revitalization effort was a waste of money and was destined to turn into a slum.

“People would say to me, quietly, ‘Do you think white people are going to move into a community that’s mostly black?’ ” he recalled. “ ‘That wealthy people are going to want to live among people with very modest incomes?’ ”

Despite opposition from the community, Perry and community organizers believed that if the Townhomes could look and feel like the rest of Capitol Hill — unlike the project they were replacing — it would thrive. “The old Ellen Wilson building looked like someone dropped them down from outer space,” Perry said.

Just before the completion of construction, the Postal Service announced that rather than delivering mail to each house, it would use cluster mailboxes. Dick Wolfe, former president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, was aghast.

“This is Capitol Hill, and you bloody well will deliver the mail to every house, just like you do everywhere else on Capitol Hill,” he insisted.

Wolfe took his case all the way to the postmaster general. Today, the mail gets delivered to each resident’s house.

Even the Townhomes residents did not unanimously favor all the efforts to maintain the aesthetic of the Hill. When Jones moved in, she took one look at her glass front door and installed a white metal storm door.

“I got chewed out by people who said that it took away the glory of Capitol Hill,” she said. “But I said, ‘Forget it. I’m not taking it down.’ I did not come from a house with a glass door.”

The Townhomes’ board of directors has since voted to allow storm doors of a neutral color.

Although the original project planners intended to give priority to those who lived in the former Ellen Wilson dwellings, the Townhomes was not completed until more than a decade after Ellen Wilson was abandoned. By then, most former residents could not be located or had moved on. Invitations were then extended to people living in the nearby Arthur Capper project. However, Jones was one of the few Arthur Capper residents who was able to pass the Townhomes’s screening process and save enough money for the initial down payment.

“When I talk to people on the outside, they don’t look at this project as being a success because they see a lot of people that didn’t make it in here,” Jones said.

To provide more low-income units, the housing authority has redefined the concept of one-for-one replacement to require new mixed-income communities to contain the same number of low-income units as the public housing they replace. They also offer resident services, including job placement assistance, credit counseling, literacy classes and computer training, aimed at facilitating upward mobility.

Todman, the housing authority director, sees the replacement of Ellen Wilson with the townhouses as an example of what needs to continue happening throughout the District on a larger scale, with greater focus on preserving low-income units.

When Jones moved to the Townhomes, she brought with her a thick photo album compiled by her mother. The album, filled with pictures of her family and neighborhood block parties, is one of her last physical ties to the public housing project she spent most of her life in.

“Of course I miss the ’hood,” she said. “But I worked very hard to get in here. I love it up here. I love my home.”

 
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