It only took a phone call in 2005 to persuade then-D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray to push for the inclusion of the Lincoln Heights housing project and the surrounding area in his home district as part of the city’s bold new urban renewal strategy. Nothing has been that easy since.
By now, the 440 low-income families that lived in Lincoln Heights should have moved into new replacement housing in the neighborhood. But only 32 families have been placed.
By now, almost all of the units in this aging complex of brick buildings in the Northeast community of Deanwood should have been demolished. Instead, city housing officials, who have lost confidence in the project, are refilling empty apartments with new families.
Seven years after they were adopted, the original plans for Lincoln Heights have unraveled. The plans would have replaced the aging buildings with new apartments and homes built by private developers, providing housing for low-income residents as well as more-affluent ones. But the city is still struggling to entice developers; only one has constructed a new building.
“We were supposed to get a new community,” said Patricia Malloy, a neighborhood matriarch. “But look around and it’s still the same community.”
Inspired by assurances from powerful politicians, Malloy evangelized that change would come if Lincoln Heights became a part of the program known as the New Communities Initiative.
Gray (D), now the District’s mayor, said he did not explore whether the plan was feasible for Deanwood before he pitched including it, even though, unlike the other New Communities neighborhoods, Deanwood had little interest from developers to build upon.
“I think it’s an outstanding challenge,” Gray said. “But I do believe we can solve it. It may cause us to retool and rethink some of this, but it doesn’t cause us to rethink why we did this in the first place.”
The New Communities Initiative was intended to solve a problem that has perplexed cities nationwide — how to make room for affluent newcomers in poor, mostly black communities without displacing the families already there. Four District housing projects and their surrounding neighborhoods were chosen to participate: Lincoln Heights in Deanwood, Park Morton in Park View, Barry Farm in Anacostia and Temple Courts, near NoMa.
But the failure to execute the plan calls into question some of its founding assumptions — that the city could reengineer communities so that poor, working-class and affluent residents would live side by side in equal proportions, and that private developers would agree to invest in that vision.
All four projects are riddled with problems and years behind schedule, prompting some housing officials to suggest scrapping the initiative and starting from scratch. In internal memos, city officials have almost doubled the timeline for its completion, from 2015 to 2023.
In a sign that New Communities may become an issue in the mayoral race, candidate and D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) has been hammering the Gray administration in public meetings for its failure to fulfill the plan’s promise to low-income residents. Gray has made spreading the city’s prosperity to poor and working-class neighborhoods a cornerstone of his reelection campaign.
While each of the four neighborhood plans is failing, Deanwood has fared the worst overall.
There are no cranes here. There are no full-service supermarkets, sit-down restaurants, bars or banks. According to Urban Institute data between 2000 and 2012, the neighborhood was the only one of the four to become poorer during that period. The number of families on welfare rose 5 percent, to 2,764. The poverty rate climbed from 29 percent to 34 percent.
Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, the main thoroughfare, is barren but for a few gas stations, a 7-Eleven, two fast-food businesses, a dry cleaner and a man who sells barbecue on Fridays from a repurposed trash canister.
“We need help,’’ said Malloy, 62, as she walked up and down the hilly neighborhood. “And it seems like no one cares.”
The success of New Communities depended on the city capitalizing on developers’ desire to build more upscale housing in up-and-coming neighborhoods. The city would then strike deals with developers to provide units for poor and working-class families in exchange for subsidies and tax breaks.
If the plan worked, poor families would no longer be priced out of their neighborhoods. Instead, they would be assigned a case manager to help them find employment, enroll in classes and achieve self-sufficiency. As an incentive, those who finished the program would be among the first to receive replacement housing.
When the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) developed the New Communities Initiative in 2005, advocates praised the plan as a better alternative to its predecessor. That federal program, known as Hope VI, was criticized for displacing poor families in favor of higher-income households.
The new plan answered that criticism by maintaining housing for the poor while adding more to accommodate working-class and affluent residents. In the end, one-third of the housing would be for the poor, a third would be for the working class and a third would be for those who could pay market rate. Mixed-income units would replace old public housing projects.
Williams’s successor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), eagerly adopted the plan. But D.C. Council members wanted a piece of it, too. They lobbied to adapt the idea for poor neighborhoods in their wards.
“Everyone wanted to do this, but there was no evidence whatsoever that this plan would work,” said Neil Albert, who was Fenty’s deputy mayor of economic planning and development and later the city administrator.
Lincoln Heights had the weakest case. Unlike the other three neighborhoods, there was no nearby train line or retail corridor. And there was very little developer interest.
But the housing project did have a connection to the politically powerful. Gray claimed Ward 7 as his home. Kwame R. Brown, then a council member, also lived in the ward and served as chairman of the Economic Development Committee.
After the initial strategy was approved for Temple Courts, Lincoln Heights was approved next. It was November 2006.
Gray, who lives in nearby Hillcrest, said he pushed for the inclusion of Lincoln Heights because he understands the rhythms of the District — parts of the city modernize, and more often than not poor neighborhoods are left behind.
“I didn’t ask anyone about whether this would work,” Gray said, adding that it is not unusual for council members to pitch ideas without consulting staff. “All I knew was I wanted something to help out my community.”
In 1992, Kim Pleasant thought she would find a refuge in Lincoln Heights for herself and her two children. She had heard that it was a nice place to raise a family, with spacious apartments and lots of green space for playing.
But once living there, she discovered otherwise. At Lincoln Heights, it seemed, it was every person for him or herself. Turf wars broke out between youths. The housing project’s many trees created shadowy areas called “cuts,” ideal for robberies, shootings.
Drug dealers sold at the project’s tallest point, a collection of four buildings braced by a traffic circle. Their lookouts would watch for police, ducking behind the buildings’ front doors. To help the police, the city housing agency removed the doors.
“I remember coming home one day with my two babies and trying to go through the cut,” Pleasant said. “I was opening my door, and bullets just flew by. . . . I wanted to move out, but I couldn’t afford to.”
Pleasant worked in retail and as a receptionist, yet she barely made enough to feed her children. So, she said, she succumbed to the temptations of the neighborhood. In August 1994, Pleasant was indicted on charges of cocaine and marijuana possession with the intent to distribute. When she came off a five-year probation, she vowed never to deal drugs again.
Three blocks away, Patricia Malloy was among a group of activists trying to make their neighborhood better. Malloy’s requests of the city were modest — paved sidewalks, for instance.
By 2005, Malloy’s best friend in the neighborhood, Rebecca Stamps, had started the nonprofit Project Blessing for Hurting Parents. She solicited donations for children’s beds and started GED and computer literacy classes.
“Everyone was having a good time,” said Stamps, 66. “But we needed more.”
When Malloy heard that millions of dollars were being invested in neighborhoods as a part of New Communities, she thought it might be Lincoln Heights’ best chance for improvement.
And she knew someone in power. Because of her community influence as an advisory neighborhood commissioner, she had been asked to work on Gray’s council election campaign.
“Do you think we can do a New Communities for Lincoln Heights?” Malloy asked the council member.
Gray didn’t hesitate.
“We can do it,” he recalled saying.
It only took a phone call.
The original plan called for more than 1,469 new units of housing, including the 440 low-income replacement units for Lincoln Heights families. Fewer than half would be in a new, mixed-income community where Lincoln Heights stood. The rest would be townhouses and snazzy apartments constructed in nearby buildings.
Because developers remained focused on building condominiums west of the river, the city practically gave land away to try to attract builders for Malloy’s neighborhood. One property was assessed at nearly $2 million. It was sold to Scottie Irving’s Blue Skye Development to rehabilitate for $1.
Four blocks away, city-owned land was sold to Anthony Wash, a local electrician who had never developed a large-scale property. The price? $1.
Meanwhile, city officials tried to find a developer to build a town center, considered the linchpin for attracting affluent newcomers to Deanwood.
The city spent $6 million to buy a parcel of land, used for trash collection, that was assessed at $2 million. The site was slated to accommodate 237 townhouse and apartment units.
City officials also began negotiating with a church, the House of Praise for All People, to purchase a parking lot. There they hoped to build at least 100 units of housing and space for retail, offices and a community medical clinic.
The flurry of activity was celebrated on Sept. 2, 2009, when Mayor Fenty called a news conference to celebrate Irving’s rehabbing of the property at 4427 Hayes St. NE, which was to include units for nine families from Lincoln Heights. The city had given the project $1.4 million in New Communities money.
At the groundbreaking, there were balloons. There were commitments. But the city lacked a contract with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to relocate the families.
Months later, the private building opened without any pomp. The city housing agency and its parent, HUD, were still debating the legal language to ensure that the nine replacement units would be sustained into the future. No families could move in.
Four years later, the two agencies have not agreed on a contract.
Bowser, chairwoman of the council’s Economic Development Committee, asked representatives from the housing agency and city staffers at an October hearing whether they knew the occupancy status of those nine units. No one knew.
They later confirmed that the developer had started renting them to people who were not from Lincoln Heights.
Irving, the developer, would say only that operating the building “has been painful.”
Just up the street, Wash was eager to start his first large-scale development. He had won the contract to build 70 units on city land that surrounded his electrical wiring company.
Wash gathered backing from lenders, investors and project managers to help him achieve his vision: a $22 million five-story building with commercial space on the first floor and 70 apartments that would be indistinguishable from those he had seen west of the Anacostia River. Forty-seven of the units near the 4800 block of Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE were priced for the working class. The other 23 were designated for residents of Lincoln Heights.
At Malloy’s residents’ meetings, Lincoln Heights tenants saw the sketches and were skeptical. The building seemed too nice for project housing. They wondered if it was a ploy to price them out of the neighborhood.
In the end, the numbers didn’t add up, but Wash had come to the project with good intentions. He had grown up in housing projects and understood that substandard conditions can hurt one’s sense of self-worth.
The city ultimately gave Wash $7.2 million in subsidies, including $800,000 when Wash began to run short, according to contracts.
But the money wasn’t enough. Wash still exceeded his budget by $1 million. The city declined to give more.
Although there was no contractual obligation, Wash said he felt the city had a moral obligation to help complete the project.
“I thought they’d be there for me because I was building a 100 percent affordable building,” Wash said. “The mayor goes around saying he wants to do all this work to build affordable housing, but here I am, a young developer . . . and I left money on the table. What sort of message does it send?”
Still, he felt he couldn’t walk away.
“So I pulled the money from my credit line,” Wash said.
Victor L. Hoskins, Gray’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said Wash was naive.
“A part of this is Tony Wash not understanding the parameters of real estate development,” Hoskins said.
There are more problems. The city no longer plans on building the 237 units of housing on the old trash collection site. Instead, it awarded the development rights to Philadelphia-based Pennrose, which promised 150 units — 50 of them for Lincoln Heights residents. Construction was scheduled to start in 2011, but the lot remains grassy and unscathed. Pennrose’s vice president, Ivy Carter, said the company was still trying to secure the proper financing.
Land that was to be used for the town center is still owned by the church, not the city. At least for the time being, the city has discarded plans to build the town center. Hoskins said the city no longer believes the area can attract such a large-scale development.
Officials have shifted their focus to the smaller goal of redeveloping the Strand, a shuttered theater across the street that has been closed for more than a half-century. If the city can achieve that, perhaps other developers will gain confidence in the neighborhood, officials said.
Investors from pharmacies, grocery stores and department stores have looked at the historic building. So far, no takers.
“Believe me,’’ Hoskins said, “we’re trying!”
The unraveling of the plan for Lincoln Heights comes as the mayor acknowledges an affordable-housing crisis in the city, with 80,000 people on a wait list and rents climbing steeply.
So instead of demolishing units as families move out of the housing project as originally planned, officials are refilling them.
“Our job is to house people,’’ said Adrianne Todman, executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority. “You can begin to slow down backfilling . . . when you can actually say, ‘There’s a good, hard plan for what’s going to happen next.’ ”
Todman no longer subscribes to the crowning ideal of New Communities — of creating neighborhoods that cater to all incomes but are dominated by none. Instead, she said, the focus should be on “building healthy communities.”
Gray said the city would need an independent consultant to review how best to proceed.
“It seems we have conflicting policies,” he said in October.
The appointed director of the New Communities Initiative, Kimberly Black King, said she still believes the plan will work in time.
At the October hearing, Bowser noted that it seemed impossible that all four projects would be completed, even with a new timeline: How could a plan as far behind as Lincoln Heights’ be completed as quickly as one for the Temple Courts neighborhood, near one of “the hottest neighborhoods” in the District?
“Do you stand by that?” Bowser asked Black King.
“I don’t believe that can happen, and residents don’t believe it, either,” Bowser said. “I can’t keep sitting here and telling [residents] it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. I’ve got to tell them the truth, right? At some point, we have to.”
The buildings in Lincoln Heights still have no front doors. The structures atop the hill were in such disrepair they have been boarded up for five years.
The drug trade has largely migrated to the open buildings near the basketball courts. During the summer, children ran past them, then down the litter-strewn steps.
“Sometimes, you just feel like giving up,” recalled Pleasant, 45. “I had a little barbecue for all the neighbors and had them play with my kids’ toys. The next day, all the toys had been stolen. You just wonder, why bother?”
Despairing, she decided to attend the case management meetings and to apply to live in Wash’s new building, called the Nannie Helen at 4800.
Pleasant said she knew she “needed to get out. I told them that if they did a background check, they’d find an arrest. But it was over 10 years ago. I am a new person and needed a chance.”
Malloy, the neighborhood leader, applied as well. So did Stamps, who ran the nonprofit group.
In June, Wash’s building opened.
The ribbon cutting took place under a tent in the building’s back yard, where the city offered guests white sheet cake.
Gray’s deputy, Hoskins, shed tears, telling the audience he was honored to work for a city that was willing to invest in housing.
Sitting in the front row, Wash also cried. He had fulfilled his promise to the community, but since pulling money from his personal credit line he has not been able to secure financing for any major electrical project. He has laid off a third of his staff.
Around that time, Lincoln Heights residents were learning whether or not they would be moving into Wash’s new building. Stamps was not selected. Housing was being provided only for residents of one side of the project, and she lived on the other.
Pleasant would get two phone calls. First, a résumé that she gave to her case manager led to a new job. Then, she learned she could move into the building. Settled in August, she enjoys the in-unit washer and dryer but tries not to use the dishwasher, since she now has to pay her own electric bill.
“I moved two blocks, but it feels like I’m a thousand miles away,” Pleasant said.
Malloy opted to stay where she was. She was approved for a one-bedroom but did not want to leave her two adult sons on the street.
At the ribbon cutting, Malloy spoke positively about the city and the building. She, too, cried — tears of joy, some thought.
“To be honest, that’s not why I was crying,” she said later.
She said she kept thinking about how a program she had promoted so vigorously ultimately did not suit her personal need for better housing. She thought of the building that was still a third empty, and the town center that has been seemingly scrapped from the plans.
After seven years, affluence has flowered in parts of the city. And yet her neighborhood remains in the shadows.
Seeing a new building in her neighborhood was a happy moment, indeed. But she cried because she realized how much further they still had to go.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.