Georgetown South in Manassas: A neighborhood remaking itself

September 13, 2013

Each time Ron Taylor steps outside the squat brick townhouse he rents in the Manassas neighborhood of Georgetown South, the house next door is a reminder of how things used to be.

It’s his old home, now vacant. The yard, where he once carefully carved a planter from a tree trunk, is overgrown with weeds. Taylor, 68, and his wife lived there for about a decade before it was foreclosed on last year.

Georgetown South was envisioned as a tony, southern sister for the District’s famous and affluent Georgetown when it was built in 1964. But that was never in the cards for the neighborhood, and it soon became better known for blight and crime. When the foreclosure crisis came, it was among the area’s hardest hit neighborhoods. At the height of the housing bubble, nearly 60 percent of residents were homeowners. Now, about 60 percent rent.

Today, it is a community remaking itself.

A housing advocacy group is working to buy and rehabilitate townhouses and find ways to sell them to people like Taylor, who struggle to get a mortgage. Police have increased patrols and enforcement for minor infractions, such as illegal parking and loitering. And the city, with the neighborhood association, is using housing and property codes to ensure that properties are free of trash, fences are maintained and people pick up after their pets.

Candice Savannah, 66, who has lived in the neighborhood more than 20 years, has seen ups and downs. She remembers the street fights and the occasional bouts of gunfire. But before the foreclosures, she said, homeowners hosted Christmas decoration contests and community picnics.

“It’s a beautiful little neighborhood,” she said. “Where there was homeownership, there was pride.”

A sweeping crisis

The housing crisis came to Taylor’s front door when it swept through five or six years ago. He saw many of his neighbors packing up in the middle of the night, eviction notices pasted prominently on doors. It coincided with a crackdown in Prince William County on illegal immigration, and the impact on the predominantly Latino neighborhood was stark. People fled because of foreclosure, perceived racism or fear of authorities.

Taylor, a retired Fairfax County employee, and his wife began falling behind on their mortgage after she was laid off from her job at Micron and medical bills piled up from his treatment for prostate cancer. They tried to modify their mortgage to decrease the monthly payment, but no agreement could be reached despite lender promises, he said. Last year, the bank foreclosed and they moved in next door.

While much of the Washington region and especially Northern Virginia fared better than other places when foreclosures began to hit around the country, Prince William County was an exception. The county has had 20,000 foreclosures since 2006, or 10 percent of the housing stock, housing advocates say.

Community leaders counted 181 vacants in Georgetown South during the height of the crisis — often used as sites for drugs, gangs and prostitution, residents say. Things are much better now, with only about two dozen vacant properties, but far fewer people own homes.

Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE), a housing advocacy group primarily made up of area churches, is trying to change that while keeping homes affordable.

After years of lobbying, the group has persuaded institutions that contributed to foreclosures in the area to chip in for a pilot program that aims to revive Georgetown South and other hard-hit areas.

Bank of America committed $10 million in low-interest loans, and General Electric, the former owner of WMC Mortgage Corp., plans to invest $5 million. The Virginia Housing Development Authority has promised $15 million.

The details are not yet set, but here’s how the project would work: VOICE would buy and fix up homes, preferably in large groups. Community organizers then would work with residents and others, crafting rent-to-own agreements or providing financing to those who otherwise couldn’t afford a traditional mortgage. The long-term loans from the financial institutions would be repaid through housing sales and rentals.

Organizers hope to avoid the mistakes of the past. Homeowner classes for potential home buyers are scheduled to begin in the fall.

The strategy has worked in east Baltimore, they say. But the Northern Virginia market offers a challenge, given the relatively high cost of even so-called affordable homes.

Still, the more homes they can buy, rehab and sell, organizers say, the better off the neighborhoods will be. Homeowners tend to take pride and invest in their neighborhoods, and that has a ripple effect.

“Homeownership is a way of stabilizing, growing and improving communities,” said the Rev. Keith Savage, a VOICE leader who leads First Baptist Church in Manassas, where many Georgetown South residents attend.

Perhaps best of all, said Meg Carroll, a former police officer who is Georgetown South’s community manager, the homes would be controlled by housing nonprofit groups that aren’t interested in a quick buck. The neighborhood will remain working class.

“I don’t want those rich people in here,” Carroll said. “I will always like the underdog.”

Fragile atmosphere

On most days, Georgetown South brims with life and color. Neighbors often meet outside their homes. On some hot afternoons, an older man wheels an ice cream cart for children.

That atmosphere, though, can fracture at any moment. In 2011, a brutal triple homicide rattled the community. On St. Patrick’s day last year, a gang-related beating left a 20-year-old with fatal injuries.

Carroll,who patrolled the area as a police officer in the 1990s, said drug use was rampant then. She remembers the old joke: The difference between GTS and CVS was that the neighborhood had street signs while CVS had aisle markers.

Residents say there has been progress in recent years. After the 2011 homicides, the city embarked on a multi-pronged effort that included police, zoning and other departments. A police officer is in Georgetown South every day from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Carroll takes up her own patrols, trying to ensure that owners of rental properties are engaged and homeowners take care of basic maintenance. “We’re not fancy,” Carroll said. “We have natural beauty in Georgetown South — all you have to do is unmask it.”

Starting over

When Taylor moved into his rental home, the electricity had been cut for months and a refrigerator full of food had been left. Battling stench, Taylor remembers the roaches and a yard of dust with splotches of tired grass.

He worked tirelessly to clean the place up, and now the yard is full, the grass is plush and a new garden grows.

Purple and orange flowers were in bloom on a recent day, and he proudly pointed to his handiwork, wearing a straw hat and a bright orange shirt that read, “Relax, God is in charge.” His Jack Russell terrier, Dutch, tramped around the yard. He likes the new spot, on a corner where he can sit in a plastic chair and smoke Virginia honey sweet cigars.

Taylor said he thinks the VOICE project could make a difference for Georgetown South, although he’s made peace with the fact that he and his wife may never again own a home. He’s not interested in punching a time clock full time — he did that for 23 years. He loves his new part-time work managing the Manassas Farmer’s Market, and someone his age, he said, couldn’t get a traditional mortgage.

But he remembers the satisfaction of owning a home. “That’s my house,” Taylor remembered. “That’s my livelihood.”

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