Affordable housing answers prayers in Southeast Washington

January 31, 2012

For the congregants and church leaders at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, it all began with what seemed like a simple dream: more housing for seniors.

The community had the demand — senior citizens who needed an affordable alternative to Anacostia’s Barry Farm housing development — and the church had the space. Right next door, in the 2600 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Matthews Memorial owned a 1.2-acre parcel occupied by a half-dozen or so dilapidated homes.

“We had people of faith, land and a vision,” said Bishop C. Matthew Hudson, the pastor at Matthews Memorial.

What they didn’t have was money.

In 1984, church leaders had drawn up a development plan but failed to secure funding. And over the course of nearly three decades, their vision was relegated to the realm of wishful thinking.


The Matthews Memorial Terrace apartment complex was built on land owned by a Baptist church. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Until this week. On Tuesday, dozens of community members and city leaders gathered on the site of those formerly run-down homes. They sang, cheered and prayed en masse as the church opened the doors to an affordable-housing development called Matthews Memorial Terrace.

The 99-unit, eco-friendly development will house seniors and low-income and middle-class families. According to D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), the apartment complex is visible proof that Anacostia’s long-awaited revitalization has taken root.

“Ward 8 had a bad reputation,” Barry said. “A reputation of drug dealers, young ladies on the streets, guys just hanging out and not learning anything. But not anymore. . . . This is part of a larger renaissance of Ward 8. Martin Luther King [Jr. Avenue] is going to become a grand avenue.”

The turning point for the Matthews Memorial development came in 2006, when Hudson joined the church as its pastor.

“I immediately began to look at this old vision and knew I wanted to make it happen,” he said.

Hudson reached out to the mayor and council, who at the time were challenging land-owning churches to consider redevelopment.

Once word got out, developers began approaching Hudson, and Matthews Memorial ended up partnering with a nonprofit organization called Community Builders, which focuses on development in low-income urban areas nationwide.

Over the next four years, Community Builders helped guide Matthews Memorial through the development process.

They worked out a plan that would combine the senior housing vision with the mixed-income affordable housing the city wanted. They secured Capital One as the lead source of financing, $17 million through tax-exempt bonds, as well as $6.8 million in federal stimulus money.

Hudson said the process was “absolutely not” seamless. “The traditional business model didn’t match my vision,” he said. “We had to talk it out. And it meant that investors and banks had to take a chance on us.”

Stephanie Anderson of Community Builders agreed that developing Matthews Memorial Terrace was challenging.

“The traditional approach has been putting people into silos: low-income in one box, seniors in another box,” she said. “But that’s not how community works. We wanted to support an income mix as well as a sense of community.”

Structurally, it meant outdoor and indoor community spaces, including a community room, natural lighting in the units and the corridors and safety features.

The apartments also have energy-efficient appliances, air conditioning and a washer and dryer.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held in October 2010. A little more than a year later, Matthews Memorial Terrace was ready to open.

Anderson said about 25 percent of the units have been leased, and applications are being accepted at the leasing office across the street from the development.

On Tuesday, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) presented a set of keys to two of Matthews Memorial Terrace’s first residents: Antonio Payton and Tyiesha Jackson.

The couple and their children, ages 2,5 and 6, had lived at the Barry Farm housing project, which was built in Anacostia in 1954.

“The Paytons can stay in their community. Their kids can stay in their schools and keep their friends,” Anderson said. “This is a way for families to move up without moving out.”

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