Taking up residence in Petworth

March 2, 2012

Farah Fosse just bought a home in Petworth, but it wasn’t easy. The place she wanted also drew the interest of several developers, who offered cash up front for the place.

 “Ultimately the owner wanted to sell it to a real person, so she accepted my offer even though it was lower than the developers,” she said.

 Fosse was well prepared to deal with one of D.C.’s most quickly changing housing markets. Her work with the Latino Economic Development Corporation has focused on preserving affordable units for Latino families in Petworth, pushed north from Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan by rising housing costs.

Petworth’s housing market has regained its footing since a slight slowdown during the 2007 housing crash. Prices and average family income are now both on the rise according to D.C.’s Urban Institute. Once an affordable housing refuge, Petworth is now the site of renewed interest for high-end developers. No one knows that better than the residents of Petworth Station apartments, fresh off a battle to maintain rents at their Randolph Avenue complex.

 The historically black neighborhood is host to a diverse set of newcomers. Petworth was 88 percent black in 1990. Today it is 61 percent black while the white, Latino and foreign-born communities have grown. Hispanic people now constitute a quarter of Petworth’s residents, up from 16 percent a decade ago.

New developments now reach north from the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro stop where the seven-story Park Place apartments opened in 2009. The two-bedroom units there go for $3,500 a month, according to Long & Foster Realtor Lou Vivas. A block north on Georgia, an aged Safeway store is planning a mixed-use overhaul to include more apartments catering to upwardly mobile young professionals.

“There’s a ton of demand, and the inventory is so low,” said Vivas. “It’s just basic economics.”

Petworth appears destined for a shinier future, and longtime resident Juanita McKenzie is trying to be a part of it. She and her fellow tenants at Petworth Station apartments are in one of several groups fighting to preserve affordable housing in the Georgia Avenue corridor in the face of rising prices. Her tenant association—which represents a diverse gathering of old and young, white, black, and Latino residents—struck a deal in December to renovate and stay in their homes, keeping developers of higher-priced units at bay.

The original developers of the 78 units at 930, 940, and 960 Randolph received tax credits to maintain affordable rent at the decades-old buildings. When rumors of an overhaul for the worn-out Safeway became real, the owner of Petworth Station, Virginia-based Hercules Real Estate Services, was interested in selling..

Tenants relied on D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which required Hercules to hear bids from residents before taking outside offers.

Residents at several other buildings along Georgia Avenue are taking similar action, working with tenants rights organizations to gather the 70 percent support necessary among residents to form cooperatives and buy buildings with subsidies from the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund.

“We’ve had a ton of success with the fund,” said Fosse. “It’s kept many buildings affordable.” Activists at the Latino development organization anxiously await the Gray administration’s allocation to the fund, which had an $18 million cut last year.

At Petworth Station, McKenzie has been a leader in the tenant association since its inception in 1981. In concert with LEDC, residents found a friendly investor, Jair Lynch, Inc . The firm agreed to renovate and keep tenants—including McKenzie and the 18 other senior citizen tenants—in their units.

 The firm touted the deal at Petworth Station, saying it comes at an important time when the neighborhood is “experiencing an uptick in market rate developments and increasing property values but a dearth of new construction starts for affordable housing,” in a statement.

McKenzie says the new owners at Petworth Station will repair nagging problems like plumbing, pests and a leaky roof. They have also agreed to control rents (an efficiency goes for $800 a month)—but only for four years.

“They assured us they’re for affordable housing and I’m going to keep them at their word,” said McKenzie, who is on a fixed income after losing her job as a nurse. “I’m still concerned about displacement.”

This story is part of a partnership between The Washington Post and students from American University. To read more stories from this collaboration, click here.

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