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Southeast Complex Survives as Cooperative

By Eugene L. Meyer
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page G01

Naylor Gardens, a cooperatively owned apartment complex in Southeast Washington, is something of an artifact, a World War II housing development that has survived almost intact into the 21st century.

While its sister developments -- McLean Gardens in Northwest Washington and Fairlington in Arlington -- have gone upscale and condo, Naylor Gardens remains a housing cooperative for people of modest means, both owners and renters.

Duane Russell, who works at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, likes living at Naylor Gardens. "It's a pretty good neighborhood," he says. (Eugene L. Meyer For The Washington Post)

_____Fact Sheet_____
RENTAL INFORMATION (The Washington Post, Dec 11, 2004)

BOUNDARIES: Naylor Road to the west, 31st Street to the east, Alabama Avenue to the north and Erie Street to the south.

SCHOOLS: Martha H. Winston Elementary and Anacostia High schools

HOME SALES: No units sold in 2003; nine have sold this year, from $35,000 for a one-bedroom to $50,000 for a two-bedroom. No units are on the market.

WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE OR A SHORT BUS RIDE: Two shopping centers, Good Hope Marketplace on Alabama Avenue and Skyland Shopping Center on Naylor Road; Hillcrest Recreation Center; Naylor Road Metro station.

WITHIN 10-20 MINUTES BY CAR: Suitland Federal Center, Bolling and Andrews Air Force bases, Iverson Mall, Capital Beltway, Interstate 295, Capitol Hill, FedEx Field, the Boulevard at Capital Center, College Park, Old Town Alexandria.

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Across Naylor Road from the complex are rental apartments in dilapidated condition, some abandoned, with windows broken or boarded up, graffiti and other signs of neglect.

But the 796-unit Naylor Gardens, near Suitland Parkway and the Naylor Road Metro station, is a 43-acre oasis of attractive buildings, manicured lawns, well-tended flower gardens and quiet shaded streets.

"Naylor Gardens is just a beautiful neighborhood, and the apartments are kept up so well," said Kathy Chamberlain, chairwoman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7B and a resident of adjoining Hillcrest. "Anyone who has a stereotyped idea of Southeast, they drive through there and the stereotypes are washed away."

Naylor Gardens defies the stereotype in other ways as well. As white residents east of the Anacostia River fled the city in the 1950s and 1960s, Naylor Gardens retained a significant proportion, 12.6 percent of its residents in the 2000 Census.

Today, while the complex is majority-black, six of the nine members of the cooperative's board are white. Its chairman is African American, a teacher in the Prince George's County public schools.

"When you think of Southeast, you think 'bad area' and one race, but come to Naylor Gardens and you get a different feeling, with all ages, different races, religions," said leasing manager Lisa Johnson, who is African American. "People are very warm and nice. It doesn't seem that color matters."

Turnover is rare. "People don't move out; they die," said Suzanne Mansfield, 57, who bought her three-bedroom apartment in 1987 and is now on the co-op board. "We care about each other, and we care about Naylor Gardens. The deal is, once you move in here, you fall in love with it."

Naylor Gardens has 398 one-bedroom, 348 two-bedroom and 50 three-bedroom units in 45 Colonial-style red brick buildings no higher than three stories. The apartment layouts are named after World War II military figures and include the Eisenhower, the Patton and the Davis, the last after Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a native Washingtonian and leader of the Tuskegee Airmen in North Africa and Italy.

Residents include police officers (former D.C. police chief Larry D. Soulsby lived here), military personnel and government workers such as Duane Russell, 29, employed at the Department of Labor. "It's a pretty good neighborhood," he said, returning from work one afternoon to his rented two-bedroom apartment.

They also include Allen Pusey, 56, Washington-based special projects editor for the Dallas Morning News, who, after residing for 30 years in Texas, now lives in the unit his parents bought in 1949. "It's familiar and comfortable for me," he said. "I have a sense of continuity with my past."

Unlike in the early post-World War II years, there are few young families with children at Naylor Gardens now. Many residents are retired, among them Rich Allen, 65, a former Pentagon employee who has lived here since 1981, and Byron Cohen, 75, retired from the Air Force. Both manage without cars, taking the bus that stops on Naylor Road. "This is a unique community," said Allen. "It's got a strong backbone of people very determinedly committed to this being the best kind of community it can be."

Each year, Naylor Gardens sponsors a St. Patrick's Day open house, an Easter Bunny egg roll and hunt, a Black History Month party, two flea markets and a picnic that in October attracted 400. It s a Thanksgiving tradition to take turkeys to elderly residents. For the past few years, Naylor Gardens has also hosted a National Night Out cookout and festival in August, a public safety event heavily attended by local politicians.

The complex was built in 1942 to house wartime workers. Like McLean Gardens and Fairlington, it was designed by Houston architect Kenneth Franzheim for the Defense Homes Corp. In 1946, Amvets (American Veterans of World War II) formed the Veterans Cooperative Housing Association to buy the three wartime housing developments but succeeded in acquiring only Naylor Gardens.

The $5.1 million sale was completed in 1948, over the protest of tenants who feared eviction. Eventually they were allowed to stay, and the complex has been a hybrid community of owner-occupants and tenants ever since.

"If you like quiet, this is the place for you," said Mansfield. "If I had a stream of visitors who stayed only five minutes, it would be on the grapevine. Police would look to see if I were dealing drugs. And shortly after, I would be asked to leave."

Security in Naylor Gardens is provided by a private agency under contract. Guards are visibly present on the sidewalks and in two patrol cars. Residents returning from grocery shopping by bus are escorted from the Naylor Road stop to their apartments.

"Just like everywhere, crime has no particular address, but we work hard here to, as best we can, provide security for our residents," said Warren Houston, 66, a retired postal worker who lives in a three-bedroom unit.

"We have blips of crime as people discover the neighborhood," added Pusey, who sits on the co-op board. "We try to target the areas where we're finding people are most vulnerable and assigning security guards there."

Naylor Gardens can afford more security because the cooperative owns and rents out 60 percent of the units, providing a steady income stream. Fewer than 20 percent of the units are owner-occupied, while the remaining 21 percent are owned by individuals who rent them out through the co-op.

For years, the co-op insisted that prospective owners provide letters of recommendation from a clergyman, a doctor and a veteran. In 1997, Naylor Gardens dropped "veterans" from its formal name and became simply the Naylor Gardens Housing Cooperative Association.

Today, only a good credit rating and sufficient income are required to apply. But obtaining an apartment is more difficult. Units rarely are for sale, and banks refuse to lend money for their purchase because of the high percentage of renters and the fact that, as co-ops, the individual units may not be posted as collateral. Deals must be in cash or through alternative financing.

When owners do sell, they must give the co-op the first right to buy. Units that end up on the open market typically go for $35,000 for a one-bedroom unit, and up to $60,000 for three bedrooms.

Rental vacancies are also rare; the occupancy rate this fall is 99 percent. Little wonder: Renters at Naylor Gardens pay from $625 monthly for a one-bedroom unit to $945 for three bedrooms. That includes all utilities, except for a surcharge on window air conditioner units, which must be purchased by the tenant.

Maintenance is a key ingredient of Naylor Garden's success. Recently workers were scraping and repainting the trim and front entrance doors, and replacing the old decorative dentil molding. There are new thermal windows and new washers and dryers in all buildings.

If Naylor Gardens is today a solidly moderate-income apartment community, its future may be something else. From time to time there has been talk of selling the entire property to developers.

As a real estate frenzy sweeps across the city, tentatively crossing the Anacostia to neighborhoods long neglected by speculators, some co-op owners harbor the hope that this pocket of Southeast Washington -- with its location near Metro and major highways -- will elicit such interest.

"We have a fantastic property," said Leon Swain, a retired D.C. police officer who serves on the co-op board and owns a unit where he no longer lives. "We have location, location, location."

A 300-unit apartment building could rise on the site of just one of the low-rise garden apartment buildings, said Swain, who would consider selling if the price were right.

Mansfield said: "If someone offered us $100 million, we'd sell in a New York minute."

The sign inside the rental office says: "Welcome to Naylor Gardens -- the best-kept secret in Washington, D.C."

But maybe not for long.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company