Housing Surge and Resurgence

By Robert E. Pierre and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 7, 2005

The 65 new brick townhouses of a development called the Townes at Hillsdale sit high on a hill and offer their residents expansive views of Washington's monuments and the river beyond. The manicured lawns and cul-de-sacs would not be out of place in Montgomery or Fairfax counties.

But this development is in the District -- not in Northwest, but east of the Anacostia River, in a vast expanse stretching from south of the 11th Street Bridge to Bolling Air Force Base that has been known mostly for its negative attributes: crime, poor schools and unemployment.

In recent years, however, a steady stream of couples and thirtysomethings has left the Maryland and Virginia suburbs to settle in homes like these, which were built on the site of a 1960s-era apartment complex where drug dealers once ruled and stray bullets regularly disturbed the peace.

Since 2000, more new housing developments, totaling nearly 8,000 units, have been built in the area -- which includes the neighborhoods of Anacostia, Barry Farms, Congress Heights and Shipley Terrace -- than anywhere else in the District except near downtown.

Most of the new homes are designed for families with low or moderate incomes and are financed in part by the D.C. government at a time when housing in many neighborhoods in the region is too expensive for all but the most affluent. An increasing number, like the Townes at Hillsdale, are privately developed and charge market prices that, by the standards of other parts of the city, are a bargain.

It is a remarkable turnaround for an area that lost thousands of residents in the 1990s, and there are other signs of a resurgence. The first new supermarket in recent memory this far south in the District is slated to open at Alabama Avenue and Stanton Road SE, raising hopes that dining options will soon expand beyond franchise fried chicken and Chinese takeout.

While other D.C. neighborhoods have experienced a similar boom in residential construction in the past decade, here there is one major difference: The racial composition, more than 90 percent black, has stayed the same in these communities that make up what is now Ward 8. The middle-class newcomers are primarily African American, with a smattering of whites, Hispanics and Asian Americans.

Maliik Turner, 31, a manager at a high-tech firm that does government contracting, is typical. Turner rented an apartment in Columbia Heights in Northwest Washington for seven years but knew he could not afford the rising prices of houses in that neighborhood. He wanted a short commute to his job near the Pentagon, so two years ago he and his 30-year-old wife, who works as a dental hygienist in Bethesda, paid $199,000 for a brick townhouse in the Townes of Hillsdale on Howard Road SE, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

"This is the last area in the city that had affordable housing," said Turner, as he washed his silver sport-utility vehicle on a recent Sunday afternoon. He said he is undeterred by the continuing poor performance of the District's public schools. He said he and his wife will probably put their daughter, who is 2, in a private school.

Homes in the development sell for the upper $200,000s -- a moderate price in the current market but a fortune to many in a ward where the median household income is $26,000.

That leaves some housing advocates and potential home buyers worried that the working-class families who have traditionally lived in the area are seeing their options dwindle, even with the influx of what the D.C. government calls "affordable" housing.

On Howard Road, where the Hillsdale development was built across the street from 60-year-old brick rowhouses occupied in many cases by the original owners or their children, the issue of class and income is perfectly framed. The only shopping on the street is a gated strip mall with a corner convenience store that sells everything from behind bulletproof glass. The middle-class homeowners of Howard Road worry about keeping their yards neat and their property values rising, but they are surrounded by thousands of renters who are barely making it.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company