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.
The disparity fuels anxiety.
"Who can afford it?" asked Delva Dandridge, a crossing guard for the public elementary school next to the Townes of Hillsdale. Dandridge said she earns less than $20,000 a year and lives in Southeast.
D.C. officials insist their plans for more affordable housing and development can improve neighborhoods like Ward 8 without displacing residents.
"We don't want to create areas of the haves and have nots," Stanley Jackson, the District's deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told a recent meeting of Democrats in Ward 8, where he is a longtime resident. "Our goal is not to have people feel like they have to leave D.C. Our residents don't have to feel threatened with the newcomers and change."
Change is clearly what the D.C. government has in mind. No other part of the District has so much land ripe for development -- from riverfront property along the Anacostia to the former National Guard encampment of Camp Simms to more than 300 acres at St. Elizabeths Hospital -- and such ambitious ideas for what to do with it.
There are plans for new retail and commercial developments at St. Elizabeths, the Anacostia Metro, and the waterfront in both Southeast and Southwest. Among the proposals is a light rail system connecting Anacostia to downtown and a possible soccer stadium at Poplar Point on the banks of the river.
The Anacostia River has long been a symbolic dividing line in Washington, with residents on the eastern shore feeling that residents in Georgetown and Adams Morgan and Capitol Hill got the better of everything because D.C. leaders cared more about the whites who lived there.
The term "east of the river" seems to imply one homogenous place. But it includes two separate wards -- 7 and 8 -- that are home to about 130,000 people.
Many of them live in neighborhoods that have struggled with grinding poverty and crime since the late 1960s, when thousands of poor families were relocated to public housing there from other parts of the District, sending many black and white middle-class families fleeing to the suburbs. But the region is also home to stable, upper-middle-class communities like Penn Branch and Hillcrest, with houses as grand as any in the city.
The most recognizable community in Ward 8, and east of the river, is Anacostia. Its boundaries are amorphous, depending on who is asked, but generally extend from the intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, with Alabama Avenue to the east and Suitland Parkway to the south.
The area's largest developer, Chris Smith, who has some 3,600 housing units east of the river, saw promise in some of the District's poorest areas as far back as 1990, when he decided to focus on building and renovating there. "It was seen as all that was wrong with the city," he said during a recent tour of the area. "We thought we could change the image."
The company's first project for sale, the Townhomes at Oxon Creek at Mississippi Avenue and 19th Street SE, sold out quickly in the mid-1990s. It attracted black residents who had moved out years earlier to Prince George's County in search of a calmer suburban life but also a large number of longtime residents of the ward who had always rented.
Smith now plans to turn the former Camp Simms into a multimillion-dollar project of 75 single-family houses that are expected to start in the mid-$300,000 range. A new Giant grocery store on the site is expected to open in 2007. Residents are pushing, in addition, to attract sit-down restaurants like Applebee's or Outback Steakhouse -- a part of the mix that will be needed to attract and keep residents moving from areas with better amenities.
He cautioned that the going has been slow and probably will not get any easier. "Logan Circle took 25 years to take off," Smith said.
For the past year, Darrin Davis, a real estate agent for Prudential Carruthers Realtors, has led occasional weekend tours of homes for sale in Anacostia. Davis said one of his real estate colleagues jokingly asked him if he was going to have a police escort for a recent Sunday afternoon tour. "I said, 'You haven't been here in a long time,'" Davis said.
Overall crime in the area covered by the 7th police district is down 57 percent since 1993. Homicides have dropped by a similar amount, to 54 last year from 133 in 1993.
On a recent Sunday, Davis had 18 pages of homes for sale east of the river and four African American women showed up for his two-hour walking tour. Two women were college graduates in their 20s, each looking to buy her first home; another potential buyer was a fortysomething lawyer for NASA who had just moved to the area from Atlanta; the fourth was a computer consultant who was looking for an investment property for her and her lawyer husband.
The first stop on the house tour: a shotgun rowhouse, built in 1905, in historic Anacostia at 13th and W streets SE. Price: $274,900. A few years ago the same houses would have been roughly $125,000.
Tiffany Armstrong, 28, who rents an apartment in Laurel, got the message.
When the tour got to Hunter Place Condominiums, a few blocks off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, she didn't hesitate to sign a $250,000 contract for a three-bedroom unit. Armstrong got one of the last remaining luxury condos. The renovated units, in what was an abandoned apartment building eight months earlier, sold out in two weeks.
James Bunn, who owns a strip of buildings on the avenue about a mile from the Hunter Place complex, sees opportunities in the newcomers. His tenants include a hodgepodge of shopkeepers, including a sprinkler company upstairs and a barber shop and hip-hop clothing store on the first floor.
"I've seen this neighborhood go from good to bad to terrible, and now it's rebounding," Bunn said. "You're not going to have to worry about kids writing on walls and people throwing trash anymore. It's going to get more like Georgetown over here."
Still, there are no shortage of examples of how far Ward 8 has to go.
Take Bryan Place in historic Anacostia, where Mauricio Ticas, a 36-year-old pharmacist technician and his partner, Tommy Beckner, spent much of the summer cleaning up beer bottles, candy bar wrappers, trash and rusted car parts that littered the alley next to their $175,000 rowhouse. Behind their house sits a boarded-up apartment complex.
Ticas, a native of El Salvador, kept his Dupont Circle place but moved in this summer with Beckner, a 24-year-old mortgage loan officer from Northern Virginia, to Southeast Washington. The couple is adjusting to their new community. "Being a snob from Northwest, I'm not used to being pulled over for roadblocks," said Ticas, who said he has had to stop on his way home at checkpoints set up by police.
But, he added, he has rebuffed efforts by neighbors to get him to report people acting suspiciously in alleys. "We didn't move to this area to call the cops on people," he said.
Hannah Hawkins, a community activist who has lived on Howard Road for more than two decades, is concerned about whether her new neighbors will become involved. "You can't come into our community and be silent," Hawkins said. "You have to make a difference."
Maliik Turner, the high-tech specialist, has his own concerns. About five months after he had moved with his family into their new house, gunshots were fired through the front door and windows. No one was home and no one got hurt, but he admitted, "I was wondering, 'Did I make a mistake?'"
Still, he is bullish on the neighborhood. "You can tell it's changing and getting safer," Turner said. "The bad element is moving out. They can't sustain a lifestyle over here."